BOSTON — Egypt has set the debate between realism and idealism raging once again.

Should the United States promote democracy abroad and denounce anything less when conducting foreign policy? Or should the U.S. accept the world as it is, and go for whatever promises stability and promotes American interests?

Were we wrong to back Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak all these years, autocratic as he was? Or was it right to back a regime that promised to keep the peace with Israel, keep guard against militant Islam, and back us up in ousting Saddam Hussein?

In other words, was it better to back the man who promoted so many of our foreign policy goals? Or should we have denounced him because he was not a democrat?

Conservatives are now crowing, saying George W. Bush was right all along to push democracy promotion to the fore in his foreign policy. “We are all neocons now,” asserted a Wall Street Journal editorial.

It is true that Bush the Second talked the talk, and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice wasn’t all wrong to say, as she did in Cairo, that for 50 years we have promoted stability at the expense of democracy, and gotten neither.

But the Bush administration didn’t walk the walk. It backed away from democracy promotion in Egypt, and elsewhere, and the whole concept got conflated with invading Muslim countries — democracy at the point of an American bayonet. Iraq is more than enough to give democracy a bad name.

The neocon dogma was that, with the Soviet Union gone, and capitalism triumphant, the United States should use its sole-superpower strength to tell the world what to do, get on the team and be like Americans. And were anyone, or any land, to try and challenge our pre-eminent position, they were to be crushed.

The neocons, drunk on the example of 1989 in Eastern Europe, assumed that American-style democracy was best for everybody, and would be everyone’s choice if only they had the chance.

The neocons made three great mistakes. The first was to assert that America was so strong following the end of the Cold War that it could ignore everybody else, go it alone and impose its views on the world. The fact was, as Fred Kaplan has pointed out in his book, “Day Time Dreamers,” that with the Soviet Union gone, we needed persuasion and the cultivation of allies all the more because countries were not going to rally to America just to protect themselves from Communism any more. We needed more persuasion and less bullying after the Cold War, not the other way around.

The second mistake was the assumption that democracy could be imposed. Iraq, in neocon eyes, was to be the shining example that would spread democracy through out the Middle East, guarantee us Iraq’s oil, and help Israel because a democratic Iraq would recognize the Jewish state.

None of these came to pass. Iraq’s democracy is a shining example to no one, and Saddam Hussein may be gone, but Iran’s influence is now hugely enhanced. Nobody with any sense is suggesting the example of Iraq promoted Egyptians to rise up.

The third mistake the neocons made was to argue that the United States had the power to accomplish its goals. The brief moment of neocon ascendency under George W. Bush drained away America’s hard and soft power to a degree not seen since World War II, and discredited both our ideals and our interests abroad.

There is a fourth mistake, which is not limited to neoconservatives. It is senseless to say that America had anything to do with the Egyptian popular uprising and the departure of Hosni Mubarak. It was a purely Egyptian decision, inspired by Tunis, but made in Cairo, in Alexandria, and in Port Said.

Promoting American interests has to be the first priority of foreign policy, but there is a need to be realistic about realism. We have to live in the world as it is, not as we would wish it, and we can work with regimes that are not perfectly attuned to our ideals. But democracy and human rights are, more often than not, in the service of American interests. If it is a mistake to force democracy on others, so is it a mistake to discourage it.

During the long years of the Cold War we dealt with the Soviet bureaucracy to lessen tensions where we could, and reach understandings to protect us from nuclear war. But at the same time our ideals, student exchanges, our music and our culture was undermining the tyranny the Soviet system represented.

America wasn’t wrong to back Hosni Mubarak back in 1981, when he took over after Anwar Sadat’s assassination and promised to keep the peace with Israel. But we also should have done more in later years when the Egyptian regime became unresponsive to the will of the people, thereby threatening the long-term stability we sought. But that would have been a long-term process of persuasion and example, not by ultimatums and public gestures.

It is a mistake to think, however, that America’s finger on the scales, one way or the other, would have been the deciding factor. The events in Cairo have been an Egyptian show, and what follows will be an Egyptian solution.

Thus I would argue that America was right to back Mubarak after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, at the hands of Muslim extremists. The Muslim Brotherhood may have softened today, but that was not always the case when they made a bid for power. We could have done more to urge Mubarak to loosen up his regime, lessen repression when it was timely to do so, and to allow more voices to be heard. That, too, is realism.

But it would be a mistake to think that America’s finger on the scales, one way or the other, was, or would have been, the deciding factor. The deciding factor was the Egyptian people.

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