To the best of my knowledge, the dean of American foreign policy experts, Henry Kissinger, has been largely silent about the Arab Spring.
In another sense he has been omnipresent. His his teachings and his thought have strongly influenced the thinking of other foreign policy analysts, especially those on whom I have relied.
Kissinger was both absent and present from the debate.
When Kissinger offers a substantive analysis of the situation unfolding the Middle East and North Africa, as he does today in a Washington Post column, some of it will feel familiar.
How does Kissinger see the Arab Spring? He writes:
The Arab Spring is widely presented as a regional, youth-led revolution on behalf of liberal democratic principles. Yet Libya is not ruled by such forces; it hardly continues as a state. Neither is Egypt, whose electoral majority (possibly permanent) is overwhelmingly Islamist. Nor do democrats seem to predominate in the Syrian opposition. The Arab League consensus on Syria is not shaped by countries previously distinguished by the practice or advocacy of democracy. Rather, it largely reflects the millennium-old conflict between Shiite and Sunni and an attempt to reclaim Sunni dominance from a Shiite minority. It is also precisely why so many minority groups, such as Druzes, Kurds and Christians, are uneasy about regime change in Syria.
By now, everyone should know that liberal democracy is not breaking out across the region. Instead, Islamist groups are taking over and trying to impose their ideology on these nations.
When faced with a choice between anarchy and tyranny people almost always prefer tyranny.
In Kissinger’s words:
The more sweeping the destruction of the existing order, the more difficult establishment of domestic authority is likely to prove and the more likely is the resort to force or the imposition of a universal ideology. The more fragmented a society grows, the greater the temptation to foster unity by appeals to a vision of a merged nationalism and Islamism targeting Western values.
A foreign-policy realist, Kissinger has always believed that American policy should serve America’s interests. It should not be enslaved to abstract ideals like freedom and democracy.
In his words:
For the United States, a doctrine of general humanitarian intervention in Middle East revolutions will prove unsustainable unless linked to a concept of American national security.
And also, in more detail:
Do we believe that a less explicitly strategic involvement disclaiming a U.S. national interest will make nation-buildingless complex? Do we have a preference as to which groups come to power? Or are we agnostic so long as the mechanisms are electoral? If the latter, how do we avoid fostering a new absolutism legitimized by managed plebiscites and sect-based permanent majorities? What outcomes are compatible with America’s core strategic interests in the region? Will it be possible to combine strategic withdrawal from key countries and reduced military expenditures with doctrines of universal humanitarian intervention? Discussion of these issues has been largely absent from the debate over U.S. foreign policy regarding the Arab Spring.
Being an experienced diplomat Kissinger offers his guidance for the conduct of American policy diplomatically. He does not come right out and criticize the Obama administration because he seeks to guide its policy, not to score debating points.
In his words:
The United States should be prepared to deal with democratically elected Islamist governments. But it is also free to pursue a standard principle of traditional foreign policy — to condition its stance on the alignment of its interests with the actions of the government in question.
The language is somewhat coded, but Kissinger seems to be referring to a recent Obama administration decision to continue to provide military aid to an Islamist Egypt. The decision has been defended by idealists on the grounds that we should accept any democratic outcome as the will of the people.
Henry Kissinger warns the administration that it should not feel obligated to send money to the Muslim Brotherhood, and that, if it does, it must make all future aid contingent on the group's not trying to undermine American interests in the region.
Foreign policy realism does not preclude seemingly unrealistic optimism.