President Obama has had a rude awakening in the Middle East. The region he thought existed was an illusion built on American progressive assumptions about the way the world works. In the dream Middle East, democracy at least of a sort was just around the corner. Moderate Islamists would engage with the democratic process, and the experience would lead them to ever more moderate behavior. If America got itself on the “right side of history,” and supported this hopeful development, both America’s values and its interests would be served. Our relationships with the peoples of the Middle East would improve as they saw Washington supporting the emergence of democracy in the region, and Al Qaeda and the other violent groups would lose influence as moderate Islamist parties guided their countries to prosperity and democracy.
This vision, sadly, has turned out to be a mirage, and Washington is discovering that fact only after the administration followed the deceptive illusion out into the deep desert. The vultures are circling now as American policy crawls forlornly over the dunes; with both the New York Times and the Washington Post running “what went wrong” obituaries for the President’s efforts in Egypt, not even the MSM can avoid the harsh truth that President Obama’s Middle East policies have collapsed into an ugly and incoherent mess.
The President and his team have been taken in by two very old American mistakes about the rest of the world. One is to confuse the end of history with the morning news. The other is to exaggerate America’s importance to the rest of the world. The President is in good company here; most of our political and policy class is deeply steeped in these beguiling fantasies about how the world works, and most of his critics on both the left and the right are as deeply and fatally confused about the region as he and his advisors have been. I’ll get to the inveterate tendency of narcissistic American policy makers and commenters to exaggerate America’s influence in another essay; for now, it’s enough to look at how the deep set American tendency to think that democracy is sweeping the world, right now, has helped wreck the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.
The end of history, which AI founder Francis Fukuyama used to describe the historical implications of the Cold War, is to American political philosophy what the Second Coming is to Christians. In the end, almost all Americans devoutly believe, the liberal, market principles on which our country is built will triumph around the world. Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East and even Russia will some day become democratic societies with market economies softened by welfare states and social safety nets. As a nation, we believe that democracy is both morally better and more practical than other forms of government, and that a regulated market economy offers the only long term path to national prosperity. As democracy and capitalism spread their wonder-working wings across the world, peace will descend on suffering humanity and history as we’ve known it will be at an end.
If these ideas are correct, and you can’t have a career in American public life unless you are willing at least to pretend that you believe them, then over time it is inevitable that these ideas will triumph worldwide. After all, if democratic capitalist countries grow faster and enjoy greater political stability and effectiveness than their opponents, sooner or later the opponents will fail to keep pace with the power of the democratic world and will either be crushed in war (as happened to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) or will drop, exhausted, out of the competition for power like the Soviet Union.
I actually subscribe to this article of our civic faith; I believe that democratic capitalism works better than the alternatives (though it does not work perfectly) and that other things being equal over time the societies who embrace these ideas will outperform those who do not.
But this does not mean that I believe that the world will become liberal and democratic tomorrow or that the path to this future will be a smooth and steady ascent. As a Christian, I believe in the Second Coming and the Last Judgment; that does not mean I have maxed out my credit cards in the belief that Jesus is returning tomorrow.
Unfortunately, much of our political and policy class, both on the left and the right, shares an unfounded confidence that liberal capitalism is going to triumph tomorrow. They are the secular, liberal counterparts of Christian fundamentalists waiting for the Rapture, a near-magical translation to a better world. This is what most American policy makers believed about Russia in the heady years after the Soviet collapse. President George W. Bush bet the ranch on the imminent democratization of the Middle East. So did President Obama.
This is not a new mistake. Thomas Jefferson was sure that the French Revolution heralded the dawn of democracy in 18th century Europe. Henry Clay thought the Latin American revolutions against Spain would create stable democracies across South America. Many Americans thought the 1848 revolutions in Europe would establish true freedom in the Old World. Many Americans thought that Sun Yat Sen’s revolution in China would establish democracy there back in 1911. Alexander Kerensky’s Russia was hailed as an ‘emerging democracy’ in 1917. Woodrow Wilson thought he could kill history with Fourteen Points and a League. It was a thought crime among liberal and progressive people to doubt that Africa would race ahead to democratic capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s as colonialism ended.
We are not always wrong. Germany, Japan and, in its own eccentric way, Italy all became liberal capitalist states after World War Two. Most of the Warsaw Pact countries signed up to the program in the 1990s. Much of East Asia has been moving in a liberal direction as its prosperity has grown. Mexico, Chile and Brazil, among other Latin states, are looking more like Henry Clay once hoped they would.
As a nation, we are not very good at figuring out when the end of history is going to dawn in particular countries, and because we are looking so hard for the triumph of democratic capitalism, we tend to assume that any sound we hear in the night must be its footsteps drawing nigh. Moreover, because we identify belief in our national principles as a moral quality, we are angry with those who seem to display an insufficient faith. When doubters questioned the Bush administration’s claims that the war in Iraq would begin a democratic transformation of the Middle East, they were called anti-Arab racists. When doubters questioned the Obama administration’s claims that moderate Islamists held the key to a democratic future for the region, they were called racists and Islamophobes. People who question whether Africa is on the brink of a mass breakout to democratic growth must also be expect to be called ugly names.
It seems misanthropic to doubt that a particular country isn’t on the road to freedom and prosperity, and it also seems like heresy against our national creed. That tendency is reinforced among our policy elite and chattering classes. The “experts” ought to know better and be more skeptical, but they are often more naive and more dogmatic than the American people at large. It is often the best educated and connected who are most confident, for example, that political science maxims work better than historical knowledge and reflection when it comes to analyzing events and predicting developments. When democratic peace theory or some other beautiful intellectual system (backed with regressions and statistically significant correlations in all their austere beauty) adds its weight to the national political religion, a reasonable faith can morph into blind zeal. Bad things often follow.
What Americans often miss is that while democratic liberal capitalism may be where humanity is heading, not everybody is going to get there tomorrow. This is not simply because some leaders selfishly seek their own power or because evil ideologies take root in unhappy lands. It is also because while liberal capitalist democracy may well be the best way to order human societies from an abstract point of view, not every human society is ready and able to walk that road now. Some aren’t ready because like Haiti they face such crippling problems that having a government, any government, that effectively enforces the law and provides basic services across the country is beyond their grasp. Some aren’t ready because religious or ethnic tensions would rip a particular country apart and cause civil war. Some aren’t ready because the gap between the values, social structures and culture of a particular society make various aspects of liberal capitalism either distasteful or impractical. In many places, the fact that liberal democratic capitalism is historically associated with western imperialism and arrogance has poisoned the well. People simply do not believe that this foreign system will work for them, and they blame many of the problems they face on the countries in Europe and North America who so loudly proclaim the superiority of a system that many people in the global South feel has victimized them.
As a result, there are many countries in the world where the dish Americans most want to eat just isn’t on the menu. This has certainly been true in Egypt, where a pluralistic, liberal society looks pretty effectively out of reach. Egypt’s liberals are too weak and too disconnected from the main currents of their society to govern, and neither the Islamists nor the army is particularly interested in building a liberal society. It was true in Yeltsin’s Russia, where liberal measures (carried out, as was inevitable under the circumstances, by people who were either incompetent or corrupt or both) led to national disintegration and ruin.
In such situations, American diplomacy is generally ineffective and often unites a whole country against us, frustrated by the mix of arrogance and cluelessness that we generally bring to such situations. We issue orders that cannot be fulfilled, judge people and movements by unrealistic standards, form strategic partnerships with individuals and groups who don’t understand their own country very well, set unobtainable goals and fail to grasp the most basic facts of political and social life. We do this over and over again; President Obama has followed a well worn trail into his current predicament.
Meanwhile the President’s most ardent critics, both on the right and the left, believe that his biggest problem is that he isn’t exhibiting sufficient faith in the national credo. Since we know that liberal democracy is triumphing everywhere, if it isn’t working in Egypt it must be the President’s fault. There must have been some policy path, there must still be some policy path, by which the President can bring Egypt into the Promised Land.
Americans need to face an unpleasant fact: while American values may be the answer long term to the Middle East’s problems, they are largely irrelevant to much that is happening there now. We are not going to stop terrorism, at least not in the short or middle term, by building prosperous democratic societies in the Middle East. We can’t fix Pakistan, we can’t fix Egypt, we can’t fix Iraq, we can’t fix Saudi Arabia and we can’t fix Syria. Not even the people who live in those countries can fix them at this point; what has gone wrong is so deeply rooted and so multifaceted that nothing anybody can do will turn them into good candidates for membership in the European Union anytime soon. If we could turn Pakistan into Denmark, the terrorists there would probably settle down—but that isn’t going to happen on any policy-relevant timetable. We must deal with terrorism (and our other interests in the region) in a world in which the basic conditions that breed terrorists aren’t going away.
This isn’t true of all Islamic countries, by the way. Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and Indonesia have their problems, but all of them have more and better choices than the countries going through such convulsions today. Poland and Yugoslavia went in different directions when communism fell; the Islamic world is no more monolithic than the old communist world.
There are, unfortunately, two things we can’t do in the Middle East. We can’t solve our problems and win the love and esteem of the folks who live there by promoting a transition to democracy that isn’t going to happen, and we can’t insulate ourselves from the region’s problems by walking away. Since those are the two alternatives most Americans instinctually prefer, our political and policy systems are going to be stressed. Moralists are going to hector presidents of both parties non-stop for their failures to impose Marquess of Queensbury rules on the various regimes and movements with which we will work, and isolationists are going to resist the commitments that a policy of messy engagement requires.
Winston Churchill famously said that Americans will do the right thing in the end—after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives. I doubt we’ve exhausted all the alternatives yet, and we will likely make more costly and ugly mistakes before we finally find our feet in the new world of the 21st century Middle East. We do, however, seem to be coming to the end of the first phase of failure: the blind belief that the rapid diffusion of democracy and capitalism will make all those nasty, dreary problems melt away.
Meanwhile, at least somebody is getting some benefit out of America’s miserable crawl through the desert. For Egypt’s generals, hungry to use every scrap of material to whomp up patriotic fervor for their cause, every sign of American displeasure, every jet not delivered and every lecture sternly read, is pure gold. The one thing everybody in Egypt agrees on now is that the Americans are about the most horrible people around—arrogant, stupid, judgmental, impractical, and not to be trusted when the going gets tough. The liberals, the generals, the Mubarak family, the Christians, the Islamists: on this one point they can all agree.
Making the coup look anti-American helps the generals make it look patriotic. They benefit from our critiques and our outrage: standing accused of having soldiers and agents whipping up crowds to attack American reporters, issuing sharp rebukes to mealy-mouthed American protests, ostentatiously leaving the clueless American diplomats twisting in the wind: this is balm to the Egyptian soul right now, and money in the bank for the new regime.
[People carry anti-Obama posters as thousands of Egyptian protesters celebrate in Tahrir Square as the deadline given by the military to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi passes on July 3, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.]