Frustrated after another one of the Versailles peace talks’ grueling sessions,
French premier Georges Clemenceau complained that God was happy with the Ten
Commandments, but Woodrow Wilson needed his Fourteen Points.
– which demanded among other things that all nations be freed, military budgets
be slashed, trade barriers vanish and secret diplomacy be annulled – won Wilson
the Nobel Peace Prize, but otherwise soon arrived in history’s
Even so, Wilson’s vision of global freedom and international
harmony came to epitomize the idealistic strand in American foreign policy, the
quest to export America’s values.
A century on, a fratricidal Middle East
animated by gas clouds above Damascus and blood pools under the Pyramids is
challenging America’s diplomatic idealism in a way nothing has since the Cold
War, calling into question the White House’s judgment, consistency and
effectiveness. Meanwhile, a skeptical Jerusalem is quietly espousing the
alternative strand in America’s diplomatic history, the one that cared for
strategic stability more than for idealistic purity.
THAT THERE no longer
is an Arab Spring, if there ever was one, is now universally
What began with scores of people torching themselves in
Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt in a heartbreaking cry for hope, sparking mass
rallies that soon toppled dictators, has since given way to tribal wars and
religious strife, and what initially seemed like democracy’s triumph soon gave
way to its wholesale abuse.
That’s today. However, back when this drama
began, Western diplomacy reflexively hailed it as democracy’s long-overdue
victory in the part of the world where it was most glaringly missing. It was the
continuation of a sentiment that originated with the Berlin Wall’s
The feeling in Washington following the defeat of Communism had
been, in the spirit of American diplomat Francis Fukayama’s The End of History
and the Last Man
, that freedom’s march is predestined, that it is the natural
form of human life and that all efforts to suppress it will ultimately be met
and defeated by the people’s will.
This was the thinking that underpinned
US President Barack Obama’s instinctive response when he saw the masses flooding
Cairo, demanding Hosni Mubarak’s removal. It will take decades to learn, after
declassification, whether any of the diplomats and spies advising him cautioned
Obama that the demonstrators represented but a fraction of the population; that
the fundamentalists were waiting in the wings; that betraying Mubarak would
unsettle American allies elsewhere; and that taking sides so bluntly in an
internal conflict would narrow America’s political maneuver space in the
If such advice was not whispered in Obama’s ears in those days,
then that would call into question the State Department’s and the CIA’s
understanding of the world they are paid to probe. And if such advice was given,
but ignored, then Obama will be judged harshly by future historians.
any event, Obama followed in Wilson’s footsteps, shunning American diplomacy’s
alternative school – which has traditionally cared less for changing the world,
and more for securing America’s outposts within it.
Letting autocracy be
was the path most administrations took throughout American history. Until Teddy
Roosevelt’s presidency, America sent troops nowhere, and then, in 1956 and 1968,
it stood by while the Red Army crushed democratic upheavals in Budapest and
Prague, respectively. Successive administrations collaborated with Latin
American dictators, sometimes also installing them.
This is how late
ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick coined the term “authoritarianism,” with which she
distinguished between autocracies that challenged American interests, like Fidel
Castro’s Cuba, and ones that served them, like Augusto Pinochet’s
Mubarak was, for decades, America’s Middle Eastern Pinochet. Would
events have unfolded differently had the White House been populated in winter
2011 by, say, Dwight Eisenhower, who paid lip service to democracy while
abandoning Hungary to its devices, or by Ronald Reagan who, even while
confronting the Soviet Union on moralistic grounds, danced with Latin American
dictators? Answering this question is impossible because Obama did not face a
rival superpower – or so he thought.
SINCE THE Arab upheaval’s outbreak,
Obama has made two major moves: In Egypt, he publicly called for Mubarak to
leave office; and in Syria, he vowed to act in case President Bashar Assad used
Just how much thought and consultation, if any,
preceded both of these pronouncements is for now unclear. What is not unclear is
that Obama assumed at the time that America was the sole superpower, and that he
was free to fire verbal salvos in the Middle East as he pleased. And since his
was Wilson’s idealism and at stake was democracy’s emergence, his task, he
believed, was to make freedom sprout here and dictatorship wither
Now, as noted by Hebrew University’s Shlomo Avineri, it is clear
that Egypt’s antagonists all misunderstood democracy. The Islamists emerged from
their narrow electoral victory with a winner-takes-all attitude that made them
ignore minorities, debilitate the judiciary and over-empower the presidency. And
the Islamists’ opponents interpreted street rallies as license to topple an
Meanwhile, Obama’s idealistic indulgences made him
neglect his strategic necessities, as the showdown in Syria has proven that
America is not the sole superpower.
