Opinion: How the US came to embrace realpolitik

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.

George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, made a famous speech in Cairo in 2005 saying that her country had pursued stability at the expense of democracy, and had achieved neither. But the policy change her speech seemed to indicate never materialized.

That basic contradiction has hit U.S. President Barack Obama full in the face. Egypt is not only the largest Arab country, it is a cultural giant. The holy feast of Ramadan is declared when the new moon is first seen over Cairo. It is the most important card that America has to lose. But there are other cards, especially Yemen, where we are helping a repressive regime fight a clandestine war against Islamists, including Al Qaeda, and Jordan, where father and son kings have thrown their lot in with the United States.

The example of Iran casts a very long shadow over today’s crisis, but its lessons can be read two ways. Thwarting democracy in Iran backfired. The stability America sought was undermined by the popular resentment the shah’s repression caused. But the fall of the shah caused an even worse dictatorship, and the ruin of American interests.

Could Mubarak be right when he pleads with the United States to realize that without him there will be no smooth transition to democracy, and to give in to the mob in the street would be to court the worst? Nobody really knows. But you can be sure that other Arab leaders are looking closely at how we handle our old client. They want to know whether hitching your star to the United States is a good bet or not.

American diplomats are scrambling to improvise, to assure support for leaders while at the same time trying to be on the right side of history by not hanging on to tyrants too long.

The hard truth is that, although America has leverage in the Arab world, that leverage is neither all powerful nor what it used to be. The U.S. can nudge, try to persuade, give or withhold aid, but in the end this crisis is not about the United States or its interests. This is about how Arabs are ruled, not their foreign policies or international alliances.

In the short term it is likely that the armies of the Middle East will make the decisions about whose sonofabitch is whose, and what will happen in the long term remains unknown.