Democracy is part of America’s very identity, and thus we benefit in a world of more democracies. But this is no reason to delude ourselves about grand historical schemes or to forget our wider interests. Precisely because so much of the Middle East is in upheaval, we must avoid entanglements and stay out of the domestic affairs of the region. We must keep our powder dry for crises ahead that might matter much more than those of today.
Our most important national-security resource is the time that our top policy makers can devote to a problem, so it is crucial to avoid distractions. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fragility of Pakistan, Iran’s rush to nuclear power, a possible Israeli military response””these are all major challenges that have not gone away. This is to say nothing of rising Chinese naval power and Beijing’s ongoing attempt to Finlandize much of East Asia.
We should not kid ourselves. In foreign policy, all moral questions are really questions of power. We intervened twice in the Balkans in the 1990s only because Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic had no nuclear weapons and could not retaliate against us, unlike the Russians, whose destruction of Chechnya prompted no thought of intervention on our part (nor did ethnic cleansing elsewhere in the Caucasus, because it was in Russia’s sphere of influence). At present, helping the embattled Libyan rebels does not affect our interests, so we stand up for human rights there. But helping Bahrain’s embattled Shia, or Yemen’s antiregime protesters, would undermine key allies, so we do nothing as demonstrators are killed in the streets.
Of course, just because we can’t help everywhere does not mean we can’t help somewhere.