Try re­al­ism in the Mid­dle East

The Covington News - - OPINION - Richard Co­hen is a writer with the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group. He can be reached at co­henr@wash­post.com.

Amer­ica rarely does time cap­sules any­more, but the ones it does should in­clude videos from Fe­bru­ary 2011 of Amer­i­can TV re­porters ex­ult­ing in the tri­umph of the Arab Spring. “This is the sound of a peo­ple ris­ing,” ABC’s Terry Mo­ran told us from Cairo. For Egyp­tians, it was a day “when a peo­ple rose and made them­selves a new coun­try, a new world, a new life.”

That new life to­day looks de­press­ingly like the old one. The mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment of Hosni Mubarak has been re­placed by the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment of Ab­del Fatah al-Sissi. In be­tween came the in­ter­reg­num of the pop­u­larly elected Mo­hamed Morsi, un­for­tu­nately a leader of the re­pel­lent Mus­lim Brother­hood. He is now in jail.

I chose the Mo­ran clip be­cause it is so ut­terly Amer­i­can. Here at 6 min­utes, 54 seconds is the charm­ing Amer­i­can belief in a bet­ter day, in the wis­dom of the peo­ple — in short, in democ­racy. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion it­self acted on those im­pulses. It pulled the rug out from un­der Mubarak — never mind that he was Amer­ica’s stead­fast ally. Egypt is the most pop­u­lous and pow­er­ful of all the Arab states — and it had made peace with Is­rael.

For the United States, try­ing to spread democra- cy is like love for a teenager — it has got­ten us into no end of trou­ble. We turned our back on Mubarak, the dic­ta­tor, appalling the Saudis, who don’t have quite the touch­ing re­gard for democ­racy that we do. The Jor­da­ni­ans felt the same. They, too, think that democ­racy is dandy — for France, for Bri­tain, for a whole lot of na­tions, but not, please, for the one called the Hashemite King­dom of Jor­dan.

We made war in Iraq for a num­ber of rea­sons — nonex­is­tent weapons of mass de­struc­tion, a nonex­is­tent link to the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and also to trans­form the place into a democ­racy that would be — no kid­ding — a model for the en­tire Mid­dle East. In his book “For­eign Pol­icy Be­gins at Home,” Richard Haass, pres­i­dent of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, ar­gues against this mind­less embrace of democ­racy, ar­gu­ing in­stead for cau­tion. “Democ­racy is no panacea, and democ­ra­cies in the Mid­dle East are cer­tain to be any­thing but ma­ture democ­ra­cies for decades to come, if ever.” That “if ever” is a bit of un­char­ac­ter­is­tic op­ti­mism.

Haass ded­i­cated his book to Brent Scowcroft, who was George H.W. Bush’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser. Scowcroft is what in for­eign pol­icy cir­cles is called a “re­al­ist.” He tilts at no wind­mills; he was ap­palled at the sec­ond Iraq war — as was Haass — and he was in­stru­men­tal in call­ing a halt to the first one while Sad­dam Hus­sein was still in power and in pos­ses­sion of his at­tack he­li­copters. The Shi­ites were soon to suf­fer — so were the Kurds — but this was not our af­fair. Re­al­ism in­sisted that Iraq not come apart. It was never go­ing to be a democ­racy.

Now, we face a dilemma re­gard­ing Syria. Early on, I fa­vored U.S. as­sis­tance to the mod­er­ates in that civil war — not be­cause I thought they could es­tab­lish a democ­racy but be­cause I wanted the killing to end. (The death toll is now almost 200,000.) But Bashar al-As­sad, like his fa­ther and even like Sad­dam Hus­sein, had kept the coun­try to­gether and — very im­por­tant, in­deed — was not a re­li­gious zealot who couldn’t abide the ex­is­tence of Is­rael. As­sad might have been an oph­thal­mol­o­gist back in Eng­land, but he was a prag­ma­tist in his own coun­try. Still, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wanted him gone.

Now comes Haass again, this time to ar­gue that the U.S. and oth­ers might have to some­how as­sist the loathed As­sad. “The U.S. and Europe may have to live with, and even work with, a regime they have for years sought to re­move,” he wrote re­cently in The Fi­nan­cial Times. It is a blunt, even brave, ex­pres­sion of for­eign pol­icy re­al­ism — the en­emy of my en­emy is my friend. The ul­ti­mate en­emy in his case is the crazed Is­lamic State. Last week, it mas­sa­cred more than 160 cap­tured Syr­ian troops.

This sort of re­al­ism is of­ten not pretty to look at — but nei­ther are the con­se­quences of ig­nor­ing it. For me, it does not mean that the U.S. has to be in­ert and, say, al­low the slaugh­ter of the Yazidis. But it does en­tail a vig­i­lant cyn­i­cism, an ap­pre­ci­a­tion that what works for us may not work for oth­ers, and fi­nally, that our na­tional in­ter­est, and that of our al­lies, may en­tail a cer­tain healthy hypocrisy about democ­racy. Ev­ery­one should have it — but not quite yet.

RICHARD CO­HEN

COLUM­NIST

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