Not only did Russia, with full
Chinese backing, emerge as an unflinching ally of Assad, its conduct there has
been the antithesis of America’s. Whereas Obama’s promise to act in case of gas
attacks remained unfulfilled, and this week was also contradicted by Joint
Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, Russia stood by its superpower’s
word, backing its client through thick and thin.
made in a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), offered a dose of reality
that may or may not have been delivered to Obama before he warned Assad last
December that using chemical weapons would be “totally unacceptable,” adding
that “the world is watching.”
Judging by the White House’s growing silence as
events in the Middle East continue confounding its original idealism, Obama has
apparently learned the hard way what Dempsey explained, namely that Syria’s
situation “is not about choosing between two sides, but rather about choosing
one among many sides.”
Should the US select someone to back in Syria, it
would have to be led by people prepared to promote America’s interests, he
“Today,” concluded the general wryly, “they are
Widespread reports this week about a massive gas attack outside
Damascus have yet to be confirmed.
Even so, the US no longer denies that
Assad has already used chemical weapons. Evidently, he feels secure behind
Russia’s shield and no longer fears America.
Moreover, the drama in Egypt
also plays into Assad’s hand. Firstly, because ousted president Mohamed Morsi
was among his sworn enemies, and openly craved a Sunni Islamist victory in
Secondly, because live fire at civilians has now ceased to be
an exclusively Syrian practice.
And lastly, because in Assad’s analysis,
American interference in Syria now would have to be followed by similar action
in Egypt – or Obama the idealist would be inconsistent.
In short, Obama’s
Middle Eastern vision is going the way of Wilson’s Fourteen Points.
was one thing for American idealism to produce the Marshall Plan, the Berlin
Airlift, or Japan’s humanistic constitution, and then to inspire the fall of
Those were all aided from below by societies that were ripe
for America’s gospel. The Middle East, by contrast, remains infested by
tribalism, fundamentalism and also feudalism that America was late to detect,
and is in no position to undo.
This, in a nutshell, is what Israeli
policy-makers quietly think as they scramble to salvage stability from the jaws
of all this mayhem.
WATCHING EGYPTIAN troops arrest the most senior
Muslim Brothers, from spiritual leader Mohamed Badie down, many assumed it is
the best-case scenario from Israel’s viewpoint. It isn’t.
interest is not that Egypt be led by anyone in particular, but that Egyptians be
happy; that they have the jobs, dignity and hope that their faltering revolution
Since Morsi failed to deliver any of this, best
would have been for him to lose power they way he won it – at the ballot box.
Instead, just as they were running out of political luck, Egypt’s Islamists were
turned into underdogs by the coup.
Worse, they can now be counted on to
cultivate a martyrs’ narrative that will register with millions, and possibly
inspire guerrilla and terror attacks that the regime might not be able to
endure. Israel must therefore consider a scenario whereby the Islamists
Moreover, relations with Morsi’s regime, while far from
romantic, were workable. The very fact that they survived his presidency was a
major accomplishment, an indirect acceptance of the Jewish state in circles
where it is roundly demonized.
That is why Israel is keeping quiet as
Egypt quakes, even though relations with post-Morsi Cairo are expected to be
smoother than what preceded them.
Armed with its hard-earned experience
three decades ago, when an idealistic Menachem Begin tried, and colossally
failed, to democratize Lebanon, Israel is following events in Egypt and Syria
with the kind of humility that America and Europe can afford to avoid, but the
Jewish state cannot.
Furthermore, history suggests that at the end of the
day Washington and Brussels, too, will set aside their idealism and cooperate
with Egypt’s generals while striving to nurture the prosperity, education and
civic society that will someday produce a democratic Middle East. That is how
they treated China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and that is how they
will treat Egypt – provided its leaders follow China’s script, and generate
growth, quiet and stability.
Considering both sides’ triggerhappiness,
and the absence for now of a local Deng Xiaoping who would revolutionize Egypt’s
economy, a transition to optimism remains elusive.
That is what a sober,
rather than idealistic, American diplomacy should be considering as it tries to
predict the region’s future.
Incidentally, the first coup d’état in
modern history, Napoleon’s in 1799, happened upon his emergence from Egypt.
Obviously, most analogies to Egypt’s current turbulence are unworkable. For
instance, by the time Napoleon arrived in Paris, France’s Great Terror was
Egypt’s may hardly have begun.