A number of articles over the past few months have reported that inside the Obama administration, camps of alleged “idealists” and alleged “pragmatists” have been dueling over how to respond to the revolutionary upheaval in the Arab world. According to these accounts, the “pragmatists” worry about American interests and have therefore been cautious about moving away from the long-standing dictatorships in the region. Thus the New York Times explained that, in Egypt, “diplomats at the State Department” favored standing by then-President Hosni Mubarak because they viewed “the Egyptian crisis through the lens of American strategic interests in the region.”
The assumption is that the “idealists” don’t care as much about American interests. They just want the United States to live up to its principles and get on the right side of history — no matter what the strategic costs.
This, of course, is nonsense. For one thing, nations, like individuals, rarely act purely on principle or purely out of self-interest. Nor can national interests be so neatly defined. Access to oil is an interest, but so is the promotion of certain principles, including democracy. The pragmatic Dean Acheson, then secretary of state, never doubted that promoting democracy in Europe after World War II was profoundly in America’s interest.
In his fine book, “Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations,” the late Robert Osgood made a powerful case for the realist approach to international affairs. But he emphasized that idealism had always been “an indispensable spur to reason” in the making of foreign policy. As an example, he noted that those who had argued for a strict focus only on America’s self-interest prior to World War II and had recommended staying out of the war proved “the most blind to the real requirements of American self-interest.” The “idealists,” on the other hand, who were most alarmed by the threat of fascism to Western liberal society, immediately saw the necessity of coming to the defense of the democracies in Europe, on whose survival American security depended.
The question today is: What constitutes pragmatism in today’s Middle East? Was sticking with Mubarak a pragmatic, realistic option? By the time the Obama administration got around to supporting Mubarak’s departure — after two years of “pragmatically” supporting him — he was already finished. His refusal to make even modest political reforms doomed him, and in the end it was the Egyptian people, not the United States, who pushed him out. Did the “pragmatists” want us to try to help Mubarak stay in power even as great numbers of his people took to the streets, and even as his own military refused to carry out his orders? Would that have served American strategic interests?
We tried that approach before. In the late 1970s, the Carter administration stood by the shah of Iran until the bitter end. That policy did not prevent, and may have aided, the course of radical revolution in Iran and the triumph of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini— a strategic setback for the United States that dwarfs anything that has happened since in the Middle East.
The “idealists” who argued for Mubarak’s departure in February were just as concerned about America’s strategic interests as those who opposed it. Their pragmatic judgment was that clinging to a failing dictatorship as it struggled brutally to remain in power could only radicalize otherwise moderate Egyptians. They calculated that it was better to prepare for the inevitable next phase of Egypt’s political evolution than to try futilely to stop it.
This applies throughout the region. It is not pragmatic to cling to the status quo in a revolutionary era. The “pragmatists” worry about the risks of easing dictators from power and fear what may come after. They are right to worry. But we should not underestimate the risks of placing American power behind the dictatorships in their struggle with an aroused people. Recent polls show many Egyptians do not like the United States, but given our complicity in their long repression, it is not surprising. Nor should we be shocked to learn that the people of a new Egypt tend to oppose any policy they associate with the Mubarak dictatorship, including peace with Israel.
We are also paying another price. The Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest political force in Egypt today because Mubarak crushed the moderate, secular opposition. And we let him.
So as we look today at the other revolutionary crises — in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as in Syria and Saudi Arabia — let us not fall into the trap of thinking that the apparently “pragmatic” course is really the safest. It is time again to let our reason be guided by our ideals.
Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Post.