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Egyptian protesters, seen through a flag, march toward Cairo’s landmark Tahrir square during a demonstration against President Mohammed Morsi on May 17, 2013. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

Errors by the party in power can get America into trouble; real catastrophes require consensus.

Rarely have both parties been as unanimous about a development overseas as they have in their shared enthusiasm for the so-called Arab Spring during the first months of 2011. Republicans vied with the Obama Administration in their zeal for the ouster of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak and in championing the subsequent NATO intervention against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Both parties saw themselves as having been vindicated by events. The Obama Administration saw its actions as proof that soft power in pursuit of humanitarian goals offered a new paradigm for foreign-policy success. And the Republican establishment saw a vindication of the Bush freedom agenda.

“Revolutions are sweeping the Middle East and everyone is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda,” Charles Krauthammer observed in February 2011. “Now that revolution has spread from Tunisia to Oman,” Krauthammer added, “the [Obama] administration is rushing to keep up with the new dispensation, repeating the fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine that Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom.” And William Kristol exulted, “Helping the Arab Spring through to fruition might contribute to an American Spring, one of renewed pride in our country and confidence in the cause of liberty.”

They were all wrong. Just two years later, the foreign-policy establishment has fractured in the face of a Syrian civil war that threatens to metastasize into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon and an economic collapse in Egypt that has brought the largest Arab country to the brink of state failure. Some Republican leaders, including Sen. John McCain and Weekly Standard editor Kristol, demand American military intervention to support Syria’s Sunni rebels. But Daniel Pipes, the dean of conservative Middle East analysts, wrote on April 11 that “Western governments should support the malign dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad,” because “Western powers should guide enemies to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing, so as to prolong their conflict.” If Assad appears to be winning, he added later, we should support the rebels. The respected strategist Edward Luttwak contends that America should “leave bad enough alone” in Syria and turn its attention away from the Middle East—to Asia. The Obama Administration meanwhile is waffling about what might constitute a “red line” for intervention and what form such intervention might take.

The once-happy bipartisan consensus has now shrunk to the common observation that all the available choices are bad. It could get much worse. Western efforts have failed to foster a unified leadership among the Syrian rebels, and jihadi extremists appear to be in control of the Free Syrian Army inside Syria. Syria’s war is “creating the conditions for a renewed conflict, dangerous and complex, to explode in Iraq. If Iraq is not shielded rapidly and properly, it will definitely slip into the Syrian quagmire,” warns Arab League Ambassador Nassif Hitti. Iraq leaders are talking of civil war and eventual partition. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, meanwhile, warned on May 1, “Syria has real friends in the region, and the world will not let Syria fall into the hands of America, Israel or takfiri [radical islamist] groups,” threatening in effect to turn the civil war into a regional conflict that has the potential to destabilize Turkey. And the gravest risk to the region remains the likelihood that “inherent weaknesses of state and society in Egypt reach a point where the country’s political, social and economic systems no longer function,” as Gamal Abuel Hassan wrote on May 28. Libya is fracturing, and the terrorists responsible for the September 2012 Benghazi attack are operating freely.

This is a tragic outcome, in the strict sense of the term, for it is hard to imagine how it could have turned out otherwise.

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In January 2012, after the first hopes for Arab democracy had faded, former Bush Administration official Elliot Abrams insisted:

The neocons, democrats, and others who applauded the Arab uprisings were right, for what was the alternative? To applaud continued oppression? To instruct the rulers on better tactics, the way Iran is presumably lecturing (and arming) Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Such a stance would have made a mockery of American ideals, would have failed to keep these hated regimes in place for very long, and would have left behind a deep, almost ineradicable anti-Americanism.

The neoconservatives mistook a tubercular fever for the flush of youth in the Arab revolts, to be sure, but they read the national mood right—as did the Obama Administration.

There were dissenters, of course. Daniel Pipes warned against pushing Islamists toward elections, writing in 2005:

When politically adept totalitarians win power democratically, they do fix potholes and improve schools—but only as a means to transform their countries in accordance with their utopian visions. This generalization applies most clearly to the historical cases (Adolf Hitler in Germany after 1933, Salvador Allende in Chile after 1970) but it also appears valid for the current ones.

Henry Kissinger excoriated the Obama Administration for toppling Mubarak, arguing that no other force in Egypt could stabilize the country. Francis Fukuyama broke with his erstwhile neoconservative colleagues in 2004, after hearing Vice President Dick Cheney and columnist Charles Krauthammer announce the beginning of an American-led “unipolar era.” “All of these people around me were cheering wildly,” Fukuyama remembers. “All of my friends had taken leave of reality.”

