A proto-version of that philosophy drove Woodrow Wilson to Paris in 1919 to sell the great powers on the virtues of self-determination. Being new to this game, he was badly outmaneuvered by his European allies David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, whose Treaty of Versailles carved up the spoils of World War I, ensuring three more decades of colonization in the Middle East. It was a harbinger of best intentions.
Although the United States mostly followed the realpolitik lead of Britain and France in the second half of the century, we made occasional, and important, exceptions for idealism. One came from Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. The new Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had helped overthrow King Farouk I four years earlier, announced his intention to nationalize the Suez Canal. Britain, France, and Israel answered with a shooting war—without informing the United States.
Eisenhower leaned hard on his allies to stop the fighting before they had secured control of the canal, partly in the hope this would win Nasser’s allegiance. But the Soviet Union was even louder in its condemnation of the war, and Nasser, who was already drifting toward alignment with Moscow, never credited Eisenhower with the effort. The West had lost the canal and Nasser.
The classic Middle Eastern test of ideals did not turn out well for Washington. Jimmy Carter had campaigned for president in 1976 promising a more principled foreign policy, and a 1978 uprising in Iran gave him a chance to deliver. Protesters seemed likely to topple a stable, secular ally in Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and replace him with a potentially Islamic state in a strategic location. Inside the administration, realist National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that the monarch should send out his army to quiet the protests and safeguard his government. Idealistic Secretary of State Cyrus Vance countered that Carter should tell Pahlavi to stay his hand. Vance won, and so did the clerics.
The outcome? Three decades of trouble and an object lesson on how unpredictable popular uprisings can be. “That trade-off is very much on Obama’s plate right now, which is why the administration is treading so carefully,” said Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and the author of The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century. “He can voice support for the protesters and recognize their grievances, but … you never know what you’re going to get when the regime falls.”
The advent of Iran’s Islamic Republic led to a realist revival among Middle East policymakers, but the 9/11 attacks eventually restored a strain of idealism. The Iraq war was not waged entirely for ideals, but its architects were idealists, and they assumed that a stable, pluralistic, constitutional democracy could be nurtured in Saddam’s wake. Instead, they unleashed several years of sectarian violence, a new stomping ground for Iranian influence, and a bitterly divided government. Meanwhile, the “demonstration effect” they predicted—in which Arab populations, following the example of Iraq, saw the potential for democracy and overthrew their autocrats—mostly failed to materialize. (Democratic movements in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt have hardly cited Iraq as their predicate.)
George W. Bush wasn’t through, though. In his second inaugural address, he promised that America would no longer “tolerate oppression for the sake of stability,” and he encouraged Israel to withdraw from Gaza. For Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the pullout was only about strategy; but Bush incorporated it into his freedom agenda when he pushed for elections there in 2006. The result conjured up a nightmare for Israel and made Hamas the first terrorist organization ever to be voted control of a government. It has used this platform to suppress secularism and dissent, fire rockets at Israeli cities, and wage a low-grade civil war against the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In a worst-case scenario, this is a glimpse of Egypt’s future.
Even the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon seemed at the time a true victory for idealism. (Realists liked it, too, because it cleaved Damascus from Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite militia that functions as a state within a state.) Instead, religious differences have made the country essentially ungovernable: Beirut could not even prevent Hezbollah from waging a private war against Israel in 2006. Hezbollah also gained enough seats and allies in Lebanon’s parliament to give it kingmaker status; it picked the nation’s new prime minister last month.
On Egypt this week, administration officials have mostly channeled idealism, calling for elections, demanding an “orderly transition” to a representative government, and essentially throwing Mubarak under the bus. It gives them a chance to follow through on the rhetoric of Obama’s Cairo speech: “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.” But if the White House truly chooses democracy over stability, it treads a course laden with dangers to its interests.