No place has clipped the wings of American idealism, and grounded it in the grimy compromises that pit interests against aspirations, quite like the Middle East. Even a president as preternaturally idealistic as George W. Bush was eventually brought to earth by the weight of the region’s double standards and trade-offs, ultimately abandoning his “freedom agenda” and reversing his own secretary of state by choosing “stability at the expense of democracy.” As Condoleezza Rice memorably warned in her 2005 Cairo speech, however, 60 years of that kind of realism in U.S. foreign policy had achieved neither stability nor democracy.
What’s truly extraordinary about the popular uprisings in Tunisia and especially Egypt is that they have flung open the doors to the cage of realpolitik, daring Barack Obama to match the soaring rhetoric of his own Cairo speech with action, with all the terrible risks that entails.
“No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power,” Obama told his audience of Egyptian officials and elites in June 2009. “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.”
In scrambling to react to the radically altered landscape in Egypt and the Middle East, the president and his administration have certainly channeled their inner idealist, warning that the current political status quo is unsustainable and arguing for liberalizing reforms throughout the region. If the Obama administration truly breaks with 60 years of U.S. realist tradition and continues to back democracy at the expense of stability in the region, however, it will have to confront a host of potential dangers.
First and foremost, Obama’s call for democratic reforms will put him squarely at odds with the Egyptian government and military if they decide to finally settle the matter with a violent crackdown, the traditional trump card of Middle Eastern dictators that still remains a distinct possibility. The longer the protests spread chaos and unrest, the more susceptible they will be to hijacking by Islamic radicals, who similarly came to dominate during the Iranian revolution in 1979. The fires lit by the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller also show every sign of spreading beyond Tunisia and Egypt, potentially threatening the world’s oil supply.
Even if all those dangerous pitfalls can be avoided, and the administration has so far skillfully negotiated around them, both the United States and Israel will have to come to terms with an uncomfortable new reality: More-democratic governments in the Middle East that give voice to the nationalist and anti-Western passions of the Arab street are likely to prove far less friendly and accommodating than chummy autocrats and pampered elites.
“The Obama administration has aligned the United States with progressive change in Egypt, and that reverses the devil’s bargain that we cut with authoritarian regimes in the region for 30 years,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East expert and public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, speaking with reporters on Wednesday. Stripped of its niceties, the venerable bargain held that as long as autocrats helped advance U.S. interests by maintaining stable relations with Israel, supporting U.S. actions in Iraq, containing Iran, and cooperating in counterterrorism operations, then Washington would stay out of their internal affairs.
“That bargain has now come apart on the streets of Cairo, which means that in the future Egypt will be a much less friendly ally in terms of advancing U.S. interests as traditionally defined,” said Miller, who has advised six secretaries of state on Middle East policy.
Whatever government emerges in Egypt is not likely to sever U.S.-Egyptian military ties, close the Suez Canal, or abrogate Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
“Those are all worst-case scenarios that remain highly unlikely,” said Miller. “But after watching events unfold in Egypt, it’s impossible to imagine that whatever political structure emerges will not reflect more secular nationalist and Islamist views. That will create a much narrower space for the U.S. to advance many of its regional goals.”
Whatever headaches that new reality creates for Washington, they pale in comparison to the migraines currently spreading through Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “The Egypt-Israel peace treaty changed Israel’s fundamental security calculus and became the bedrock of the current order in the Middle East,” Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told National Journal. “So for Israel, the events unfolding next door in Egypt have been like watching a train wreck, because they are reconfiguring the entire strategic environment in a very unsettling way. If you’re in the Israeli government, the only real question is how much more unstable and unfriendly Egypt becomes.”
In the short term, the democratic upheavals in the Middle East will almost certainly spread instability and cause furrowed brows in Washington and Tel Aviv. In the longer term, however, the strategic interests of both the United States and Israel could be well served by the death of the venerable idea that the only choice in the Middle East is between autocrats and theocrats.
“Regime change is coming to Egypt whether we like it or not, so for the Obama administration to continue to back an ill, 82-year-old dictator like Hosni Mubarak would have been both short-sighted and unwise,” said Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The United States should instead seize a rare opportunity to embrace a mostly secular, democratic opposition that is on the march throughout the Middle East, Rubin said in an interview.
“If the United States doesn’t find a way to empower secular leaders in the region, we will create a vacuum that the Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood will fill, which, given the scars of the Iranian revolution, remains our biggest fear,” he added. “The irony is that if Condi Rice and the Bush administration hadn’t walked away from the 'Arab spring' in 2005 before it had a chance to bloom, we would have a lot more leverage right now to channel these popular protests.”