It is a widespread misimpression (reinforced by conspiracy theorists seeking the malign influence of the “Israel Lobby”) that the neoconservative movement is in some way a Jewish thing. On the contrary, it is a distinctly American thing. As the born-again Methodist George W. Bush said in 2003, “Peoples of the Middle East share a high civilization, a religion of personal responsibility, and a need for freedom as deep as our own. It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty; it is pessimism and condescension, and we should have none of it.” The Catholic neoconservative and natural-law theorist Michael Novak put it just as passionately in his 2004 book The Universal Hunger for Liberty: “The hunger for liberty has only slowly been felt among Muslims. That hunger is universal, even when it is latent, for the preconditions for it slumber in every human breast.”

By contrast, Israelis were overwhelmingly pessimistic about the outcome of the Arab revolts and aghast at the celerity with which Washington dumped Mubarak. “The message to the Middle East is that it doesn’t pay to be an American ally,” a former Israeli intelligence chief told me in 2012. Although the prominent Soviet refusenik-turned-Israeli-politician Natan Sharansky believed in a universal desire for democracy, the vast majority of Israeli opinion thought the idea mad. As Joshua Muravchik wrote in 2011, the Arab Spring:

precipitated a sharp split between neoconservatives and hard-headed Israeli analysts who had long been their allies and friends. While neocons saw democratization as a balm to soothe the fevered brow of the Arab world, Israeli strategists (with the notable exception of Natan Sharansky) thought this utterly naive. Their message in essence was this: you do not know the Arabs as we do. Difficult as their governments are to deal with, they are more reasonable than their populations. Democratization of the Arab world would lead to radicalization, which would be a bane to you and us.

The Israelis are accustomed to living with long-term uncertainty; Americans want movies with happy endings. The alternative to the Bush Freedom Agenda or Obama’s proposed reconciliation with the Muslim world would have been ugly: the strategic equivalent of a controlled burn in a forest fire, as Daniel Pipes proposed—prolonging conflict, at frightful human cost, as the Reagan Administration did during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. It was one thing to entice prospective enemies into a war of attrition in the dark corners of the Cold War, though, and quite another to do so under the klieg lights. The strategy might have been correct on paper, but Americans are not typically in the market for pessimism.

The American public fell in love with the young democracy activists who floated across the surface of the Arab revolts like benzene bubbles on the Nile. More precisely, Americans fell in love with their own image, in the persons of hip young Egyptians who reminded them of Americans. Conservatives and liberals alike competed to lionize Google sales manager Wael Ghonim. Caroline Kennedy gave him the JFK Profiles in Courage Award in May 2011. He made Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. The conservative Lebanese scholar Fouad Ajami kvelled in the Wall Street Journal:

No turbaned ayatollah had stepped forth to summon the crowd. This was not Iran in 1979. A young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, had energized this protest when it might have lost heart, when it could have succumbed to the belief that this regime and its leader were a big, immovable object. Mr. Ghonim was a man of the modern world. He was not driven by piety. The condition of his country—the abject poverty, the crony economy of plunder and corruption, the cruelties and slights handed out to Egyptians in all walks of life by a police state that the people had outgrown and despaired of—had given this young man and others like him their historical warrant.

Republican hawks advocated the furtherance of the Arab Spring by force of arms, starting with Libya. On Feb. 25, 2011, a month after Mubarak’s fall, Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative garnered 45 signatures of past officials and public intellectuals “urging President Obama, in conjunction with NATO allies, to take action to end the violence being propagated by the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi.” Three weeks later a NATO force led by the United States intervened. By September, the Qaddafi regime was beaten, and Robert Kagan lauded President Obama in the Weekly Standard: “By intervening, with force, the NATO alliance not only saved the people of Libya and kept alive the momentum of the Arab Spring … the end of Qaddafi’s rule is a great accomplishment for the Obama administration and for the president personally. Furthermore, the president deserves credit because his decision was unpopular and politically risky.” A month later the victorious rebels put the cadavers of Qaddafi and his son on public view.

The national consensus behind the Arab Spring peaked with the Libyan venture. Elliot Abrams was in a sense right: To intimate that democracy might not apply to Arabs seems to violate America’s first principle, that people of all background have the same opportunity for success—in the United States. It seems un-American to think differently. Isn’t America a multi-ethnic melting pot where all religions and ethnicities have learned to get along? That is a fallacy of composition, to be sure: Americans are brands plucked out of the fire of failed cultures, the few who fled the tragic failings of their own culture to make a fresh start. The only tragic thing about America is the incapacity of Americans to comprehend the tragedy of other peoples. To pronounce judgment on other cultures as unfit for modernity, as Abrams wrote, seems “a mockery of American ideals.”

