BY JAMES TRAUB
This has been a week, or two, to try men's souls. Egypt's military rulers, tiring of the flimsy trappings of democracy, dissolved the parliament, reinstated martial law, and promulgated a constitutional declaration arrogating virtually all legislative power to themselves. That was the banner headline, but Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, not wishing to be outdone, instructed the "executive agencies" to take "the necessary legal measures" to deal with those who criticize the military, whose chief business over the last year had been beating and jailing protestors. And let's not forget the Libyan militia leaders who kidnapped and imprisoned officials from the International Criminal Court.
At such moments we must remind ourselves that the path to democracy is long and winding, the arc of history bends towards justice, and so forth. Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, worked in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, and he reminded me a few days ago that democratizing states which regress do, in the end, "fall back on the institutions they've had in the past." That's an encouraging thought for Chile or Hungary but not, as Posner acknowledges, for Libya, or for that matter any other Arab state. They have no such institutions to fall back on. Nor did Russia, or Ukraine, for example, which reverted to strongman rule after an unhappy spell with liberal reform. The arc of history bends in all sorts of directions.
Well, what then? How should the disheartening state of affairs in Egypt and elsewhere, and the recognition that things might not turn out well in the end, shape the behavior of the United States and other outside actors? There's a good case to be made that Washington should stand aside, let events play themselves out, and help whoever comes out on top pick up the pieces of the inevitable wreckage -- a case cogently, if brutally, made in a recent column by Les Gelb. Foreign Policy's own Aaron David Miller made a similar argument for a policy of benign neglect on Syria. There's an honorable precedent to the realist case for restraint: As then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams famously declared in a July 4, 1821, oration: The United States "is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."
There's a lot to be said for a prudent impartiality in the face of turmoil and profound uncertainty. But haven't we also learned about the costs of such prudence? Condoleezza Rice was quite right when she said in Cairo in 2005, "For 60 years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East -- and we got neither." The United States not only got neither, it also got a well-deserved reputation for supporting friendly autocrats, a reputation which made the country feared and disliked across the region. That didn't matter much while the autocrats ran the show, but that era has come to an end. Even in Egypt, public opinion now matters; and it behooves Washington, even if only for reasons of self-interest, to align itself with people's aspirations.
The Obama administration has, if anything, erred on the side of this imprudent prudence. The administration was slow to criticize President Hosni Mubarak as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest his rule in January 2011, and even slower to criticize the regime in Bahrain as it met peaceful protestors with tear gas, live ammunition, prison, and torture. Prudence is Barack Obama's watchword. There are far worse guides to action, particularly the magical faith in American power which propelled President George W. Bush after 9/11; but silence, too, can have unexpected costs. A national-security official was recently quoted in the New Yorker confessing, of Obama's decision to soft-pedal criticism of the fraudulent 2009 elections in Iran, "It turned out that what we intended as caution, the Iranians saw as weakness."
Obama believed, with very good reason, that nothing he said would advance the cause of reform on Iran, and he was not about to belabor Tehran just to burnish his own democratic credentials. Right now, the Arab world feels equally impervious to American influence.
The administration has issued appropriate criticism of the rolling coup now occurring in Egypt, but nothing Washington says or does, almost certainly including threats to cut military aid, is likely to deflect the military from its apparent goal of keeping the Muslim Brotherhood from taking power, and of hanging on to its own preeminent role. Similarly, Washington has remonstrated Bahrain, including through public remarks by Michael Posner during a visit to Manama last week, but the king, a Sunni, seems determined not to yield an inch to demands for more equal treatment by the majority Shiite population. In Bahrain, too, the United States has substantial leverage in the form of the Fifth Fleet, which is quartered there, but the king and his hard-line advisors are convinced that the protests threaten their very survival, and are unlikely to be moved by American suasion or threats.
So why bother then? Why remonstrate, much less threaten, if Washington can't do much to produce the outcomes it wants? Because, put simply, the difference between a bad outcome and a not-so-bad outcome matters so much. "Boy, have we helped the Libyan people into a new, free and democratic life," Gelb writes sardonically of the bombing campaign which ended the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime. The country, as he observes, seems poised to dissolve into a series of militarized city-states. And yet the Libyan people themselves are almost unanimous in believing themselves better off without Qaddafi. They desperately want everything they have lost out on over the last four decades. What the United State -- and others -- can do to help Libya become a coherent, functional, and democratic state is modest, but it's not nothing either. Posner, who was also just in Libya, says that the Justice Department is helping to organize a criminal justice system there. If the government can prosecute a few of Qaddafi's henchmen, the militias now acting as private jailers might begin to turn over their prisoners. It's certainly worth a try.
Of course, the big question now is Syria. Just as it's possible that the NATO intervention in Libya will have helped create a country as violent and even unjust as the one that existed before, so to could Western intervention in Syria have undreamed-of consequences. That strikes me as one good reason -- I can think of others -- not to re-enact the NATO air war in Syria. But it's not a good reason for the United States to stand aside while President Bashar al-Assad slaughters his own citizens. The Obama administration cannot adopt a prudent neutrality between Assad and those he is killing.
Aaron David Miller writes that Barack Obama is rightly more concerned about his own political future than about the lives of Syrians. Is it naïve of me to hope, and believe, that that's not the case? I think Obama's hand has been stayed by the fact that there's just no good solution, and that Russia has blocked attempts at even modestly better options. The question now before the administration is whether it will accept that Russia can not be brought around, and instead work with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to strengthen both the political and military capacity of the Syrian rebels. Recent news accounts imply that it is moving in that direction. In general, Obama has done the right thing during the Arab Spring, if not always exactly at the right time or with quite enough conviction.
Can we say for sure that this is the most effective way to advance American national security interests? No. The future of the Arab world really is impossible to predict from what feels like the eye of the hurricane. But sometimes -- and perhaps especially when things look most grim -- it's not enough to be the detached well-wisher of freedom.
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy in its July/August issue
-James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation