Henry A. Kissinger was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.
The Arab Spring is often celebrated by reciting the roll call of overthrown autocrats. But revolutions, in the end, will be judged primarily by what they build, not what they destroy. And in this respect, a year of revolution has refashioned exhilaration into paradox.
The United States applauded the demonstrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Blaming itself for too protracted an association with an undemocratic leader, it urged Hosni Mubarak to step down. But once he did so, the original exultant demonstrators have not turned out to be the heirs. Instead, Islamists with no record of democracy and a history of hostility to the West have been elected to a presidencythey had pledged not to seek. They are opposed by the military, which had buttressed the previous regime. The secular democratic element has been marginalized. Where do we go from here?
Contrary to recent conventional wisdom, at no point was the internal structure of Egypt the United States’s to determine. For millennia, monarchs and military autocrats have held sway. In the 1970s, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat abandoned the Soviet alliance forged by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military regime 20 years earlier. Sadat made peace with Israel, with the United States acting as mediator. These events helped to transform the Cold War. They reflected a hard-headed assessment by all parties of the relation of forces that emerged from the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamist extremists, whose continued terrorism was used by his successor, Mubarak, as justification for prolonged emergency powers.
Throughout, Egypt and its government were facts of international life; American administrations of both parties, faced with the Cold War and looming turmoil in the region, judged it crucial to work with a major Arab country willing to take risks for regional peace. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton affirmed in her recent Cairo press conference, “We worked with the government of the country at the time.”
At what point, faced first with Soviet adventurism and then the consequences of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, did the United States have an option to intervene directly in the region’s domestic politics? From Nixon through Clinton, American presidents judged the risks of such a course to outweigh its benefits. The George W. Bush administration did urge Mubarak to permit multiparty elections and criticized his suppression of dissent, and President Obama affirmed a similar direction early in his administration. U.S. foreign policy is neither the cause of, nor the solution to, all shortcomings in other countries’ domestic governance — especially in the Middle East.
With a constitution yet to be drafted, the function of key institutions in contention between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, and an electorate closely divided between dramatically different visions of their country’s future, Egypt’s revolution is far from its end. U.S. policy is torn between competing imperatives. The Muslim Brotherhood has emerged by electoral processes called for by democratic values, while the military stands for outcomes that are closer to the the U.S. concept of international security (and possibly of domestic pluralism). If the United States erred in the Cold War period by excessive emphasis on the security element, it now runs the risk of confusing sectarian populism with democracy.