Every administration faces a devil’s choice between stability and security on the one hand and our founding values on the other. President George W. Bush with his “Freedom Agenda” clearly embraced the latter, funding pro-democracy movements or military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Palestinian territories, Egypt—the list goes on. President Obama attempted to ignore the choice, only to have his idealism (and his foreign policy legacy) shattered by reality. President Trump’s foreign policy is still largely directionless, but is beginning to resemble an inward-facing pragmatism. Yet he too will soon need to turn and face the music.

President Bush’s democratization narrative faced a major hurdle in 2006 after Hamas, which the U.S. has labeled as a terrorist organization since 1997, swept the parliamentary elections despite USAID spending $2.3 million in favor of Fatah, the more moderate opposition. Nearly two years later, Vanity Fair produced a scathing report, corroborated by multiple government sources, that accused Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams of provoking a Palestinian civil war by arming Fatah fighters with the intent to overthrow Hamas.

For most of the Middle East, the report brought back bitter memories of the CIA-engineered overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. After a series of tiffs with the British and Americans over Iranian oil, the Iranian people elected Mossadegh in 1952 and voted to nationalize a large portion of their oil industry. The plot, codename Operation Ajax, succeeded and resolidified the Shah’s power in Iran, who quickly aborted Mossadegh’s plan.

American involvement in foreign elections in the Middle East and North Africa is a series of misadventures attempting to grapple with democratic elections that produce undemocratic results—or, more accurately, anti-liberal and anti-American results. During the Cold War, American covert operations and strained support for friendly authoritarian regimes played into the larger foreign policy goal of countering Soviet influence. Today, the same methods are employed to counter terrorist and Islamist influence in the region.

Despite his rhetoric lauding democracy as a universal (as opposed to American) interest, President Obama suffered the same rude awakening Bush did, albeit with a different outcome.

Caught in the euphoria of democratic revolution in the Arab world, Obama sided with the revolutionaries and called for Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator of forty years, to step down. However, the administration’s—and the entire West’s—optimism was dampened when it became clear the Muslim Brotherhood would sweep the elections, and then turned sour after the newly minted President Mohamed Morsi began consolidating his power.

President Obama and his team were preparing for Fourth of July celebrations when they received urgent news from Egypt of another “transition” of power. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the foremost general in Egypt’s military, had ousted President Morsi after only a short year in power.

After the coup, Obama faced an inescapable decision: legitimize Sisi by continuing military and financial aid, thus betraying the democratic ideals he lauded only months earlier, or refuse to acknowledge the regime and withhold support, risking Egypt’s economic and political collapse.

In the end, Obama chose stability and security over ideals, as any sitting president would. The danger of Egypt becoming Syria, Libya, or Yemen loomed too large.

Following Egypt’s counter-revolution and American acquiescence, Obama’s “long-game” foreign policy (wherein Obama appeals to authoritarian leaders’ better natures in an attempt to persuade them to respect human rights) took full effect. Obama lifted the veil and dealt openly with Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Cuba, and Myanmar.

The foreign policies of Bush and Obama are replete with ironies. “Democracy-building” Bush supported anti-democratic actions in Gaza, while maintaining a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia. The presidency of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, champion of human rights, saw the descent of the Middle East into chaos, including the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Both were largely paralyzed by the exigencies of their situation, forced to act contrary to their rhetoric in the name of national security.

The great twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr prophesied this very irony. In The Irony of American History Niebuhr writes:

The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also interwoven our destiny with the destiny of many peoples and brought us into a vast web of history in which other wills, running in oblique or contrasting directions to our own, inevitably hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire.

He continues to say that “the evils against which we contend are frequently the fruits of illusions which are similar to our own.” We are, in other words, stronger because we promote our values, but also rendered weak by the consequences of those desires. Niebuhr argues this irony is a product of the the human tendency to “forget that [we are] simply not a creator but also a creature.” Nations, especially powerful nations, attempt to conduct history like a symphony, while forgetting they themselves move to the music as much as any violinist.

In foreign policy vernacular, the United States doggedly pursues policy objectives—whether it be containment, democratization, the proliferation of human rights—until they are confronted by consequences no policymaker could foresee during its implementation. At that critical juncture, American leaders will always choose the pragmatic, self-interested foreign policy whether it contravenes “American ideals” or not. When the fruit of democracy-building is hostile to United States interests, presidents balk.

This does not bode well for Trump administration. Already, pro-democracy Islamist groups in Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria are positioning themselves for electoral victory. In war-torn Syria, Yemen, and Libya, moderate Islamist groups show signs of life. When the dust settles in the Middle East and North Africa, the United States will face another choice: intervene in the elections (and the post-election phase when Islamists parties begin contributing policy) or sit back and allow nature to take its course.

America’s foreign policy record is not a cause for optimism. But Niebuhr provides a guiding light in the same work. He argues an existential awareness of the limits of our power to shape history will be the most fruitful foreign policy. He says, “The great nation, Babylon, is warned that its confidence in the security of its power will be refuted by history.” Reliance on brute force, even the brute force of our values, will be the eulogy of American preeminence on the world stage. As the Trump administration works out a comprehensive foreign policy for the Middle East, it would be wise to heed the lessons of the past.

Joshua Cayetano is an intern for Providence. Originally from the Bay Area, California, he is a member of the inaugural class of the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University, where he also studies political science and history. In the spring of 2017, Joshua received the State Department’s Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship to study in Amman, Jordan. His interests include Middle Eastern affairs, the application of faith in the public square, and advocacy for “the least of these.”

Photo Credit: Egyptians in Washington, DC, celebrate the removal of President of Egypt Morsi in front of the White House on July 3, 2013. Photo by Joe Flood, via Flickr.