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A Realistic Idealism

Author: Madeleine K. Albright, Chair, Albright Stonebridge Group LLC
May 8, 2006
The Washington Post

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Recent events in Iraq and the Middle East have revived the hoariest of academic debates—between the so-called realists in foreign policy and the idealists. Realists, who come in both Democratic and Republican varieties, argue that the Bush administration has been naive to promote democracy in Arab countries, as evidenced by ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq, recent gains by Islamist parliamentary candidates in Egypt and Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections. They suggest that, in the storm-tossed atmosphere of the Arab Middle East, democracy will do less to extinguish terror, as President Bush predicts, than to ignite it.

It is customary for politicians and commentators to distance themselves from those responsible for foreign policy setbacks. Because Bush is increasingly viewed as overly ideological and out of touch, the herd will increasingly want to appear hardheaded and realistic. My fear is that, in the process, a new conventional wisdom will emerge that promoting democracy in the Middle East is a mistake. It is not.

We should remember that the alternative to support for democracy is complicity in backing governments that lack the blessing of their own people. That approach confuses the appearance of stability with the reality, betrays Arab democrats and smells of hypocrisy. America cannot refurbish its tarnished reputation as a global leader by abandoning what sets it apart from the likes of China or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

At the same time, we should keep a rein on our expectations. Bush has said that America “has a calling from beyond the stars” to proclaim liberty throughout the world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argues that the democratic transformation of the Middle East is the only way to guarantee that men do not fly airplanes into buildings. Such rhetoric is overblown. Just because the denial of political freedom is bad, that doesn’t mean that the exercise of freedom will always be to our liking. Democracy is a form of government; it is not a ticket to some heavenly kingdom where all evil is vanquished and everyone agrees with us.

If Arab democracy develops, it will do so to advance Arab aspirations based on Arab perceptions of history and justice. The right to vote and hold office is unlikely to soften Arab attitudes toward Israel or to end the potential for terror, just as it has been unable to prevent terrorist cells from organizing in the West. Democracy should, however, create a broader and more open political debate within Arab countries, exposing myths to scrutiny and extreme ideas to rebuttal. Though some may fear such an opening, Americans should welcome it. For if we fail to value free expression, we forget our own history.

The “realists” are right to bemoan the invasion of Iraq, but that misguided operation cannot be used to indict the promotion of democracy. The purpose of the invasion was to seize weapons that did not exist and to sever a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda that had not been made. The failures were of leadership and intelligence, not a too-fervent commitment to democracy.

In Egypt, although the Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned, candidates associated with it nevertheless achieved startling success in last year’s parliamentary elections. The government’s response has been to crack down further on political opposition—both religious and secular—a move sure to engender even greater anger. President Hosni Mubarak seems intent on bequeathing power to his son, but the more the regime is seen to rig the odds, the less that inheritance is likely to be worth. If America values its standing with the Egyptian people—and it should—its support for democratic reform ought to be unwavering.

As for the Palestinians, let us be fair—elections did not create Hamas. Voters turned to that terrorist group only because prior Palestinian governments didn’t deliver. Now, precisely because of the elections, Hamas will be tested as it has never been before, and it will be required to do what it has never done. This will create pressure on the organization to refrain from violence and to moderate its policies toward Israel. Democracy did not create Hamas, but it may cause Hamas to change—or to fail. Either outcome would be an improvement on the status quo.

The debate between idealism and realism in foreign affairs moves back and forth like a pendulum because neither extreme is sustainable. A successful foreign policy must begin with the world as it is but also work for what we would like it to be. On a globe this complicated, even the purest of principles must sometimes be diluted. Still, we get up in the morning because of hope, which cold-blooded cynicism can neither inspire nor satisfy. If all America stands for is stability, no one will follow us for the simple reason that we aren’t going anywhere.

The time has come to start looking beyond the Bush administration to its successor. Our new leaders, of whichever party, will face daunting challenges, including that of redefining what America stands for in the world. Their “to do” list is sure to include winning the battle of ideas—as we should have long ago—against the likes of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, halting nuclear proliferation, devising a sensible energy policy, and restoring America’s reputation as a supporter (and observer) of international law and human rights. At the top of that list, however, must be a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to liberty and respect for the dignity of every human being. Without such a commitment, all else will be in vain.

The writer, secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, is principal of the Albright Group LLC and chairman of the National Democratic Institute. She is the author of The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs.

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