Meshing realism and idealism in Middle East

The Arab Spring is often celebrated by reciting the roll call of overthrown autocrats. But revolutions, in the end, will be judged primarily by what they build, not what they destroy. And in this respect, a year of revolution has refashioned exhilaration into paradox.

The United States applauded the demonstrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Blaming itself for too protracted an association with an undemocratic leader, it urged Hosni Mubarak to step down. But once he did so, the original exultant demonstrators have not turned out to be the heirs. Instead, Islamists with no record of democracy and a history of hostility to the West have been elected to a presidencythey had pledged not to seek. They are opposed by the military, which had buttressed the previous regime. The secular democratic element has been marginalized. Where do we go from here?

Contrary to recent conventional wisdom, at no point was the internal structure of Egypt the United States’s to determine. For millennia, monarchs and military autocrats have held sway. In the 1970s, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat abandoned the Soviet alliance forged by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military regime 20 years earlier. Sadat made peace with Israel, with the United States acting as mediator. These events helped to transform the Cold War. They reflected a hard-headed assessment by all parties of the relation of forces that emerged from the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamist extremists, whose continued terrorism was used by his successor, Mubarak, as justification for prolonged emergency powers.

Throughout, Egypt and its government were facts of international life; American administrations of both parties, faced with the Cold War and looming turmoil in the region, judged it crucial to work with a major Arab country willing to take risks for regional peace. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton affirmed in her recent Cairo press conference, “We worked with the government of the country at the time.”

At what point, faced first with Soviet adventurism and then the consequences of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, did the United States have an option to intervene directly in the region’s domestic politics? From Nixon through Clinton, American presidents judged the risks of such a course to outweigh its benefits. The George W. Bush administration did urge Mubarak to permit multiparty elections and criticized his suppression of dissent, and President Obama affirmed a similar direction early in his administration. U.S. foreign policy is neither the cause of, nor the solution to, all shortcomings in other countries’ domestic governance — especially in the Middle East.

With a constitution yet to be drafted, the function of key institutions in contention between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, and an electorate closely divided between dramatically different visions of their country’s future, Egypt’s revolution is far from its end. U.S. policy is torn between competing imperatives. The Muslim Brotherhood has emerged by electoral processes called for by democratic values, while the military stands for outcomes that are closer to the the U.S. concept of international security (and possibly of domestic pluralism). If the United States erred in the Cold War period by excessive emphasis on the security element, it now runs the risk of confusing sectarian populism with democracy.

Amid these tremors, the debate regarding the determinants of U.S. foreign policy is reigniting. Realists judge the events from the perspective of security strategy; idealists see them as an opportunity to promote democracy. But the choice is not between the strategic and the idealistic. If we cannot combine both elements, we will achieve neither.

In that context we must face, and not fudge, the following questions: Do we stand aloof from these internal processes, or do we try to shape them? Do we back one of the contestants or concentrate on advocating electoral procedures (knowing that this may guarantee a strategically repugnant result)? Can our commitment to democracy avoid leading to a sectarian absolutism based on managed plebiscites and one-party rule?

In Egypt, backing a military council composed mostly of Mubarak associates offends democratic sensibilities. Postulating shared values with an explicitly Islamist party, which for generations has advocated an anti-Western course for the entire region, substitutes hope for experience. Military regimes have proved fragile; ideologically driven organizations have used democratic institutions for undemocratic ends and to challenge regional order. We should be open to genuine moderation shown by ideological opponents. But we should not be reluctant to affirm our security interests. In this narrow passage, U.S. policy must navigate without deluding itself that the key players are waiting for our instructions.

In Syria, even more complex comparable dilemmas loom. (On one level, Syria contradicts the argument that the United States could have promoted a more democratic outcome in Egypt by withholding cooperative relations. U.S. aloofness surely did not moderate the Assad family’s authoritarianism.)

In our public debate, the crisis in Syria is generally described as a struggle for democracy, and its culmination is presumed to be the removal of Bashar al-Assad. Neither attribute fits the essence of the problem. The real issue is a struggle for dominance between Assad’s Alawites, backed by many of the other Syrian minorities, and the Sunni majority.

Assad himself is an unlikely leader with a reputation for indecisiveness. Having settled in London as an ophthalmologist — a profession that usually does not attract the power-hungry — he was drafted into Syrian politics only after the death of his elder brother, the designated heir to their dominant father. The conflict in Syria is therefore likely to continue — probably even intensify — upon Assad’s welcome and all but inevitable removal. With their front man gone, Assad’s clan and the Alawite minority, dominant in Syria’s military, may consider themselves reduced to a struggle for physical survival.

Constructing a political alternative to the Assad regime will prove even more complex than the course in Egypt or the other Arab Spring countries, since the contending factions are more numerous and less clearly delineated, and their differences more intense. Without creative leadership to build an inclusive political order — a prospect not yet clearly in evidence among the combatants — Syria may break into component ethnic and sectarian entities, whose strife would then risk spreading by means of affiliated populations into neighboring countries.

On all sides of the Syrian conflict, the commitment of the belligerents to democratic values and alignment with Western interests is, at best, untested. Al-Qaeda has now entered the conflict, effectively on the side that the United States is being asked to join. In such circumstances, U.S. policymakers encounter a choice not between a “realistic” and an “idealistic” outcome but between competing imperfections, between considerations of strategy and of governance. We are stymied on Syria because we have a strategic interest in breaking the Assad clan’s alliance with Iran, which we are reluctant to avow, and the moral objective of saving human lives, which we are unable to implement through the U.N. Security Council.

Since the Arab uprisings began, four governments have fallen, and several others have been seriously tested. The United States has felt obliged to respond to and occasionally to participate in this drama, but it has still not answered fundamental questions about its direction: Do we have a vision of what strategic equation in the region serves our and global interests? Or of the means to achieve them? How do we handle the economic assistance which may be the best, if not the only, means to influence the evolution?

The United States can and should assist on the long journey toward societies based on civil tolerance and individual rights. But it cannot do so effectively by casting every conflict entirely in ideological terms. Our efforts must also be placed within a framework of U.S. strategic interests, which should help define the extent and nature of our role. Progress toward a world order embracing participatory governance and international cooperation requires the fortitude to work through intermediate stages. It also requires that the various aspirants to a new order in the Middle East recognize that our contribution to their efforts will be measured by their compatibility with our interests and values. For this, the realism and idealism we now treat as incompatible need to be reconciled.

Henry A. Kissinger was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.

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