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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.

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.