packer on liberal internationalism

One of the greatest challenges of the next few years will be to rescue democracy, human rights, and national security from the company these words have recently kept. A clear-eyed understanding of our predicament begins with the recognition that American interests and values do not always rhyme; imagining that they do makes it more likely that in the end we’ll compromise both. How can the U.S. fight jihadism without supporting dictatorships? Regime change by force has proved disastrous; elections have brought to power Islamists whose commitment to democracy is doubtful; ongoing blank checks written to Saudi princes, Pakistani generals, and a decaying dynasty in Cairo are bound to bankrupt sender and receiver alike. It’s hard to imagine a waning of the jihadist threat that doesn’t involve some kind of liberalization in the Muslim world, either because Islamism comes to be reformed from within or because it comes to be rejected by subject populations. (Iran, several decades ahead of the Arab countries, is where this struggle can be seen in sharpest relief.) A serious American policy toward Islamism will do well what the Bush Administration has done badly or not at all, and without the triumphalist speeches: modest, informed, persistent support for reformers, without grand promises of regime change; concerted efforts at reconstruction and counter-insurgency that bring to bear the full range of government agencies as well as alliances and international institutions. Since these tasks will fall to the United States one way or another, we should learn to do them better rather than vow never to try again. Large ideas drawn from historical analogies can help as guiding frameworks, but the glamorous certainties they seem to offer are illusions; we still have to think for ourselves.

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