The neoconservatives triumphantly tracked the progress of what they imagined was Arab democracy. After Iraq’s March 2005 elections, Max Boot wrote:

In 2003, more than a month before the invasion of Iraq, I wrote in the Weekly Standard that the forthcoming fall of Baghdad “may turn out to be one of those hinge moments in history—events like the storming of the Bastille or the fall of the Berlin Wall—after which everything is different. If the occupation goes well (admittedly a big if), it may mark the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better.” Well, who’s the simpleton now? Those who dreamed of spreading democracy to the Arabs or those who denied that it could ever happen?

Similarly, in April 2011, Kristol wrote:

The Arab winter is over. The men and women of the Greater Middle East are no longer satisfied by “a little life.” Now it’s of course possible that this will turn out to be a false spring. But surely it’s not beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to help reformers in the Arab world achieve mostly successful outcomes. … And who knows? Helping the Arab Spring through to fruition might contribute to an American Spring, one of renewed pride in our country and confidence in the cause of liberty.

Writing in the Weekly Standard in September of that year, Robert Kagan was so confident of the march of democracy that he proposed to throw the Jordanian monarchy under the bus after Mubarak, despite Jordan’s longstanding alliance with the United States.

Even when Islamists trampled the democrats in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, the foreign-policy consensus held strong. The Obama Administration courted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, while Republican sages argued that Islamist rule, while suboptimal, nonetheless represented progress on the road to democracy. Joshua Muravchik pooh-poohed the risks of the Muslim Brotherhood role in a September 2011 essay: “[I]t seems unlikely that the Egyptians, aroused as they are and having lived through the Nasser experience, would succumb to a new despotism. The most likely force to impose it, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been having trouble keeping its own members in line, much less the rest of the country.” Muravchik wrote:

Perhaps the most important of the region’s hopeful signs is the rebellion in Syria. Who would have thought that Syrians, of all peoples, would have earned the world’s admiration? Yet it is hard to think of many cases in which nonviolent protestors have exposed themselves to shoot-to-kill security forces for months on end without being cowed into surrender. If these brave people persevere and drive the Assad dynasty from power, that itself would go far toward making the Arab Spring a net benefit for the region and the world.

But the democracy enthusiasts missed a crucial feature of the Arab Spring: The toppling of Hosni Mubarak and the uprising against Syria’s Basher Assad occurred after the non-oil-producing Arab countries had lurched into a dangerous economic decline. Egypt, dependent on imports for half its caloric consumption, faced a sharp rise in food prices while the prices of cotton and other exports languished. Asia’s insatiable demand for feed grains had priced the Arab poor out of the market: Chinese pigs were fed before Egyptian peasants, whose labor was practically worthless. Almost half of Egyptians are functionally illiterate, and its university graduates are unqualified for the global market (unlike Tunisians, who staff the help desks of French software firms). Out of cash, Egypt faces chronic food and fuel shortages and presently is on life support through emergency loans from its neighbors. The insoluble economic crisis makes any form of political stabilization unlikely.

Egypt’s Exports, Imports and Trade Balance

(Source: Central Bank of Egypt)

Syria’s economic position is, if possible, even worse. Yemen is not only out of money, but nearly out of water. Large portions of the Arab world have languished so long in backwardness that they are beyond repair. After the dust of the popular revolts dissipated, we are left with banana republics, but without the bananas.

It is a salutary exercise to consider the views we hold with impassioned conviction and ask: “What would it imply if we are wrong?” Neoconservatives of all stripes believed with perfect faith that the desire for liberty is a universal human impulse, requiring only the right institutions to reinforce it. The Obama Administration believed that all cultures have equal validity and that—as Obama said early in his presidency—that he thinks of American exceptionalism the same way that the Greeks think about Greek exceptionalism. In both cases, Republicans and Democrats believe that there is nothing inherently unique about America—except that this country was the first to create the political framework that corresponds to the true nature of every human being.

Kristol’s 2011 assessment of the Arab Spring was erroneous, but he was right to link America’s state of being to events in the Middle East. We stumbled by national consensus into a strategic morass, from which there is no apparent exit, in the naïve belief that under every burka was a prospective American ready to emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis.

But if large parts of the Muslim world reject what seemed to be an historic opportunity to create democratic governments and instead dissolve into a chaotic regime of permanent warfare, we might conclude that there really is something different about America—that our democracy is the product of a unique set of precedents, the melding of the idea of covenant brought here by radical Protestants, the traditions of Anglo-Saxon democracy, and the far-reaching wisdom of our founders. To present-day Americans, that is an unnerving thought. We do not wish upon ourselves that sort of responsibility. We eschew our debts to deep traditions. We want to reinvent ourselves at will, to shop for new identities, to play at the cultural cutting-edge.

What these events might teach us, rather, is that America really is exceptional and that there is no contradiction in cultivating our democracy at home while acting elsewhere in tough-minded pursuit of our security interests.

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