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posted: 9/3/2014 1:01 AM

Look at democracy in Mideast with vigilant cynicism

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America rarely does time capsules anymore, but the ones it does should include videos from February 2011 of American TV reporters exulting in the triumph of the Arab Spring. "This is the sound of a people rising," ABC's Terry Moran told us from Cairo. For Egyptians, it was a day "when a people rose and made themselves a new country, a new world, a new life."

That new life today looks depressingly like the old one. The military government of Hosni Mubarak has been replaced by the military government of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. In between came the interregnum of the popularly elected Mohammed Morsi, unfortunately a leader of the repellent Muslim Brotherhood. He is now in jail.

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I chose the Moran clip because it is so utterly American. Here at 6 minutes, 54 seconds is the charming American belief in a better day, in the wisdom of the people -- in short, in democracy. The Obama administration itself acted on those impulses. It pulled the rug out from under Mubarak -- never mind that he was America's steadfast ally. Egypt is the most populous and powerful of all the Arab states -- and it had made peace with Israel.

For the United States, trying to spread democracy is like love for a teenager -- it has gotten us into no end of trouble. We turned our back on Mubarak, the dictator, appalling the Saudis, who don't have quite the touching regard for democracy that we do. The Jordanians felt the same. They, too, think that democracy is dandy -- for France, for Britain, for a whole lot of nations, but not, please, for the one called the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

We made war in Iraq for a number of reasons -- nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, a nonexistent link to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and also to transform the place into a democracy that would be -- no kidding -- a model for the entire Middle East. In his book "Foreign Policy Begins at Home," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues against this mindless embrace of democracy, arguing instead for caution: "Democracy is no panacea, and democracies in the Middle East are certain to be anything but mature democracies for decades to come, if ever."

That "if ever" is a bit of uncharacteristic optimism.

Haass dedicated his book to Brent Scowcroft, who was George H.W. Bush's national security adviser. Scowcroft is what in foreign policy circles is called a "realist." He tilts at no windmills; he was appalled at the second Iraq war -- as was Haass -- and he was instrumental in calling a halt to the first one while Saddam Hussein was still in power and in possession of his attack helicopters. The Shiites were soon to suffer -- so were the Kurds -- but this was not our affair. Realism insisted that Iraq not come apart. It was never going to be a democracy.

Now, we face a dilemma regarding Syria. Early on, I favored U.S. assistance to the moderates in that civil war -- not because I thought they could establish a democracy but because I wanted the killing to end. (The death toll is now almost 200,000.) But Bashar al-Assad, like his father and even like Saddam Hussein, had kept the county together and -- very important, indeed -- was not a religious zealot who couldn't abide the existence of Israel. Assad might have been an ophthalmologist back in England, but he was a pragmatist in his own country. Still, the Obama administration wanted him gone.

Now comes Haass again, this time to argue that the U.S. and others might have to somehow assist the loathed Assad. "The U.S. and Europe may have to live with, and even work with, a regime they have for years sought to remove," he wrote recently in The Financial Times. It is a blunt, even brave, expression of foreign policy realism -- the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The ultimate enemy in his case is the crazed Islamic State. It recently massacred more than 160 captured Syrian troops.

This sort of realism is often not pretty to look at -- but neither are the consequences of ignoring it. For me, it does not mean that the U.S. has to be inert and, say, allow the slaughter of the Yazidis. But it does entail a vigilant cynicism, an appreciation that what works for us may not work for others, and finally, that our national interest, and that of our allies, may entail a certain healthy hypocrisy about democracy. Everyone should have it -- but not quite yet.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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