Middle East Notes and Comment: Politics and Patriotism

There is a strain in American politics that sees the incoming Trump administration as a taste of Third World dictatorship. Statesmanship is being replaced by showmanship, they complain, and even mild criticism elicits contempt and hostility.

For the most offended among Washington’s elites, the inauguration of America’s 45th president should bring forth a feeling of empathy. Many foreign diplomats and civil servants work for governments that they themselves hold in as much contempt as Washington’s elites hold the new administration. Foreign officials rarely shape the policies of their government, and often they do not choose their government. They serve their country, whatever government is in power.

For most in Washington, the current political changes are disorienting. The Obama administration incorporated veterans of previous administrations and fit well within the consensus of elite policy doctrine. The Bush administration did too, and so did the Clinton administration. There were differences but few big surprises. For much of the country, that was precisely the problem. 

It is easy to forget just how alienated large portions of the United States had become. Some of their hostility was ideological, some was social, and some even seemed racial. Many Americans came to feel that the entire governmental system had become corrupt. Donald Trump was an unlikely revolutionary, a self-proclaimed billionaire insider who played the elite game and now promised to blow it all up on the public’s behalf. His proud (and loud) parochialism has remained at the core of his appeal. He disdained the painstaking nuance of technocrats, and he said he knew better than them.

And now the United States has joined the ranks of countries with a cosmopolitan elite distrusted by the political leadership. Also among the ranks are countries in the Middle East. There, like here, leaders cozy up to parochial conservatives while keeping cosmopolitan liberal voices—inside the government and outside—at arm’s length. We have seen it many times. Consider Iran, which has a cadre of government employees that seek to soothe tensions with the outside world while other employees try to stoke them. Consider Saudi Arabia, whose diplomats sometimes live extremely liberal lives outside the Kingdom (and even within it) while defending a starkly orthodox social order to the rest of the world. Israel has had a cadre of diplomats who, for much of the last 40 years, have been considerably more liberal than the government that they represent.

Opportunists are everywhere, and every government has officials who willfully ignore abuses in the pursuit of their own interests. Some officials believe that ends will justify any means, and they support all manner of abuse to protect themselves against threats, real or imagined. Some systems foster the rise of thugs and murderers. Bad governments have bad people in them, there is no question.

But bad governments have good people in them, too. Libya had an atrocious government under Muammar el-Qaddafi, but it had men and women of good will and of conscience who quietly sought to prepare for a post-Qaddafi future. Yemen’s government was often rapacious under Ali Abdullah Saleh, but conscientious civil servants worked with foreign governments and international organizations to build human capacity and help lead the country out of poverty. Syria had its share of thuggish diplomats before the civil war broke out, but it had decent men and women, too. One Syrian ambassador I met in Europe insisted on showing respect to his fellow citizens, seeing them as equals and not as subjects. Work areas in the embassy were decorated with Arabic signs reminding employees of their responsibility to the public they served, and he himself operated with modesty and efficiency. Why did these men and women stay? In some cases, they had no choice. Emigration from oppressive countries is often difficult, and leaving a home forever is a decision some cannot embrace. In some cases, they believed in the possibility of reform, which oppressive leaders often tout to signal that the oppression will not be permanent, even when it will be.

But most often, revealed to me in conversations with these people over two decades, it was something else. Many of them saw themselves as serving their country, not serving their politicians. They felt both an affinity and a loyalty to their country that transcended whoever had political power. As I have talked with them through the years, many hope to outlive their governments, and to see their countries emerge even stronger.

Many U.S. officials will go to work next Monday, January 23, with deep reservations about the new president. They will know the new president has deep reservations about them. Accustomed to political leaders who fit into a broad U.S. elite consensus, they will now work for a president who purposefully defies consensus. In his speech and his manners, he tries to be different from them. They will feel alone.

The United States has a great advantage over much of the world in that it has strong institutions that bend but only rarely crack in the face of political pressure. The elaborate governmental system of checks and balances has tensions built into it that slow efforts at change. Its genius lies in its ability to adapt and reinvent, and to absorb the best of new ideas while neutralizing many of the most dangerous ones.

American patriotism is not merely a loyalty to this set of ideas and structures that have protected the Republic for 240 years. It is a fundamental optimism that even if you don’t like the current government, there is one coming later that you will like better. This optimism is better founded for Americans than for many around the world, who have less certainty of more congenial times to come. 

Patriotism is to a country, not to any single political outcome. It is bigger than any leader, and it outlives any leader. However much one distrusts a political leader, opportunities arise to move history in a constructive direction. It’s a patriot’s job to do that, in some cases not because of the political leadership but despite it. 
Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program