07/11/2013 07:22 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2013

Arab Spring Forward, Arab Fall Back

The chaos we are witnessing these days in the Middle East reflects not only a failure of American policy but also a pitiful lack of American self-knowledge. For some reason, hardly because of the current dynamic of government in Washington, we have been trying to convince the Arab world that every Middle Eastern nation would be better off imitating our native brand of constitutional democracy. One might hope for a little more modesty about our own political achievements, considering that the U.S. has become as paralyzed and disordered as any democracy in Europe or South America. But instead of trying to perfect, or least improve our own system, we prefer to urge our dysfunction on the rest of the world.

This pridefulness partly explains our indecision over the recent protests in Egypt. The United States has played a greater or lesser part in most of the convulsions of the Arab Spring, that herculean effort by the people of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Morocco, the Sudan, Syria, and other Arab nations to overhaul their failing governments. In most cases, demonstrators were trying to import democratic rule into countries led for years by strong men (sultans, generals, kings, sheikhs, and dictators), and there is no doubt that we have done a lot to cheer them on. First, the Bush regime toppled Saddam Hussein on the pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Next we brought down the Taliban in Afghanistan, settling for a corrupt secular administration in place of a repressive religious order. Then Libya's Gadaffi fell, to be replaced by a "representative" form of government not even competent enough to prevent terrorist acts against the U.S. embassy. Then President Assad of Syria was almost toppled by a coalition that included al-Queda-influenced Sunni factions -- until the Shiite Hezbollah stepped in and reversed the tide. Then after Egypt's Hosni Mubarak's overthrow led to a democratically-elected government headed by Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, that regime was also toppled following protests by secular factions, resulting in a coup by the Egyptian army.

In a few cases, it seemed as if the people were not so much replacing an Arab political leader as substituting a competing religious ideology. Sunnis and Shiites, the largest of the Muslim factions, are not just political opponents within one country, like the North and the South in the American Civil War, or the Communists and Fascists in 1930s Spain. They are religious adversaries spread past borders throughout the Middle East, locked in a struggle to annihilate each other in a way that sometimes made the Civil Wars of the past look like gentlemen's disagreements. Each "awakening" in the Arab Spring may have started as a political conflict between liberal and conservative factions, or left-wing and right-wing ideologies. But the awakened eyes soon opened on bombings and shootings between opposing religious factions, not to mention from the army which recently killed 50 unarmed people in Egypt.

And here lies the problem for American policy. The democratic elections we are encouraging in the Middle East often end up either in victory for Islamic factions fundamentally hostile to the American presence, or for a corrupt secular government desiring our financial support, but not our military presence. Our naïve belief that all the peoples in the Arab world world would prefer a system of rule that separates Church from State has inevitably led us to back the wrong horses in the Middle East. After our experience with Maliki in Iraq, who is cuddling up to Iran, and with Kharzai in Afghanistan, who has been using his office to loot the State treasury, it should have been obvious that such changes rarely advance U.S. interests a whit. Take Morsi as an obvious example, a man legitimately elected, who immediately tried to impose the Muslim Brotherhood on the rest of Egypt.

In a recent column in the Times, David Brooks suggested that state control by the Egyptian army was preferable to the democratically-elected rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Embarrassing as it is for a democratic people to admit this, our own interests in Egypt -- ideally served by a duly-elected secular majority -- are often just as endangered by a democracy run by religious extremists as by one-man rule. At least, the strong men (Iran's Ayatollah Khaemenei being a singular exception) are rarely tyrants -- and almost never extremists, encouraging people to blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces..

In a recent article in Newsweek, my step-son Peter Beinart, eloquently argued that "The answer to Morsi's perversion of Egyptian democracy should have been more democracy," and admonished David Brooks for saying that Islamists have "absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets." "Islam," he writes, "comes in different, and sometimes mutually hostile, varieties." That is certainly true, but isn't that mutual hostility responsible for most of the troubles in the area? In Egypt, it certainly looks as though a freely elected theocracy, toppled by the coup of the generals, was leading the people into civil war. We are in a dilemma. Strong man rule, as proposed recently by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly repressive. But it might be more effective than democracy in suppressing the kind of explosive terror we often see these days in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Libya.

It might also be that authoritarian leadership represents the natural order of things in the Middle East. It has certainly been a Middle East practice ever since the beginning of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century, and it has the singular advantage of exercising secular control over religious fanaticism. During the Ottoman Empire and after, the Muslim faith was freely practiced, along with Christianity and Judaism, but religion was never allowed a role in government.

Am I arguing that we should remain silent while repressive regimes are being installed throughout the Middle East? No, just that we stop pressing our influence in an area where nobody seems to solicit our advice. And that, it seems, is what the Obama administration has also concluded, the evidence being its withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and now its appropriately quietist attitude towards the Egyptian crisis (what is being called "assessing the situation"). For all our financial leverage, the United States has had no lasting influence on politics in the Middle East. And we really have no way to prevent political change except through more ill-fated intervention.

Yes, there may be human rights violations under any kind of rule in the Middle East. But while human rights groups should pursue those violations relentlessly, and while our own government should use whatever needs necessary to protest any curbs on free speech, our best course is to cease activity in the area, except for an effort to broker a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.

Overzealous interventionists like Senator McCain would do well to recognize that imposing our will on other countries has done nothing but exacerbate Middle Eastern political troubles, when we are having enough difficulty solving our own. If this sounds like isolationism, well, so be it. Just consider what, aside from the loss of countless American lives, our interventionism has accomplished in Vietnam, in the Bay of Pigs, in Grenada, Haiti, Iran, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and everywhere else in the Middle East.