In a recent column mocking the argument for a military intervention in Libya, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd cited John Quincy Adams's famous dictum that the United States "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." Foreign-policy realists count Adams as their founding father; like him, they view American meddling in the internal struggles of faraway places as a species of national folly.
The Arab world has a way of turning American policymakers into realists: The stakes are just too great for it to be otherwise. Anyone can thunder against rogue leaders in Sudan or Zimbabwe, or for that matter in Libya, where the United States has no vital interests. In the Middle East, where publics disagree -- often vehemently -- with Western policy on Israel, counterterrorism, and Iran, unaccountable leaders are prepared to ignore public opinion so long as they see those policies as in their country's (or their own) interests. What's more, autocrats offer a form of one-stop shopping that makes them vastly easier to deal with than parliaments and an unbuttoned media.
But the events now transforming the Arab world illustrate the degree to which Adams's intellectual heirs are making a false choice. America's national interests now depend on the well-being of people in remote places as they did not in the early 19th century. The chaos not only in Libya but in formerly staid autocracies like Bahrain and Yemen seriously threatens American interests and shows how foolish it was to have counted on the stability of these states.
This sentiment has, it's true, become something of a cliché. George W. Bush's administration, of course, acknowledged the limits of realism. But outside Iraq, Bush's policy in the region -- like that of nearly all his predecessors -- proved to be vastly more realist than its rhetoric. In a famous 2005 speech in Cairo, Condoleezza Rice admitted that "For 60 years, my country, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither." But, she said, the United States had come to understand that in the long run despotic regimes eventually lose their legitimacy, and thus stability. Rice herself, like the rest of the democracy-promoting Bush administration, ultimately wound up betting on stability rather than democracy in Egypt and elsewhere in the region; the pressure of short-term interests ultimately prevails over the calculus of long-term benefits. Thus the Middle East policies of U.S. presidents tend to be a great deal more realist than the rhetoric.
American presidents seem destined to make the same fine professions, then pursue the same apparently pragmatic line, and finally learn the same painful lessons again and again. President Barack Obama only jumped on the bandwagon of change in Egypt and Tunisia when it turned into a juggernaut, at which point the merits of dealing with an autocrat had become moot. Like his predecessors, he has refrained from any public criticism of the domestic policies of Saudi Arabia, which can turn the oil spigot on or off at will.
But realism doesn't look as realistic as it used to. Saudi Arabia, at least for the moment, looks unshakeable, but what does Obama do about the American allies desperately resisting calls for change and doing terrible damage in the process -- that is, Bahrain and Yemen? In Yemen, after weeks of relatively peaceful mass protest, government troops have fired on protesters, reportedly killing dozens. Before the massacre, there was some reason to hope that a compromise solution might be possible, because President Ali Abdullah Saleh had promised not to run again, though he had refused to step down before the end of his current term in 2013 -- as the opposition has insisted he do. Both sides may emerge so hardened from this new bout of violence that U.S. and European diplomats will be able to do little to help bring them together.