The popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen reveal some uncomfortable truths about this country's foreign policy. The Obama administration - caught between not wanting to abandon Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, a cruel dictator who has been a loyal ally, and wanting to guide or support a popular uprising that will define the future - is caught in a replay of a scene we see over and over again.
America unfurls the flag of democracy and human rights rhetorically, but we ally ourselves with "stability" - that is, all too often, with dictatorship: Cuba's Batista, Nicaragua's Somoza, Chile's Pinochet, South Africa's apartheid regime, Egypt's Mubarak, Iran's shah, Indonesia's Suharto, the Philippines' Marcos and many more. When the people finally revolt, we flounder, usually concerned more about shoring up the existing regime than supporting democracy.
Our foreign policy is dominated by our military and intelligence agencies - the national security state. As a result, our ties with dictators tend to involve deep complicity with the most unsavory parts of these regimes - the military and the intelligence services that trample (and often repress) dissent. We are not neutral or distant supporters of political freedom. We are viewed - most often correctly - as central supporters for the systems of repression that prop up dictators. We train their police, arm their militaries, base our troops in their countries. Not surprisingly, anti-Americanism is widespread - though not in Egypt's uprising - in the democratic opposition to the dictators that we support. Indeed, Americans, and American society, are widely admired, while our government is just as widely despised.
This distortion of our policy leaves us clueless when democratic movements arise. We scramble to identify leaders, facing understandable suspicion of our motives. Despite our constant celebration of civil society, we systematically underinvest in the civilian sides of international politics. In Egypt, the United States lacked meaningful contacts with many of the groups on the street. Our calls now for an orderly transition are widely viewed as an effort to buy time in the hope that the revolt will die out.
That is why efforts to defend independent political organizing, to support independent trade unions and to defend human rights activists cannot be decorations, discarded when it is time to get down to business. They must be seen as central to our dealings with any dictatorship, even strategic allies. The saving graces of American influence - to the extent there are any - are the nongovernmental human rights advocates, the champions of free speech and press, and the supporters of independent trade union organizing, which help defend space for political expression and put some check, however limited, on the severity of repression. The whole world is watching now, but for years, while the U.S. government succored the Mubarak regime, human rights advocates and union organizers were virtually the only ones calling the government to account.
If a new, democratic order emerges in Egypt, a vital contribution the United States can make is to help marshal international support for economic recovery. A democratic Egypt will need international financial support to stave off a food crisis, resources to counter the flight of private capital, and investments in areas vital to the future that can provide jobs, particularly for young people. Yet it is in this arena that the United States' militarized policy has its greatest cost - in starving funds for economic reconstruction. This failure, however, is likely to get worse, because the civilian side of U.S. diplomacy - foreign aid, human rights and the State Department - is a target of the deepest budget cuts by the Republican right.
The uprisings in the Middle East expose, once more, the utter folly of the neoconservative doctrine championed by George W. Bush, which posited that democracy could be imposed at the tip of a bayonet (or more accurately, at the dropping of a bomb). Bush's catastrophic Iraq war - with estimated end costs of $3 trillion - unleashed sectarian struggles that debilitate the Iraqi government and society to this day. President Obama's escalation of the Afghan war leaves us propping up a regime so corrupt and incompetent that it has revived the Taliban. To be sure, popular uprisings offer no guarantees. They can end badly, as we learned in Iran. But pretending to impose democracy by military force, as well as by direct support of dictatorships, is simply a fraud.
We desperately need new national security thinking - and a new global strategy for the Unites States. The country would do better were it far less engaged in strengthening militaries and far more involved in supporting democratic governance, civil society and economic development. We would do well to remember President Washington's warnings about entangling alliances and to have greater appreciation of the strength of our values rather than the value of our strength.
We'd be smart to understand that unless our foreign policy works in tandem with reforms at home - building economic opportunity and human security - we look hypocritical in speaking out about democracy abroad. America is exceptional, we're told, not because we are rich but because our country was founded on an idea. But we have become a status quo nation, invested in stability, above all, while the idea that people have the right to govern themselves is insurrectionary. The uprising sweeping the Middle East suggests that we better think hard about that contradiction.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation. She writes a weekly online column for The Post.