President Barack Obama says Washington supports democracy, and with the Arab Spring, his administration is abandoning its realpolitik ways. Of course, President George W. Bush said Washington was for democracy. And it was — sometimes. President Obama’s high‐sounding promises aren’t likely to survive the next geopolitical crisis.
U.S. foreign policy has long been driven by an unstable mix of idealism and pragmatism. Pragmatism led us to ally with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, support authoritarian South Korea against totalitarian North Korea, and subsidize a host of third‐world dictatorships during the Cold War.
The end of the global Great Game between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. reduced the pressure on Washington to back the worst third‐world kleptocracies. But September 11th provided a dramatic reminder that difficult choices remain to be made.
American policymakers wanted the assistance of Pakistan, a military dictatorship. The U.S. based troops in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Islamic monarchies antagonistic to individual liberty. Perhaps Washington’s most important Arab ally was Egypt, a dictatorship that maintained a cold peace with Israel. Authoritarian Jordan and Yemen cooperated with America. The U.S. trusted other monarchies from Qatar to Morocco to maintain stability rather than promote democracy.
An element of this policy reflected unabashed national self‐interest. But there was more to it. Democracy — that is, holding regular elections — does not guarantee a liberal society that protects life and liberty. Indeed, popular attitudes in many Arab states look decidedly illiberal. Religious minorities are always at risk, as is most anyone outside of the political or social mainstream.
Unfortunately, U.S. hypocrisy has often been embarrassingly ostentatious. The Bush administration chided Russia’s Vladimir Putin for his excesses while ignoring far worse abuses in Central Asia. American officials demanded that President Hosni Mubarak relax his rule even as they lavished aid on his regime. Washington insisted on elections in the occupied territories but refused to recognize Hamas when it won. U.S. policymakers cozied up to the Saudi royals and their de facto totalitarian dictatorship.
The “Arab Spring” created dramatic contrasts between America’s professed ideals and its actual behavior. As the Egyptian crisis heated up, the Obama administration embraced President Mubarak. Then Washington suggested an orderly transition to democracy. Officials next suggested a faster transfer of power. With Mubarak’s ouster, the U.S. enthusiastically embraced change. It was a shameless performance that fooled no one.
Nor did the administration do much better after Egypt. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared Syrian President Bashar Assad to be a “reformer.” With more than 1,000 Syrians shot dead by security forces, the administration eventually raised its voice, but only a little, telling Assad that his time to repent was short.
In Bahrain the ruling Sunni elite, with the aid of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, brutally stifled democracy protestors representing the majority Shia population. The administration barely cleared its throat, urging a peaceful resolution of the issue. Even today there are no sanctions, let alone war plans, for Bahrain, which hosts a major U.S. naval base, or Saudi Arabia, which sells the West much of its oil.
Nor has Washington done much to push Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, or other authoritarian states toward greater democracy. The argument that the current regimes are better than the likely alternatives is plausible, though also convenient. In fact, U.S. policymakers don’t want to further unsettle an already unstable region, even if doing so would be morally right.
Finding a way to manage such a policy hodge‐podge without discrediting America would be tough for the best international operator, and America’s recent presidents can’t claim that accolade. At least President Obama appears to care about the reality on the ground, unlike his predecessor. But Barack Obama’s success in formulating and implementing an effective strategy is no better.
Rather than attempting to micromanage the internal policies of other nations, Washington should stay out of other nations’ conflicts. America should stop turning its fantasies into policies and pretending that it can enforce its preferences on the rest of the world.
The Middle East would be a good place to start. Consider Egypt. The demonstrators in the streets cared not at all about Washington’s rapidly changing opinions. They didn’t stop protesting when the U.S. endorsed President Mubarak. They didn’t agree that he should stay in power for a time after American officials urged that outcome. By the same token, President Mubarak did not yield because the Obama administration wanted him to do so.
American policy would have been more effective if U.S. policymakers had simply shut up.
U.S. foreign policy should eschew promiscuous meddling and constant micromanagement. But non‐interventionism is not the same as isolationism.
Washington should indicate that Americans stand for individual liberty. Democracy usually is an important means of protecting freedom, but the liberal society is much broader than the opportunity to vote. Washington should encourage other governments to respect basic human rights. But it should offer its most detailed advice in private, in the way most likely to be accepted, or at least listened to.
At the same time, U.S. policymakers should recognize their limited power. The secretary of state (every secretary of state!) constantly tells other nations what they should do — Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi should leave, North Korea should abandon nuclear weapons, Iran should do the same, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez should respect the rule of law, Vladimir Putin should liberalize Russian politics, and more, much more. But what country ever follows Washington’s orders?
“Foreign aid” rarely makes a difference, even in promoting economic growth. No government, at least if not a veritable client state, is likely to sell perceived vital interests for a mess of pottage. For instance, Washington has not been able to change Pakistan’s focus on India as an enemy and view of the Taliban as an ally. Washington’s $20 billion in aid over the last decade has just subsidized a “frenemy’s” continued double‐dealing.
It is especially hard to find instances where aid caused a transition from autocracy to democracy. Aid often becomes a permanent policy, irrespective of changing circumstances. After the heavily subsidized Mubarak government fell, the Obama administration immediately offered assistance to the new Egyptian government, even before the latter held an election. Should the current authorities be overthrown, Washington undoubtedly would promise a new aid package to the next regime.
Sanctions have little better record. They didn’t force Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from power or even change his behavior. They have not caused North Korea or Iran to abandon their nuclear ambitions. They haven’t forced Burma’s generals or President Assad to liberalize. And they aren’t likely to have any more effect the next time they are imposed.
Only through war can the U.S. impose its will, and even then Washington faces severe limitations. The NATO allies’ half‐hearted assault on Qaddafi’s government is an embarrassment, prolonging the conflict and increasing civilian suffering. The Bush administration had many illusions when it invaded Iraq, such as expecting to choose that nation’s president and maintain permanent bases, which did not survive the occupation and ensuing insurgency. With 100,000 troops backing the Karzai government, Washington still cannot get America’s ally to stop persecuting Afghan Christians.
Official relations should be limited to important matters of state; much of what Washington does now can instead be done by individuals and companies. For instance, there is no need for presidents to routinely claim great affection for and friendship with the Saudi royals. Private oil purchasers can do the genuflecting.
Moreover, nongovernmental organizations can organize to advance human rights and other ends. Publicly embarrassing repressive regimes helps Washington in its efforts. Activists also can pressure companies and individuals doing business with dictatorships. While the effect of such campaigns will remain limited, official U.S. government pressure often has been no more effective.
The Obama administration has been trying to simultaneously reassure dictatorial allies, threaten dictatorial enemies and mollify dictatorial neutrals, while convincing the rest of the world of its commitment to democracy. This confused effort has advanced neither America’s interests nor its reputation.
The U.S. has much at stake in the world, but it only has limited ability to shape nations and events. Washington’s policy of promiscuous intervention has proved to be an expensive and violent dead end. Washington should adopt a more realistic and measured strategy — essentially engagement without illusions. It would be an appropriate foreign policy for a republic, especially one that is essentially bankrupt.