American foreign policy is schizophrenic. It’s in our DNA. As self-anointed prophets, we’re inclined to remake the world in our image—by force if necessary. Such is our grandiose sense of mission. But we’re also wary of projecting power unless doing so furthers our perceived national interests, though that bar tends to be so low as to render moot our misgivings.
The tension between these contradictory impulses is ever-present, but typically realpolitik wins the day. However, to square such a starkly unsentimental policy with our better angels, it is presented with high-minded filigree. Consequently, we might do a lot of rotten things for purely selfish reasons, but we convince ourselves that our motives are pure.
How has our peculiar foreign policy fared? Not well. During the Cold War, the US made friends of our enemies’ enemies. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s observation about one thuggish ally, “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” encapsulated the cunning strategy. Such were the compromises supposedly required to defeat the Soviet Union.
Short-term calculations risk being shortsighted, and sure enough our penchant for befriending tyrants and thugs flying the anticommunist banner often proved disastrous. “Blowback” tended to result, undermining US interests.
That legacy still haunts us, including in Afghanistan, where American military support for the mujahideen—“freedom fighters,” supposedly— helped dislodge the Soviets from that country, but also set the stage for the rise of the Taliban.
The lesson hasn’t sunk in. We’re still making the same mistake, namely by supporting unsavory regimes for perceived political expediency, though this time our motive isn’t related to fighting the communist menace. Today, we’re keen on ensuring stability, particularly in the oil-rich Middle East.
Stability, particularly in the strategically vital region, is a laudable, if elusive, goal. In the wake of 9/11, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told an audience at the American University in Cairo: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region—and we achieved neither.” It was a blunt admission that abetting Arab authoritarianism had failed miserably.
While Rice’s diagnosis of the problem was spot on, the Bush administration’s prescription, the “freedom agenda,” was even more counterproductive than the bungled realpolitik that it replaced. Seeding democracy in Iraq at the point of a bayonet, while in keeping with American do-goodism, didn’t facilitate a flowering of freedom, only chaos. Flickers of liberalizing promise in Lebanon and Egypt proved ephemeral. When Hamas won free elections in Gaza in 2006, the US threw in the towel. American policy promptly returned to the status-quo ante, supporting those who nominally supported us for the sake of that elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: stability.
Our dependence on oil has clouded our judgment in the Middle East, as has the specter of Islamic militancy. As long as we get our petroleum, and as long as we see Arab despots as the bulwarks against religious extremism, then the arrangement suits us fine. This is passed off as realpolitik, but it is in name only. In reality, it’s a Faustian bargain.
The problem is that repression tends to vindicate one of the basic laws of physics—that for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. In the Middle East, pushback often derives from political Islam. Fortunately, the revolutionary fervor now sweeping the region is more broadly based. But recent events, nevertheless, lay bare the hypocrisy of US policy, and weaken our standing. As Mohamad Bazzi writes in GlobalPost, “When the United States continues backing autocrats like [Hosni] Mubarak, against the will of their people, then Washington loses much of its leverage to demand reform from other repressive regimes like Iran and Syria. And favoring stability over democratic values will come back to haunt America in the long term.”
There is a better way. The US could promote constitutional reforms that guarantee independent judiciaries and freedom of the press, amongst other freedoms. This step would help nudge the region towards a better and ultimately more stable future. It would also reconcile our own schizophrenic tendencies by promoting our most cherished values while also protecting our vital national interest.
Don’t hold your breath. We’re too addicted to oil and too shortsighted. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear regulatory agency and leading Egyptian opposition leader, suspects as much. In the wake of anti-government demonstrations roiling the Middle East, he warns, “‘Stability’ is a very pernicious word. Stability at the expense of 30 years of martial law, rigged elections? If [US policymakers] come later and say, as they did in Tunis, ‘We respect the will of the Tunisian people,’ it will be a little late in the day.”