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.