02/02/2011 07:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Catching Up With History

While some are talking loudly and long about cutting government spending, it is doubtful they will discuss cuts in a $40-billion-plus annual "intelligence" budget. This, despite the fact that our intelligence services and our far-flung diplomatic network failed to foresee the historic upheaval now underway throughout the Western end of the Muslim world.

There is at least an even chance that we are now entering a rare cycle of history that may take 20 to 30 years to resolve itself, with autocracies giving way to fragile democracies that in turn will evolve into radical fundamentalist regimes (think Iran), and possible civil wars. For the world's greatest superpower, this is a quandary. It is an even greater quandary when that superpower depends for a quarter of its oil imports on supplies from that region.

From the beginning of the Cold War, we adopted a policy (some called it political realism; I call it unprincipled expediency) described as "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Thus, regardless of how repressive and anti-democratic a potentate might be, if he were anti-communist, he was our friend. We gave dozens of these types a lot of money and political support even though it was used to build up security services that locked up and tortured anyone who quoted our Declaration of Independence in the national square.

Curiously, we failed to notice that everyday people in these countries remember these things. Then when they summon the courage to take to the streets and demand freedom, we express surprise that they do not like us and reject our embrace. This has happened in country after country and now in a vital region that encompasses a billion and a half people.

If we believe what we claim to believe, and if we truly mean to stand on the principles embodied in our Constitution, we are going to have to do better than this. That is if we truly want to stay in the vanguard of history and not try to merely catch up to it as it disappears over the horizon and leaves us behind.

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