However, the fact that the Middle East is politically and culturally regressive in significant ways mustn’t cripple American foreign policy and reduce the United States to inaction.

To the contrary: the existence of these problems requires that America redouble its efforts to promote liberal democracy in the Middle East. ~John Guardiano

There’s no question of “crippling American foreign policy” or “inaction.” If democracy promotion is forgotten and put on a shelf, that isn’t going to cripple American foreign policy. Some might argue that it would have a remarkable liberating effect on American policymakers, who would no longer feel compelled to engage in a torturous balancing act between national interests and the promotion of “values.” Setting democracy promotion aside creates the potential for constructive engagement with a number of important states that is not held back or limited by preoccupation with other states’ internal affairs. To the extent that American foreign policy has been crippled in the last decade, it is thanks in part to a strange commitment to a “freedom agenda” that has largely failed or backfired everywhere it has been tried.

Guardiano wants the U.S. government to prioritize something that runs contrary to many of its stated interests, and which has succeeded mainly in empowering Iran and its allies throughout the region. Redoubling American effort in this area seems likely to accelerate the process of undermining all those states that support U.S. containment efforts. Iran containment seems misguided to me, and I would be pleased to see the U.S. disentangle itself as much as possible from the region, but even I can see how dangerous it would be to subvert not just one ally but an entire region of allied governments for the sake of an abstract commitment to a particular regime type.

P.S. There is no reason to expect that liberalizing and democratizing political reforms are going to undo what Guardiano calls “politically and culturally regressive” attitudes. On the contrary, the typical experience of a democratizing country is that its more conservative social and cultural attitudes become enshrined in law, and political liberals quickly find themselves quickly overwhelmingly outnumbered by the forces of populists, nationalists, and religious enthusiasts. Political liberalism anywhere is only as strong as the constituency of liberals, and without meaningful constitutional protections and protections for minorities a liberal democracy will quickly degrade into an authoritarian populist system that will tolerate or even cater to “politically and culturally regressive” attitudes.