THE STALLED U.S. mission in Iraq has prompted calls for a return to "realism" in American foreign policy. Instead of striving for freedom and national cohesion in the Middle East, realists argue that the U.S. should negotiate with Syria and Iran and abandon the dream of remaking the region on a democratic, federated model. Realists claim that replacing a faith-based policy with an agenda based solely on economic and strategic interests will return the United States to its traditional posture in the Middle East.
In fact, long before the rise of radical Islam and even the discovery of oil, Americans worked to bring liberty and human rights to the Middle East. For well over 200 years, U.S. citizens have sought to endow Middle Eastern peoples with the same inalienable liberties Americans enjoy at home.
The absence of basic freedoms in the Middle East was well known to the founding fathers. In contrast to the young republic, observed John Adams, the ancient dynasties of the Middle East were rife with "avarice and fear," ruled by despots who treated their subjects like "so many caterpillars upon an apple tree." Thomas Jefferson believed the U.S. could never rely on a peace treaty with any Middle Eastern state, whose word was only as good as the life of its ruler. The prevalence of tyranny in the region was noted by Jefferson's friend, John Ledyard, who in 1788 became the first American to explore the Middle East. "It is singular," he wrote, "the Arab language has no word for 'liberty.' "
But merely lamenting the lack of liberty in the Middle East was insufficient for some early Americans, who dedicated their lives to emancipating its inhabitants. Starting in the 1820s, New England missionaries began building schools throughout the region and introducing their pupils to American-style ideas of patriotism and civic virtues. The missionaries also established the area's first modern institutions of higher learning, the American University of Beirut (originally named the Syrian Protestant College) and Turkey's Roberts College, to further disseminate their views. "A man white, black or yellow, Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution," declared AUB's first president, Daniel Bliss, in 1866. "[He may] go out believing in one God, or in many Gods, or in no God."
A similar open-mindedness was imparted by the Civil War veterans, Union as well as Confederate, who in the late 1860s joined in creating the first modern school system in Egypt.
By the end of the 19th century, the United States had become renowned as the defender of minority rights in the Middle East, protecting Bahais, Jews and Armenians from government oppression. Another group of Civil War veterans tried to lead the Syrians in a revolt against Ottoman rule. Yet the fullest expression of American support for the independence of Middle Eastern peoples came early in the 20th century with President Wilson's Fourteen Points, which promised self-determination and "undoubted security of life" to the former Turkish provinces. Although the U.S. failed to follow through on these pledges, it refrained from participating in Europe's carving up of the Middle East and, after World War II, led the effort to decolonize the region. In addition to supporting a two-state solution for the Israel/Palestine dispute, President Truman was instrumental in assuring the independence of several Middle Eastern states, including Syria and Iran.
Over the last 60 years, during which it became the dominant power in the area and grew increasingly dependent on oil, the United States has often acted selfishly in the Middle East, supporting cooperative dictators and undermining popular leaders who opposed American hegemony. And yet this period also witnessed repeated attempts to fulfill American ideals in the Middle East. The United States intervened to protect the democratically elected government of Lebanon in 1958 and 1983, liberated Kuwait in 1991 and launched numerous Arab-Israeli peace plans. Indeed, the story of Washington's postwar involvement in the Middle East has been one of a struggle to reconcile its great-power interests with its role as the champion of state and individual rights.
In rethinking its future course through a complex and turbulent Middle East, the United States should continue to pursue realistic goals, seeking viable ways to extract its troops from Iraq while maintaining American primacy in the region. At the same time, however, U.S. policymakers should remain cognizant of their country's long and benevolent record in safeguarding fundamental freedoms in the Middle East and promoting democracy.
The U.S. needs a multidimensional approach that advances its interests while upholding its laudable legacy.