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, he said, 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 The military government of Hosni Mubarak has been replaced by the military government of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.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 Mohammed 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 almost seven minutes 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. President Barack Obama wanted nothing less than “elections that are free and fair” and “should result in a government that’s not only grounded in democratic principles but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.” The U.S. 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, spreading democracy is like love for a teenager — it has gotten us into no end of trouble. By dumping Mubarak, we appalled the Saudis, who don’t have quite the touching regard for democracy that we do. The Jordanians, too, think democracy is just dandy for France, for Britain, for a whole lot of nations, but not, please, for the one called the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Israel also was not cheered. For it, democracy in the Arab world is downright scary.
The United States 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, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues against this sentimental 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 and Kurds soon suffered, but this was not our affair. Realism insisted that Iraq not come apart. It was never going to be a democracy.
The history of inter-war Europe should have cautioned. Following World War I, democracies in Central and Eastern Europe popped up like mushrooms after the rain. Soon, most veered right, embracing intolerance, extreme nationalism and of course anti-Semitism. The autocratic regimes they replaced often protected minority rights. The people felt otherwise and politicians sooner or later gave the people want they wanted.
In the same way, Egypt followed Mubarak with an Islamic regime that persecuted the country’s minorities. Coptic Christians, once a highly prosperous and productive community, had been protected by Mubarak. That was hardly the case under Morsi. They suffered.
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 or the depredations of the Assad regime, including torture and gassings. (Nor did I approve of leaving Saddam Hussein with the means for mass murder, those helicopters, and not lifting a finger to ground them.)
But when it comes to a kind of sentimental desire for democracy in places that have never had it, the realists’ cynicism is likely the best approach. They appreciate that what works for us may not work for others and 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 is a columnist for the Washington Post.