When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned in 2011, President Barack Obama hailed the Egyptian people's "hunger for change." The death toll from the bloodbath in Egypt shows just how dangerous that hunger can be in illiberal societies.
As the saying goes, in a crisis, you should keep calm and carry on. But it's telling that the saying is British. Americans aren't good at carrying on. We want solutions. We don't like to admit that many situations, like Afghanistan, have no ideal outcome. We don't want to think that, sometimes, tragedy is inevitable.
In other words, the United States is an optimistic nation. Modern liberalism plays upon that optimism by preaching that deep-seated problems can be fixed if only the government does the right thing. It's a profoundly elitist vision of government held by -- and for -- enlightened progressives.
But the United States was hoping for the best long before Theodore Roosevelt brought progressivism to the White House, and we often see the world in that image. Looking in the mirror, we think we're looking out a window at foreign lands. We smile, the nice person smiles back, and we believe we understand each other. But all we've really seen is our own reflection.
Obama's statement on Mubarak's departure is a classic example of this delusion. It makes for painful reading. The president was "confident that the people of Egypt can find the answers, and do so peacefully, constructively, and in the spirit of unity. . . . [They] have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day."
American presidents have to say this kind of thing whether they believe it or not. It would seem un-American to say something akin to the truth, which is that the Egyptian economy is close to collapse, its governing structures are deeply statist and corrupt, and there is no evidence that most Egyptians want democracy or liberty as we would define it.
A new book by Samuel Tadros, a genuine Egyptian democrat, sums up the problem. In the United States we drew on resistance to the British crown to make our Revolution. But liberalism in Egypt, as Tadros puts it, "was born with the rise of the civil-servant class in the mid-nineteenth century."
Unlike the American founders, who emphasized the rights of the individual, the Egyptian civil servants looked to the rulers, who were "to impose modernity on a reluctant population." This was an Egyptian progressivism akin to Woodrow Wilson's. At least in the United States, we had the legacy of the founding to cushion the progressive blow. But Egypt, like many other nations, didn't.
American enthusiasm for foreign upheaval is as old as Thomas Jefferson's naive admiration of the French Revolution. But that led to the Reign of Terror, and then the Napoleonic Wars. We will be lucky if the Middle Eastern war spawned by the Arab Spring does not spread beyond Syria.
The first step toward a wiser American foreign policy, on both sides of the aisle, would be to recognize that the United States must stand for liberty, but ordered liberty. And that requires a liberal and orderly society, which is hard to discern but always slow to emerge.
Foreign policy is like piloting a ship on an endless sea. Problems are met and sometimes dealt with, but there is no revolutionary culmination. We would be less disappointed -- though no less horrified -- by events in Egypt if our own expectations of change were more realistic.
This doesn't mean we should simply have sided with Mubarak: His regime was a dead end. But it does mean that in an illiberal society, revolution rarely produces liberty. We would understand the world better if we considered just how exceptional the American experience has been.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.