The Twisted Arc of History

In the land of no-good-options, is Barack Obama doing enough to push the cause of human rights in the Middle East? 

This has been a week, or two, to try men's souls. Egypt's military rulers, tiring of the flimsy trappings of democracy, dissolved the parliament, reinstated martial law, and promulgated a constitutional declaration arrogating virtually  all legislative power to themselves. That was the banner headline, but Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, not wishing to be outdone, instructed the "executive agencies" to take "the necessary legal measures" to deal with those who criticize the military, whose chief business over the last year had been beating and jailing protestors. And let's not forget the Libyan militia leaders who kidnapped and imprisoned officials from the International Criminal Court.

At such moments we must remind ourselves that the path to democracy is long and winding, the arc of history bends towards justice, and so forth. Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, worked in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, and he reminded me a few days ago that democratizing states which regress do, in the end, "fall back on the institutions they've had in the past." That's an encouraging thought for Chile or Hungary but not, as Posner acknowledges, for Libya, or for that matter any other Arab state. They have no such institutions to fall back on. Nor did Russia, or Ukraine, for example, which reverted to strongman rule after an unhappy spell with liberal reform. The arc of history bends in all sorts of directions.

Well, what then? How should the disheartening state of affairs in Egypt and elsewhere, and the recognition that things might not turn out well in the end, shape the behavior of the United States and other outside actors? There's a good case to be made that Washington should stand aside, let events play themselves out, and help whoever comes out on top pick up the pieces of the inevitable wreckage -- a case cogently, if brutally, made in a recent column by Les Gelb. Foreign Policy's own Aaron David Miller made a similar argument for a policy of benign neglect on Syria. There's an honorable  precedent to the realist case for restraint: As then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams famously declared in a July 4, 1821, oration: The United States "is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

There's a lot to be said for a prudent impartiality in the face of turmoil and profound uncertainty. But haven't we also learned about the costs of such prudence? Condoleezza Rice was quite right when she said in Cairo in 2005, "For 60 years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East -- and we got neither." The United States not only got neither, it also got a well-deserved reputation for supporting friendly autocrats, a reputation which made the country feared and disliked across the region. That didn't matter much while the autocrats ran the show, but that era has come to an end. Even in Egypt, public opinion now matters; and it behooves Washington, even if only for reasons of self-interest, to align itself with people's aspirations.

The Obama administration has, if anything, erred on the side of this imprudent prudence. The administration was slow to criticize President Hosni Mubarak as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest his rule in January 2011, and even slower to criticize the regime in Bahrain as it met peaceful protestors with tear gas, live ammunition, prison, and torture. Prudence is Barack Obama's watchword. There are far worse guides to action, particularly the magical faith in American power which propelled President George W. Bush after 9/11; but silence, too, can have unexpected costs. A national-security official was recently quoted in the New Yorker confessing, of Obama's decision to soft-pedal criticism of the fraudulent 2009 elections in Iran, "It turned out that what we intended as caution, the Iranians saw as weakness."

Obama believed, with very good reason, that nothing he said would advance the cause of reform on Iran, and he was not about to belabor Tehran just to burnish his own democratic credentials. Right now, the Arab world feels equally impervious to American influence.

The administration has issued appropriate criticism of the rolling coup now occurring in Egypt, but nothing Washington says or does, almost certainly including threats to cut military aid, is likely to deflect the military from its apparent goal of keeping the Muslim Brotherhood from taking power, and of hanging on to its own preeminent role. Similarly, Washington has remonstrated Bahrain, including through public remarks by Michael Posner during a visit to Manama last week, but the king, a Sunni, seems determined not to yield an inch to demands for more equal treatment by the majority Shiite population. In Bahrain, too, the United States has substantial leverage in the form of the Fifth Fleet, which is quartered there, but the king and his hard-line advisors are convinced that the protests threaten their very survival, and are unlikely to be moved by American suasion or threats.

