As Egypt burns for democracy ...
By STEPHEN J. SNIEGOSKI
The current uprisings against the autocratic regimes in the Middle East seem to be in line with the neoconservatives' advocacy of radical democratic change in the region. But there is one significant difference. The neocons had sought to use democratic revolutions to overthrow the enemies of Israel, even applying the strategy, unsuccessfully, to countries such as Saudi Arabia that were client states of the United States. However, democratic revolution is now engulfing the Mubarak regime in Egypt, which has maintained friendly relations with Israel.
As Israeli writer Aluf Benn points out in Ha'aretz, "The fading power of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government leaves Israel in a state of strategic distress. Without Mubarak, Israel is left with almost no friends in the Middle East." ( "Without Egypt, Israel will be left with no friends in Mideast," January 29, 2011) Facing a scenario in which democratic revolution would harm Israeli interests, the neocons' ardor for such a development has cooled dramatically.
At Lobelog, Daniel Luban observes that the neocons were largely silent during the first days of the Egyptian revolution and that those who did comment tended to express some skepticism about the likelihood of its bringing about positive results. He quotes The Weekly Standard's Lee Smith, who cautioned U.S. activists not to become too fond of the Egyptian demonstrators: "It is not always a good thing when people go to the streets; indeed the history of revolutionary action shows that people go to the streets to shed blood more often than they do to demand democratic reforms."
Luban predicts that "if the protests are ultimately unsuccessful, the neocons will attack Obama for letting the protesters twist in the wind; if the protests are ultimately successful, they will claim the events in Egypt as vindication for the Bush democracy promotion agenda." ( "More Silence from America's 'Democracy Promoters,'" January 27, 2011)
My own research confirms Luban's point that the neocons are not championing radical democratic transformation in the current situation. Also, I found a number of commonalities and differences in the views of the neocons who voiced their opinions as the events in Egypt became a featured topic in the mainstream media. In line with what Luban has written, I found no neoconservatives who have explicitly abandoned their professed faith in their democratic agenda. Instead, they maintain that the revolts validate their democratic prescription for American Middle East policy during the past decades — that had the United States actually fostered democracy in the region, the current revolutionary turmoil would not have ensued.
The neocons differ among themselves, however, in their assessment of the current situation and in their prescriptions for U.S. action. When they express skepticism about the positive nature of the ongoing revolution, they try to demonstrate how that does not conflict with their fundamental faith in democracy. In brief, they profess to identify with the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian demonstrators but question whether democracy will result from their actions.
It it important to understand that the neocons must praise the democratic aim of the uprising: they cannot do otherwise if they intend to maintain their image as champions of democracy at a time when most of the world wholeheartedly identifies with the Egyptian pro-democratic protesters. Moreover, since most observers agree that the Mubarak regime cannot survive, it is strategically necessary for the neocons to jump on the bandwagon and encourage the U.S. government to guide the revolution in directions beneficial to American — and, of course, Israeli — interests, under the guise of preventing it from leading to an alleged greater tyranny of radical Islamists.
The neocon whose views seem to have changed the least is longtime neocon operative Elliott Abrams, the son-in-law of neocon godfather Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. In assessing the current situation, Abrams heaps blame on America's traditional Middle East foreign policy, which had ignored the domestic policies of autocratic regimes in its focus on U.S. geostrategic interests and regional stability.
Writing in the Washington Post, Abrams states that Mubarak, along with Tunisia's recently deposed leader, Ben Ali, had "proffered the same line to Washington: It's us or the Islamists." He contends that "ruling under an endless emergency law, [Mubarak] has crushed the moderate opposition while the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has thrived underground and in the mosques." Mubarak's tyrannical policies, in effect, made the Islamist Brotherhood his major opposition, which then enabled him to justify "the lack of democracy by saying a free election would bring the Islamists to power." Abrams acknowledges that while radical Islamists might win free elections, "the regimes that make moderate politics impossible make extremism far more likely. Rule by emergency decree long enough, and you end up creating a genuine emergency. And Egypt has one now."
He asserts that George W. Bush's democracy agenda (inspired, of course, by the neocons) got it completely right about the Middle East, quoting from a 2003 speech by Bush that read: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export."
Abrams notes that there was considerable resistance to the "democracy" agenda, as unrealistic, from within the Bush administration and that the Obama administration abandoned it. He stresses that it has now become essential for Obama to emulate Bush: "Now is the time to say that the peoples of the Middle East are not 'beyond the reach of liberty' and that we will assist any peaceful effort to achieve it — and oppose and condemn efforts to suppress it." ( "Egypt protests show George W. Bush was right about freedom in the Arab world," January 28, 2011)