The revolts in Tunsia and especially Egypt make a mockery of the American wars for freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan. I acknowledge the great sacrifice made by those who have served, fought, and died in these wars from many countries. Yet as Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times on January 31, “It’s quite possible that if Murbarak had not ruled Egypt as a dictator for the last 30 years, the World Trade Center would still be standing.” 9/11 happened not because of some grand showdown between those who “hate our freedoms” and those who defend those freedoms, as George W. Bush argued. Hate undoubtedly permeates many societies that harbor terrorists, but such hate is for the regimes that have treated millions of proud people like serfs–regimes that have been aided in no small part by the United States. As Anne Applebaum wrote in Slate, “The ‘stability’ we have so long embraced in the Arab world wasn’t really stability. It was repression…In Cairo, police were firing ‘Made in the USA’ tear gas at protesters.”
Humbled by History
The history of such support cannot be erased or forgotten, but as Douthat suggests at the end of his brief essay, the revolts in Tunsia and Egypt have happened despite the notorious involvement of the United States. History has humbled the U.S. once again by happening without it.
Since the end of the cold war, American leaders have searched for an adequate theory to make sense of the nation’s role in the world. They did this, though, in light of a basic misinterpretation that American policy actually led to the end of the cold war in the first place. The United States did have a stated cold war policy–containment–and took action based on that policy–from the Marshall Plan to Vietnam to summits with Gorbachev–but the collective experience of the cold war did not add up to a grand theory of history.
So, history did not end, of course, and yet, it proved well-nigh impossible for American leaders not to glean particular lessons from the end of the cold war. Among the most attractive was the notion that the United States had an obligation to foster peace, prosperity, and stability around the world. The death toll from two catastrophic world wars and multiple communist experiments had receded into a darker past, and a global meliorism (as Norman Graebner put it in 2000) meekly made an appearance. A belief took hold among many American elites that the world was not hopelessly trapped in destructive cycles and, might, with help, become better. Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and Rawanda considerably complicated that vision. But it was 9/11 that gravely distorted it. Now, if the world was to get better, it would do so, as David Rieff put it, “at the point of a gun.” Humanitarian hopes turned to high altitude bombing which led to two ground wars, two occupations, two troop surges, untold clone attacks, and uncertainty.
Yet, as should be plain now, American military actions since 1989 (or, for that matter, 1945) have no relation to recent events in Tunsia and Egypt. In other words, these revolts–these dramatic regime changes–have happened despite or even in spite of America’s wars to “spread democracy.” But more than that, these revolts have forced the United States to ask questions of fundamental importance to an era beyond the war on terror. The time has certainly come for the United States to move beyond the practice of reducing history to a slogan. If attempts to master history through military might has failed, what does this experience tell us? How should the U.S. be part of history without presuming to write it?
In his speech at Cairo University in 2009, President Obama attempted to square the idealism of American aspirations for the promotion of democracy with the sorted history of the nation’s support for repressive regimes. He declared that American idealism was not a manifestation of American exceptionalism but of universal, human rights.
“No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
Obama hoped this speech would help redefine the United States, slowly and deliberately, as a nation committed to something other than war and the occupation of Muslim countries. Events at the beginning of 2011 give Obama a chance to act on his gestures. The U.S. is no longer, and perhaps will never again be, a nation that can follow George Washington’s warnings, John Quincy Adams’s admonitions or even Dwight Eisenhower’s caution against foreign entanglements. Nor can it afford, though, to act with the hubris of McKinley, Kennedy, and Bush. Do the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make sense any longer? Does American military policy? For a nation that has often seemed supremely confident of its role in world affairs, a crisis of faith in its ability to read history might just be the opportunity Obama needs.