So why bother then? Why remonstrate, much less threaten, if Washington can't do much to produce the outcomes it wants? Because, put simply, the difference between a bad outcome and a not-so-bad outcome matters so much. "Boy, have we helped the Libyan people into a new, free and democratic life," Gelb writes sardonically of the bombing campaign which ended the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime. The country, as he observes, seems poised to dissolve into a series of militarized city-states. And yet the Libyan people themselves are almost unanimous in believing themselves better off without Qaddafi. They desperately want everything they have lost out on over the last four decades. What the United State -- and others -- can do to help Libya become a coherent, functional, and democratic state is modest, but it's not nothing either. Posner, who was also just in Libya, says that the Justice Department is helping to organize a criminal justice system there. If the government can prosecute a few of Qaddafi's henchmen, the militias now acting as private jailers might begin to turn over their prisoners. It's certainly worth a try.

Of course, the big question now is Syria. Just as it's possible that the NATO intervention in Libya will have helped create a country as violent and even unjust as the one that existed before, so to could Western intervention in Syria have undreamed-of consequences. That strikes me as one good reason -- I can think of others -- not to re-enact the NATO air war in Syria. But it's not a good reason for the United States to stand aside while President Bashar al-Assad slaughters his own citizens. The Obama administration cannot adopt a prudent neutrality between Assad and those he is killing.

Aaron David Miller writes that Barack Obama is rightly more concerned about his own political future than about the lives of Syrians. Is it naïve of me to hope, and believe, that that's not the case? I think Obama's hand has been stayed by the fact that there's just no good solution, and that Russia has blocked attempts at even modestly better options. The question now before the administration is whether it will accept that Russia can not be brought around, and instead work with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to strengthen both the political and military capacity of the Syrian rebels. Recent news accounts imply that it is moving in that direction. In general, Obama has done the right thing during the Arab Spring, if not always exactly at the right time or with quite enough conviction.

Can we say for sure that this is the most effective way to advance American national security interests? No. The future of the Arab world really is impossible to predict from what feels like the eye of the hurricane. But sometimes -- and perhaps especially when things look most grim -- it's not enough to be the detached well-wisher of freedom.

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Terms of Engagement

The Most Important War You Probably Know Nothing About

Gather round, children, and let me tell you about the War of 1812.

Can you feel the excitement in the air? June 18 is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, and I'm sure you're thinking: Why no parades down Main Street? Why no historical reenactors costumed as President James Madison, who signed the declaration of war, or Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the Hero of Lake Erie? Because Americans have a short historical memory, that's why. Or perhaps it's because we don't commemorate equivocal wars. But don't be fooled by the absence of huzzahs: The War of 1812 was one of the great liberating events of American history, and I'm here to tell you why.

One of the buried facts of our collective past is that the United States came very close to dissolving long before slavery sundered the union. America was in almost perpetual peril during the quarter century from the French Revolution to the Treaty of Ghent, which concluded the war with Britain in 1814. Throughout this period, the two great world powers of the time, France and England, sought to destroy each other; each tried to bribe, seduce, subvert, or intimidate the neutral states in order to tip the balance in their favor. In this great and cynical game, the United States, which at the time constituted what we would now call "an emerging nation," was one of the most valuable prizes.

American politics consisted of, in effect, an "English" party and a "French" party. This was scarcely unusual at the time: Both republican Holland and autocratic Russia, among others, tilted back and forth between partisans of the two. In America, however, the Founding Fathers recognized that this contest for supremacy posed a mortal threat to the nation. In his brief farewell address, George Washington ardently defended the policy of neutrality to which he had consistently hewed. The president warned his fellow citizens that "excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other."

Alexander Hamilton largely wrote Washington's farewell address; and Hamilton, an Anglophile, was using the president's immense prestige to warn of the susceptibility of Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party to France and the doctrines of the French Revolution. Federalists like Hamilton derisively referred to the Jeffersonians as "Jacobins" -- revolutionary camp-followers. France, for its part, sought to use the U.S. Republicans as an extra-territorial arm of the revolution. In 1792, France sent an ambassador to the United States with the express goal of enlisting Americans in its war with England. The minister, Edmond-Charles Genet, outfitted privateers in the pro-French South with the goal of preventing New England merchants from trading with England and encouraged the creation of "democratic-republican societies" to fight against alleged "aristocratic" tendencies in America -- until an outraged President Washington demanded that he desist.

