The apparent military ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is a triumph for the coalition of protestors who have massed in Tahrir Square in recent days. They include many of the young, secular, tech-savvy activists who captured the world’s imagination more than two years ago, when they helped bring down Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime. That’s one reason the Obama Administration hasn’t attempted to stop or even condemn the coup. Morsi’s removal may well empower forces that are more friendly to the U.S. than the Muslim Brotherhood. It also signals the end of a decade-long U.S. project to bring democracy to the Middle East. (Update: The military has deposed Morsi and suspended Egypt’s constitution. Follow the latest developments at Bloomberg News.)
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the administration of George W. Bush initiated a profound shift in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. would no longer continue to give a blank check to autocratic Arab regimes that deprived their citizens of political liberty. The logic of the Freedom Agenda, as it came to be known, was that democracy would help ease the frustrations of restive Arab populations and stem the appeal of Islamic extremism. That theory was one of Bush’s main justifications for invading Iraq, a decision that ultimately brought to power a government allied with Iran. The Bush Administration also pushed for elections in the Palestinian Authority—which were won by Hamas, an organization committed to Israel’s destruction.
In 2008, Barack Obama staked his presidential candidacy on his opposition to the Iraq war. In office, Obama sought to distance himself from the excesses of the Freedom Agenda, telling a Cairo audience that while the administration supported the democratic aspirations of Egyptians, “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” As the Arab Spring unfolded in 2011, however, Obama more openly embraced democratization. The administration gave tacit support to the revolution in Tunisia, publicly called for Mubarak to step down, and undertook military action to aid the rebellion against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.
The result has been, in a word, chaos. Of the countries in the Middle East in which the U.S. has supported regime change since 2003, only Tunisia can be said to be anything resembling a stable, functioning state. Even there, Islamist parties have been the biggest electoral winners—just as the Muslim Brotherhood proved the most formidable political organization in Egypt once elections were finally held last year. It’s little surprise that the U.S. has pretty much stopped talking about the goal of implanting democracy in the region. The Obama Administration isn’t pushing for elections in Jordan or Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. Obama has agreed to send arms to the rebels battling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, but only after they seemed to be on the brink of military defeat. And in Egypt, the U.S. has stood by as tanks have rolled into downtown Cairo and brought down the curtain on modern Egypt’s first democratically elected government.
In strategic terms, this studious inaction may be sensible. There’s little to gain for the administration in propping up incompetent leaders, like Morsi, who have little interest in cooperating with the U.S. anyway. But it’s now impossible for Obama to credibly claim that America supports democracy in the Middle East. The illusion is over. Realpolitik has triumphed over idealism. Happy 4th of July.