Indeed, protests such as those in Benghazi, Cairo and Sana actually do more than anything else to justify the most virulent critiques of Islam. Yet much more is at stake. For instance, the U.S. government spent four decades underwriting autocracy in Egypt in the name of stability. Americans held abstract discussions of policy in Washington while Egyptians suffered in Cairo under a dictator embraced by Washington. That record, along with the Obama administration’s very public reluctance to abandon Hosni Mubarak, tainted America in the eyes of even liberal-minded Egyptians. Today Washington can ill afford to array itself against democracy. The only thing worse than working with a president from the Muslim Brotherhood would be backing another military junta.
Anyway, the United States does not control events in Cairo or elsewhere in the region. Rather, Washington’s insistence on trying to micromanage the region has created its most serious problems today.
For example, fomenting a coup in Tehran in 1953 led to long-lasting Islamic rule, which today poses the most serious challenge to U.S. Mideast policy. Backing Saddam Hussein against Islamist Iran encouraged him to later invade Kuwait, pulling America into war. Later, Washington stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, which sparked the Khobar Towers attack and spurred Osama bin Laden’s efforts. Finally, Washington invaded Iraq to “drain the swamp” it had helped fill. That conflict sowed the wind throughout the region; now the whirlwind is being reaped.
U.S. policy makers should step back and shut up. Avidly blowing up countries with no idea what will follow—whether Iraq, Libya or Syria—is foolish. Moreover, “leadership” would best be exercised without publicly lecturing disdainful governments and peoples about Washington’s opinion on anything and everything. Better to talk privately on fewer issues.
Americans deserve a real debate on foreign policy. The latest tragedy in the Middle East highlights the virtues of humility and prudence. The U.S. government should never apologize for the liberties that undergird American society, though officials should sharply distinguish private opinion from public action. However, Washington should apologize for the genuine horrors that have resulted, even inadvertently, from its past policies and actions. And the next president should abandon Washington’s attempt to constantly reshape the world, a policy that has so dramatically failed at such high cost.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.