Embassy Attacks Should Confound Foreign Policy Idealists

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Is hindsight really 20/20?  Only if you can identify your original mistake.  Based on the United States’ response to yesterday’s anti-American violence in the Middle East, it would seem that our foreign policy experts have forgotten that all-important qualification.

The Arab Spring—it needs a new name—is about to enter its third year.  The only difference between then and now is that the mob has turned its guns towards America.  In Egypt, Islamic extremists stormed the U.S. embassy, ripped the stars-and-stripes from the flagpole, and replaced it with the black flag of Jihad.  In Libya, the U.S. Ambassador was brutally murdered outside the consulate and his body dragged through the streets by the jubilant mob.  Protests, demonstrations, and sporadic violence were the order of the day throughout the region.

The first word that comes to mind is “ungrateful.” All of this, after the billions of aid we’ve given to Egypt?  Didn’t we help topple Libya’s long-time dictator, Muammar Gaddafi?  And wasn’t the United States the Arab world’s biggest fan in its fight for democracy and freedom?  Surely we earned ourselves some good will.

So it would seem.  But yesterday was not an isolated incident.

The Arab Spring revolutions that toppled the regimes of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, as well as the ongoing revolution in Syria and the mass protests that persist from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, share one common factor with yesterday’s violence: they were all motivated, co-opted, or otherwise driven by extremists.

The current administration is unwilling to trace the thread of terrorism through these events.  Our foreign policy experts are crippled—intellectually and practically—by their blind adherence to a fiction: “freedom” and “democracy” will make the world instantly safe and prosperous.

This is nothing new.  It is an idealism given rhetorical force by President Bush (remember the Bush Doctrine’s emphasis on democratization?) and made real by the invasion of Iraq.  Barack Obama will never be mistaken for George W. Bush, but he has by no means repudiated his predecessor’s international utopianism.

Recall the refrain of the Arab Spring—or at least the western world’s understanding of the Arab Spring.  The popular movements, the revolutions, and the civil wars were all inspired, we were told, by their participants’ yearning for freedom.  Give a people Twitter, we heard, and democracy will soon follow.  And once democracy takes root and the ballot box replaces the bullet, repression and violence will quickly fade.

What happened to this Promised Land?  Yesterday’s violence in Libya and Egypt occurred in two nominally democratic regimes—regimes which the United States helped establish, either through financial aid, military force, or both.  This was the very thing democracy was supposed to eradicate.

This is a problem of our own making.  We wrongly believe that “freedom” and “democracy” are quick-fix solutions to any and all geopolitical problems, although this assumption ignores the history of democratic government.  Our constitutional system, the envy of the world, was long in the making.  Its roots lie in philosophy and faith; it is the result of reflection and sacrifice.  Perhaps most importantly, it requires a reasoned defense in order to survive.  True democracy can be neither taught nor transplanted with ease.

None expressed this idea better than the American Founders.  On the one hand, they argued, freedom is “written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature.”  On the other hand, such freedom is only sustained by a virtuous populace educated in the meaning of self-government.  A “City on a Hill” America may be, but the hill was not built by human hands, nor its city constructed overnight.

In the Middle East, the soil is not yet prepared for the delicate flower of democracy.  This does not mean that it can never succeed in that region (all men are created equal in terms of natural rights and reason, after all), but only that it is more likely to be perverted than protected right now.

Just look at recent history for proof.  The Muslim Brotherhood—no friend of democratic freedom—now rules Egypt after winning an election.  The same goes for Hamas in Palestine.  In Libya, the United States fought alongside al Qaeda in the struggle against Gaddafi.  Now we find ourselves in the same curious alliance in the Syrian civil War.  Wherever we turn, the menace of radicalized faction—or worse, terrorism—threatens the existence of every democracy in the Middle East.

Freedom is every human being’s birthright.  Totalitarianism is deplorable wherever it exists.  But a single free election does not make people free.  On the contrary, it may lead straight back down the road to despotism.

Stephen Ford is the Research Manager at the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship.

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