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The Neocons' Egypt Dilemma

On the surface, the situation in Egypt right now would seem tailor-made for automatic neocon approval: a country chafing under the rule of a repressive and entrenched leader, its people eager for more democracy, and protesting in the streets on their own behalf. And yet it’s not so simple.

Amal, a head-scarfed Egyptian woman in Tahrir Square, is quoted as saying, “We need democracy in Egypt. … We just want what you have.” But if Amal were asked exactly what she means by the word “democracy,” would she include the safeguards that go hand-in-hand with democracy in order to secure liberty, and without which it can so easily decline into “one person, one vote, one time”? What if forces for oppression in Egypt that are far worse than Mubarak end up opportunistically coming into the ascendance in the vacuum left by his departure?

But why would some neocons who supported the invasion of Iraq, and the overwhelmingly difficult task of establishing a democracy there, advocate more caution in Egypt? Likewise, why would some who criticized Obama’s 2009 recalcitrance to support the pro-democracy forces in Iran now advocate going slowly in Egypt?

In all the postwar brouhaha over the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, it is easy to forget that belief in the existence of such weaponry and in Saddam’s willingness to use it once developed, coupled with his repeated violations of UN resolutions concerning inspections, constituted a large portion of the motivation to go to war there. Whether the occupation and reconstruction would succeed was unknown, although in retrospect many neocons were unrealistically optimistic. But even those who saw that there were huge risks were willing to take them in Iraq because the risk of doing nothing seemed even greater.

The situation in Egypt is very different. Egypt is one of our allies in the Middle East. It was the first country that signed a separate peace with Israel, and Egypt is a bulwark of what passes for moderation in that area of the world. And although Mubarak is corrupt and repressive, he’s not even close to being in the same league as Saddam Hussein. Unlike in Iraq, Mubarak’s successor stands only a small chance of being better than Mubarak and could be a great deal worse. In short, there is potentially much more to lose in Egypt than there was in Iraq, both for the Egyptian people and for the U.S. and its allies (including Israel) in the region.

But shouldn’t neocons support the striving for democracy wherever it may come and whatever form it may take? It is true that neocons believe that liberal democracy is generally a good thing for people. But they also believe that it is a good thing for the U.S. in particular because, in Max Boot’s words, “liberal democracies rarely fight one another, sponsor terrorism, or use weapons of mass destruction.” So neocon encouragement of liberal democracy around the world contains an unapologetic element of U.S. self-interest along with its altruism.

The left’s attitude towards pro-democracy movements tends to feature a different emphasis. The left is more excited about pro-democracy movements that occur in countries already allied with the U.S., such as Egypt, because they often contain elements of anti-Americanism and the excellent prospect of undermining U.S. power by turning against this country. To a great degree, the left opposed the Iraq war — and Bush’s promotion of democracy in former enemy Iraq afterward — because they saw both actions as colonialist and exploitative, and too potentially favorable to American interests if Iraq ended up in the U.S.’s sphere of influence.

The present dilemma plaguing neocons and many others on the right is how to balance their wish to support the people of Egypt in their drive to determine their own destiny against the hard-won knowledge that the end result might well be less liberty for those people, and could endanger U.S. and Israeli security as well. That is exactly what happened in Iran, a cautionary tale.

Leading neocons come down on different sides of the issue. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard is the optimist, labeling the doubters fearful and shortsighted and calling for them to stand with freedom-lovers, likening the pro-democracy forces in Egypt to our patriots in 1776 rather than those of the French or the Russian or Iranian Revolutions. Unfortunately, he gives no reasons why the proper parallels would be to the U.S. rather than those more ill-fated upheavals.

Paul Wolfowitz is also somewhat hopeful that Islamists won’t take control in Egypt, although he talks a “shoulda, woulda, coulda” line of regret:

In … Egypt, the United States could have pushed actively for gradual reforms, such as the development of legitimate political parties, credible legal institutions and free elections, and curtailing First Family cronyism. That might have averted the present crisis and allowed leaders and institutions to emerge that could manage a stable transition after the departure of the dictators.

Wolfowitz’s statement emphasizes one tenet of neocon thought, which is that the U.S. should peacefully encourage the development of free elections and civil rights in states where we have leverage (such as Egypt) before things get so bad that the people must rise up in revolt. He points out that President Bush pressured Mubarak to reform, but backed off towards the second part of his second term, and that President Obama has done far worse by drastically cutting funding for nearly all democracy support programs around the world. No ounce of prevention there.

Charles Krauthammer is the least optimistic, and sees the Egyptian army as the best faction to support, the key to stability, and the only force strong enough to counter groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

But it is Natan Sharansky who just might say it best:

“Only when the basic institutions that protect a free society are firmly in place — such as a free press, the rule of law, independent courts, political parties — can free elections be held,” Mr. Sharansky wrote in “The Case for Democracy.” In Egypt, those “free, developed institutions,” he tells me, “will not be developed by September.”

Sharansky believes that if the U.S. and other western nations make it clear to whomever comes after Mubarak in Egypt that no aid will be forthcoming unless those basic underpinnings of liberal democracy are built, then in a couple of years Egypt will be ready for it. But unfortunately, he has few suggestions as to how such an interim government could possibly placate the Egyptian people who are clamoring for democracy now.

One encouraging fact for the future of democracy in Egypt is that the country seems to have no single powerful charismatic theocratic figure around which to rally, unlike Iran and the extraordinarily popular Khomeini. A turning point in Khomeini’s consolidation of power in Iran was when some factions among the Iranian military began to defect to his side, and he declared jihad against soldiers who did not surrender. In Egypt, the army has been a prime mover in politics for decades, and it has a tradition of being antagonistic to the Muslim Brotherhood. If that starts to change, and the Brotherhood begins to attract the support of any significant segment of the army, it would be an exceedingly ominous sign.