Moral Inversion in U.S.
Foreign Policy

The wrong U.S. responses to the Mideast upheavals are not just perverse, they’re dangerous.


It is a curious pattern. When Qaddafi and Assad came under attack, our elites — foreign-affairs journals, major media, government officials — warned of dire destabilizing consequences if they should fall. When Ben Ali and Mubarak came under attack, our elites said their downfall was inevitable and warned of dire destabilizing consequences if they failed to leave.

A normal instinct would be to rejoice at the prospect of the fall of foes and to warn of dire consequences if our friends fall. Our actual behavior — nearly universal behavior across all high-level sectors, from media to government to NGOs — has been the exact opposite.

An indiscriminate neutral peace-lover would oppose (and a neutral revolution-lover favor) all the revolutions equally. We have not been neutralist; we have been on the other side.

Specific reasons can be given for the response in each instance, but it would be a mistake to dwell on them; it would amount to joining in a self-mystification. The pattern is what counts. It is what reveals the operationally significant cause: the pre-existing orientation. Case-specific explanations are always available for any policy going in either direction; when they are selected to fit a pre-set orientation, they tell nothing about the actual motivation.

The pattern is obvious: against our friends and our interests. It is as if we are so scared of the accusations of having a normal double standard in our own favor that we lean over backwards and adopt a double standard against ourselves. The Qaddafi and Assad regimes have been brutal tyrannies, and often brutally hostile to us. Ben Ali and Mubarak were mild, stable, modernizing rulers, solid actors for peace, and our reliable friends. The case could not be clearer for treating the latter pair better than the former. We have done the opposite. We need to ask: Why?

I am dealing here only with the urgently important current examples. However, for analytical purposes, it is important to realize that this is not a new phenomenon at all. There are repeated examples of it, providing ample social-science confirmation of the immediate causal determinant: an inversion of attitudes toward friend and foe. I remember well, as an old Sovietologist, how in the 1980s there was some scholarly speculation on the problems and instabilities that an end of Communism could bring; yet at the same time it was taboo to discuss an end to Communism as a scenario to plan for, much less wish for. How to explain this seeming contradiction?

Only a few scholars broke the taboo, notably Alexander Yanov, a Soviet refugee; and under his inspiration, I did likewise. We both did it under the cover of discussing how to prepare for dealing constructively with the dangers it would present, not of explicitly calling for it. President Reagan broke the taboo more completely, saying that Communism should and would end soon; and he was almost unanimously labeled a dangerous, ignorant rube for it. No one apologized when he proved right. He and his adviser Richard Pipes were actually accused of intending to start a nuclear war to end Communism. Reagan joked about the slander; the slanderers, relentless from their unanimous perch in the media, managed to portray this as a confirmation that they were right, and succeeded in getting him to apologize to them for it. Pipes suffered the same slander from Washington Star and Post columnist Mary McGrory, among others; Reagan eventually had to let Pipes go. There were real costs: The West was unprepared for dealing with the emerging new issues when Communism was coming to an end in 1989–91, and got around only to a half-hearted program of help in 1992.