As Arab dominoes teeter and topple, Washington finds itself caught on the horns of a dilemma. Where should America place its bets? Which is more likely to serve U. S. interests: propping up the existing order or trying something new? Sticking with the familiar or taking a flyer on change?
Thus far, the Obama administration has tried to split the difference, favoring the removal of nasty autocrats except where it doesn't. As a result, loudly proclaimed moral arguments provide a rationale for hammering Moammar Kadafi's Libya with airstrikes; tacitly understood prudential considerations require giving Bahrain's King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa a pass.
This approach opens the United States to charges of hypocrisy. Yet worse than the appearance of double standards are the results. The administration's principal achievement thus far has been to buy itself what it needs least: another war, one that looks less righteous, less purposeful and less susceptible to resolution with each passing day.
Can the United States formulate a response to the Arab uprising that reconciles the moral with the prudential — a strategy producing positive outcomes consistent with conscience rather than just digging deeper holes? The answer is yes; indeed, such an approach is staring us in the face. Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a name for it: nonviolence — the conviction that principled civil resistance can ultimately prevail against even sustained brutality.
Challenged by popular resistance movements that are difficult to suppress and won't be bought off, decrepit and desperate regimes throughout the Arab world are, in effect, engaged in committing serial suicide. By demonstrating their incapacity and unworthiness to govern, they forfeit legitimacy. Whether the end comes quickly or slowly, is messy or neat, it comes. In Tunisia and Egypt, it already has. In Yemen, the timetable appears set. In Bahrain, Syria and perhaps elsewhere, the clock is ticking, loudly and insistently. Although Libya's Kadafi is testing the proposition that brute force can turn back that clock, his efforts are doomed to fail. Even if he "wins" the ongoing civil war, victory will leave Kadafi a pariah, with his regime living on borrowed time.
Frozen in place for decades, the Arab world is thawing, with big change in the offing. As events have made clear, Washington's ability to direct this process (or even to anticipate its course) is negligible. Whether Arabs end up being governed by liberals or Islamists — or Rotarians, for that matter — is something that they themselves will decide.
What should concern the United States is less the evolving substance of Arab politics than the form — not the destination but the means employed to get there. After all, a region in which marches and demonstrations supplant bombs, torture and arbitrary imprisonment as the currency of everyday politics just might be able to manage its own affairs, without constant American supervision. For a United States suffering from severe overstretch, that defines strategic success.
Any nation wishing to see the politics of give-and-take displace the politics of coercion ought to set an appropriate example. This the United States has not done. Through arms sales and giveaways, its military presence and its propensity for intervention, the U.S. has for decades underwritten and encouraged violence as the mainstay of Middle East politics. Washington has talked peace while promoting war.
In this regard, President Obama's ongoing Libya intervention qualifies as simply more of the same. The president's preference for air power over ground troops cannot disguise what continues to be a reflexive American reliance on force.
In the Middle East, bloodletting begets more bloodshed. The dynamic of the Arab uprising — placard-waving protesters filling the central square — offers the possibility of breaking this cycle. To seize the opportunity, the United States should embrace three principles. First, support and celebrate those pursuing change through peaceful means, whatever their political agenda. Second, condemn without exception those who resort to guns and truncheons, whether their aim is to promote change or avert it. Third, foreswear any further use of force as an instrument of U.S. policy in the Arab world, thereby demonstrating that we are committed to fostering an approach to politics in which violence will play no part.
The militarization of U.S. policy in the Middle East, dating from the promulgation of the Carter doctrine in 1980, has produced much pain and little gain. Prudential and moral imperatives alike demand that the United States change course. The chance to begin doing so is at hand.
By Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and the author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.