The domino effect that began with Tunisia and spread to Egypt also threatens other governments, just based on who fills Mubarak’s shoes. Two of Egypt’s last three presidents, Nasser and Anwar Sadat, each changed the nation’s strategic orientation with implications for the entire region. There’s no reason to assume that Mubarak’s eventual successor won’t do the same. “Egypt has always been extremely influential in the Arab world,” Mack said, “so regime change there is likely to have a ripple effect in terms of spreading political reforms throughout the region.” The regimes most susceptible to the potentially destabilizing impact, he said, are poor countries long ruled by illegitimate despots. “I think the leaders in Yemen, Algeria, Syria, Morocco, and Jordan are all feeling pretty shaky right now.”
THE BEST-LAID PLANS
That’s the cliché. Crises in the Middle East constantly force us to make these impossible choices, and no matter how well-reasoned they seem, they often turn out to be the wrong ones. The pursuit of interests has rendered the region a tinderbox. And the pursuit of ideals has sometimes given us bad outcomes and other times failed to achieve anything at all—teaching us that revolutions are almost always organic.
Not every road leads to this fork. One way to avoid it is to recognize that, although the rise of regional powers has not always been good for American objectives, even those players can be put to good use. Our intense bilateral relationship with Egypt, which came to depend on American largesse, left us handcuffed to the regime. The only way we could have forced Mubarak to make democratic reforms would have been to withhold cash, and he always implied that doing so would empower Islamists. Better to have drafted the neighborhood countries that share an interest in upholding the global system of law and trade—Turkey, Israel, even postwar Iraq—to squeeze Mubarak on several fronts. “Multilateral efforts work better because they bring a lot more pressure,” says Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Another improvement involves a more judicious compromise between idealism and interests—cultivating nations and pushing them to change at the same time, as Britain did with Libya in 2003, when it nudged the government to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. “[We] need a hybrid policy in which we’re capable of engaging our adversaries and at the same time pressuring them. Same goes for our allies. This is not something we do very well,” Tabler said. It’s not too late to apply that lesson to other regimes we need, such as those in Jordan and Yemen. White House officials say this is, in fact, the program, but they do not consistently or vigorously apply it.
Yet the true mistake in the Middle East has not been getting the policy (or the means) wrong; it has been assuming we could ever get it right. Even the carrot-and-stick combo doesn’t promise results. (See: Iran.) Americans possess an implacable faith that every problem has a solution, if only we can devise one. In domestic affairs, this has occasionally been true. But abroad, where the world is largely beyond our reach, it is now simply false—and decades spent trying to mold events have proved catastrophic. It is a fantasy to believe that, with just a little more work, our foreign policy could do better.
A smarter course would be to become less deeply invested—to live in a world where we don’t always have to make an impossible choice. And that is a problem for which real, but arduous, solutions exist. They involve a race like the moon shot to produce efficient renewable domestic energy and liberate ourselves from Middle Eastern oil; an aid program like the Marshall Plan to lift up Arabs in the youth bulge and degrade the allure of radicalization (though this, too, verges on meddling); and a platform of forthrightness about when we are nakedly pursuing our interests. To whatever extent these goals require idealism, it is at least a variety that can be realized. They won’t determine the shape of governance in the Middle East, but they can at least insulate us from its surprises.
Until then, in much the way Britons eventually made peace with the demise of imperial power, Americans should learn to see the limits of what we can accomplish. The reason we’ve failed to conjure the Middle East we want isn’t that we made the wrong choice between realism and idealism. It’s because we’re thinking on the wrong scale. In a lost era, Washington could reinvent nations (think of postwar Europe); today, in the real world, the best that American policymakers can do is labor at the margins and react to unforeseen events. Obama took some knocks this week for his flatfooted response to Egypt. But there is no disgrace in muddling through when there is no alternative.
James Kitfield contributed
This article appears in the Feb. 5, 2011, edition of National Journal.