Paul Pillar

Popular Sovereignty Without a Made-in-U.S.A. Label

The cheering in Egypt over a president's departure certainly has resonated a long way—all the way to the United States, where it has taken the form of huzzahs from a wide range of commentators. Even many of those doing the cheering would admit that in some respects the cheers are premature; the enthusiasm of the moment has tended to get the best of sober reflection about what comes next (a topic for tomorrow). Nonetheless, notwithstanding some dissenting opinions (including those with U.S. interests at heart and not just those who have someone else's interests in mind), the dominant view appears to be—and I share it—that there are good reasons to applaud the dramatic events last week, which constituted one of the best developments in the Middle East in recent years. What was good was not just that an increasingly autocratic and repressive ruler (who, as such, had increasingly become a hazard and a liability to his U.S. ally) was ousted, but also that the ouster was accomplished with far less bloodshed than could easily have been the case. And especially important to the United States was what little role anti-Americanism appeared to play in the events, which is remarkable for just about anything significant that occurs in the Middle East. Insofar as U.S. policy helped to bring about this favorable outcome, the Obama administration evidently was doing something right.

Marc Lynch characterizes the outcome correctly as “a vindication of the Obama administration's patient and well-crafted strategy.” The key element of the administration's approach was that it did not try to take credit for what was happening, realizing that, as Lynch puts it, “it should not attempt to lead a protest movement which had mobilized itself without American guidance.” Tom Friedman, soaking in the scene at Tahrir Square, commented on the same dimension of what happened: “The people in that square now know one very powerful thing: They did this all by themselves.” Meanwhile, President Obama showed he had his priorities straight when he told his advisers that the upheaval in Egypt “was a chance to create an alternative to 'the Al Qaeda narrative' of Western interference.”

Not having the United States leading the democratic charge—despite the criticism the administration endured for supposedly being indecisive or behind the curve—is important because a made-in-U.S.A. label is one of the biggest impediments that any political project in the Middle East can have. Besides contradicting the very concept of popular sovereignty, it reminds people in the region of their humiliation in falling behind the west and under western domination, and of their offense at having their homelands subjected to an intrusion of U.S.-led western culture. These are all elements of the extremist narrative that helps to sustain those, including Al Qaeda, who would do the United States harm.

This gets to the chief difference between Mr. Obama's strategy and the neoconservative approach that shaped the previous administration's policies toward the Middle East, despite the neocons' ardent efforts to lay claim to some kind of ownership of the more recent events. Egypt alone provides a striking example. The Bush administration got pretty pushy, at least on the surface, about political rights and civil rights in Egypt but then backed off early in Mr. Bush's second term. It backed off partly because of some of the same countervailing interests that the Obama administration has also had to juggle, but also because the flaunting of American values was ineffective. In the end the Bush administration achieved virtually nothing on this front. Last week, without the made-in-U.S.A. label getting in the way, Mubarak's attempt to play the resisting-foreign-interference card failed.

Then, of course, there was the most extensive U.S.-led democratization-cum-interference effort of all in the Middle East: the Iraq War, which discouraged rather than encouraged democratic change elsewhere in the region. The ineffective Iraqi governmental performance that underlies much of that discouragement persists.  And in Iraq, a further irony during the past couple of weeks is that the regime in Baghdad that is the current legatee of the U.S. experiment in forceful regime change is a target, rather than a champion, of the wave of popular sentiment that has swept out of the Maghreb.

The previous administration provided ample evidence of how counterproductive is an exceptionalist, value-waving strategy toward political change. Now we have an example of a better way to approach the subject, and evidence that past ineffectiveness had as much to do with flaws in the strategy as anything within the Middle East itself.