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Opinion: How the US came to embrace realpolitik

The United States has a long history of practical compromises in the Middle East.

Egyptian protester
An Egyptian woman holds a poster reading "Liberty" as protesters demonstrate in Paris to call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down from power immediately. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — American foreign policy has a built-in contradiction between its idealism and the compromises of international diplomacy.

America likes to stand for freedom, democracy and human rights — the “city upon a hill,” watched by the world, as John Winthrop said in 1630 to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But, as Winthrop’s source, Jesus of Nazareth, had put it: “You are the light of the of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” The cynicism and realpolitik of old Europe was not going to be the American way.

But as America grew into wealth and power, political stability and the promotion of American interests abroad began to trump idealism. Woodrow Wilson’s ideas of self- determination, following World War I, gave hope to oppressed people everywhere. A lot of borders got shifted around in Europe to include one group of people or another, but Wilson’s ideals did not become universal.

Franklin Roosevelt deplored European colonialism, and was reluctant to see it restored once World War II was over. But he wasn’t adverse to strongmen who preserved American interests. In the 1930s, he is alleged to have said of Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch.”

Nowhere is America's foreign policy dichotomy more evident than in the Middle East.

There was a time, after our Civil War, when the Kadeve of Egypt hired former Confederate and Union soldiers as officers in his army. The reason was that he preferred to have Americans, who had no colonial aspirations for his country, than Europeans.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower told the British, French and Israelis to stop their armed attempt to take back the Suez Canal from Egyptian control in 1956, the Arab world cheered.

But once the British power began to falter and pull back, America was quick to fill the vacuum. “Realpolitik,” the trumping of national interests over ideology, that had began in Latin America, soon spread eastward.

Franklin Roosevelt had already established a firm relationship with Saudi Arabia, when the extent of its oil reserves became apparent. He declared that the kingdom was of vital interest to the United States in 1943, and met with the Saudi Arabian king in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake aboard a warship in 1945, when Riyadh was still a village of mud huts and frequent beheadings. From that moment on, America became the protector of the Saudi regime, never mind that the Saudi view of human rights and democracy was not aligned with our own.

In 1953, the U.S. thought it would be better for American interests if Mohammed Mosaddeq, who had clearly been the choice of the Iranian people, were overthrown. And so he was by the CIA and British intelligence.

Later, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger plied the shah with military hardware and support, hoping to use Iran as a surrogate for policing the oil-rich Persian Gulf, but all that unraveled when the shah was overthrown in a 1979 popular uprising — not unlike what is happening in Egypt today. Iran’s popular uprising soon morphed into a hardline Islamic and extremely anti-American regime that haunts U.S. policy to this day.

Egypt, during much of the Cold War, sided with the Soviets as the U.S. became the defender of Israel. That changed when Egypt switched sides and made peace with Israel. That put Egypt, and the stability of its regime, at the heart of American foreign policy. When the communist threat gave way to the Islamist threat, the stability of Egypt trumped all other considerations. After the murder of Anwar Sadat in 1981, Hosni Mubarak became America’s man.