Jeffrey Goldberg, blogging for The Atlantic, has noted the emergence of a rift between Israeli policymakers and analysts and at least some American Neoconservatives regarding the pro-democracy protests in Egypt. The ongoing revolt in Egypt has been fascinating, not merely because so far we have been watching a fast-motion collapse of another “durable autocracy” such as that in Tunisia–nor because this latest revolt only really started when it did because it was energized by the stunning success of the Jasmine Revolution there. The “Lotus Revolution,” as it is somewhat-prematurely being called, is interesting because it pulls at Americans’ heartstrings while potentially-compromising US foreign policy.
The Liberal Ironist accepts a fairly-conventional perspective on our support for Egyptian president-for-life Hosni Mubarak: We have had legitimate foreign interests, such as peace between Egypt and Israel and cooperation in investigating and fighting Islamist terrorism, which resulted in a close relationship between the longest-running democracy in the world and the most-infamous mockery of democracy in the Arab World. Richard Rorty, who as the originator of its titular term is obviously one of this blog’s central intellectual forebears, asserted that we should draw no distinction between morality and prudence, that a policy intended to further the good should make strategic sense as well. All that this means is, in a context of conflicting authoritarian ideologies, such as Arabism, Communism, and radical Islamism, it probably seemed morally-innocuous if not downright laudable to support a strongman with a military background who would support what for decades we have simply called “order.” But let’s not forget the fundamental problem of dictatorships: A dictatorship rarely if ever has a mechanism for transferring popular dissatisfaction with the status quo into positive policy change. People protest or riot, and the government responds with some combination of concessions and repression. Being a dictatorship, however, the government isn’t constrained by free media and courts, checks and balances, popular sovereignty or a constitution to honor these concessions, and in the face of foreign, economic or ruling coalition pressures–or his own selfish idiosyncrasies–the dictator may betray his promises, or fail to strike new ones as circumstances change; dissent returns, as does repression. Rinse (with blood), then repeat.
Our support for Anwar Sadat and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, has become less and less-defensible with time, in large part because our very support for this government has strengthened its hand while democracy has emerged in the popular consciousness as a real political alternative. Even a contributor to the arch-conservative National Review, Clifford May, has conscientiously laid-out what he considers a viable (if risk-acceptant) path to democracy in Egypt through a transition government.
Once-prudent policies can be maintained over time out of institutional drift, narrow but well-situated interest groups, ideological near-sightedness, or simple fear. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, exhibits the latter tendencies with his recent statement of solidarity…with Hosni Mubarak. CNN reported the Congressman’s January 28th warning that “America must stand with her ally Egypt to preserve an imperfect government capable of reform; and prevent a tyrannical government capable of harm.” Based on this statement, McCotter is either a reflexive optimist (regarding dictators’ good intentions), a profound pessimist (about any society’s capacity for positive change, as the political status quo in Egypt is pretty deplorable), or someone who sees the world in crude binaries (in being able to describe a future government of Egypt as “a tyrannical government capable of harm” with a straight face).
Neoconservatives whom have maintained a guarded optimism for, or at least positive feelings towards, the opposition movement in Egypt have exhibited a valuation of liberty that goes beyond simple partisanship. Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish deserves the visual idiom for this entry, with its clever contrast between Iraq in 2003 and Egypt in 2011. Or perhaps Donald Rumsfeld’s crass justification for the violence in Iraq has finally found its home: “Freedom is messy.”
To you (remaining) Neocons out there: Don’t look this gift horse–a primarily-secular, truly spontaneous democratic revolution in the most-populous Arab state–in the mouth because it happens to be politically-inconvenient. In a rare turn of affairs for the complacent, political prudence has shifted in the direction of our moral ideal.
Of course, the Liberal Ironist has the same advice for President Obama.