France was the chief provocateur during this period. Like Russia after 1917, France saw itself as the standard-bearer of a global revolution; a levée en masse produced a standing army of 800,000 prepared to overwhelm the reactionary forces of Europe. A combination of diplomatic insults and attacks on American shipping drove President John Adams to the very edge of declaring war against France in 1798 (as I described here). Later, Napoleon channeled those revolutionary energies into the more traditional French goal of dominating neighbors and bringing England to its knees. Napoleon even dreamed of sending a force from Haiti up the Mississippi in order to seize the western territory of the United States. The plan came to grief when his army was decimated by yellow fever and Haitian guerillas. The emperor reacted to his failure with a magnificent gesture of disgust: He sold Louisiana to President Jefferson in 1803.

Although it was the greatest windfall in the nation's history, the Louisiana Purchase also came very close to dividing America in half. Federalists now feared -- rightly, as it turned out -- that the new citizens of the south and west would identify with the democratic Jeffersonians rather than with a party that looked back nostalgically to a pre-revolutionary European order. In late 1803 and early 1804, most of the leading Federalists plotted to secede from the union and seek an alliance with England. The conspiracy appears to have collapsed when Aaron Burr killed Hamilton in a duel (though Hamilton had not supported the secessionists).

France continued to intrigue against the United States, but even the most ardent American Jacobins lost faith in the revolutionary project once Napoleon placed the imperial crown on his own head. Washington's warning now applied far more to the partisans of England than of France. British ships patrolled the waters of the Atlantic hunting for U.S. merchant vessels carrying goods from the French West Indies and regularly boarded American ships searching for English sailors who had fled the abysmal pay and dreadful conditions of His Majesty's Navy. And while most Americans were outraged by these incursions on national sovereignty, leading Federalists sided with Britain and publicly excused their offenses. The party split between, in effect, a pro-British and pro-American faction, and the extremists, known as the Essex Junto, degenerated into precisely the kind of fifth column they had earlier accused the Republicans of being. At the Hartford Convention of 1810, the Junto once again sought to turn New England into a separate nation.

Both Jefferson and Madison went to great lengths to overlook British provocations, especially the impressment of American sailors into the British navy. Both understood, as Washington had also observed in his farewell address, that owing to America's "detached and distant situation," "the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance"-- so long as the country could steer clear of European broils. They recoiled in horror from the pointless bloodshed of the Napoleonic wars, and worried that the United States would become a Europe of its own, divided into eternally warring states. Both men hoped that diplomacy would make war unnecessary; indeed, the U.S. had cause enough to go to war in 1807, when English depredations against American shipping began in earnest, though it would have been even more woefully unprepared than it proved to be in 1812.

The war itself was basically a draw: American land forces were humiliated in Canada, but sailors like Commodore Perry achieved stunning victories over the greatest navy the world had ever seen. The Treaty of Ghent merely restored the status quo ante. But the war had put a decisive end to the Federalists, who had barely been able to celebrate American victories. Even more important, the world war between France and England had ended with the ruin of the former. England no longer needed to block American shipping or to shanghai U.S. sailors to fill out a wartime navy. For the next century, Europe would basically leave America alone.

For the previous decades, American politics had consisted essentially of foreign policy. Only with the war's end could rival political parties form around differing visions of the country's own future: a strong versus a weak central government; a manufacturing versus an agrarian economy; and, ultimately, a nation of freemen versus one of owners and slaves. America was now free to fulfill its territorial, economic, demographic, and -- for better and worse -- political destiny.

So now you know. You still have two years left to organize the parade for the bicentennial of the Treaty of Ghent.

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