Ed Driscoll

Putting the Cart Before the Strong Horse

At Commentary’s Contentions blog, Max Boot asks: “Are We All Neocons Now?”

Ministers being forced to resign. The army in the streets. Bloody clashes in major cities. The ruling party headquarters in ashes.

Events in Egypt have moved beyond the demonstration stage. This is a revolution in progress. Whether it is a successful revolution or not remains to be seen. From 1848 to 1989, there have been no end of uprisings that have been successfully repressed. Hosni Mubarak may still succeed in hanging on to power, although that’s looking less likely with every passing hour of street clashes.

But whatever happens, one thing is already clear: as Pete Wehner has already noted, President Bush was right in pushing his “freedom agenda” for the Middle East.

When he pushed for democratic change in the region, legions of know-it-all skeptics — including Barack Obama — scoffed. What business was it of America to comment on, much less try to change, other countries’ internal affairs? Why meddle with reliable allies? Wasn’t it the height of neocon folly to imagine a more democratic future for places like Iraq or Egypt?

Turns out that Bush knew a thing or two. He may not have been all that sophisticated by some standards, but like Ronald Reagan, he grasped basic truths that eluded the intellectuals. Reagan, recall, earned endless scorn for suggesting that the “evil empire” might soon be consigned to the “ash heap of history.” But he understood that basic human desires for freedom could not be repressed forever. Bush understood precisely the same thing, and like Reagan he also realized that the U.S. had to get on the right side of history by championing freedom rather than by cutting disreputable deals with dictators.

At NRO’s Corner, Jay Nordlinger adds:

Today, as Egypt explodes, I can’t help thinking of George W. Bush. I think in particular of an appearance he made in Sharm El Sheikh, in May 2008. I wrote about that appearance here. Before a conference of Middle Eastern elites, and their Western associates, Bush gave a speech that stood on the side of the men and women in the prison cells. And the people throughout the region who were hoping for a more democratic, freer, worthier life.

I will quote from my piece (written in the present tense, journal-style):

In due course, Bush slaps down the notion that democracy is a Western value, which America seeks to impose on unwilling people. “This is a condescending form of moral relativism,” he says. “The truth is that freedom is a universal right — the Almighty’s gift to every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth.”

This was the sort of talk that drove many Middle Eastern elites crazy. (They worried for their positions, for one thing.) It drove many Westerners crazy, too. In America, the Left hated any talk from Bush about freedom and democracy. They thought it was bigoted, dangerous, ethnocentric, theocratic, insensitive, self-congratulatory, hypocritical, warmongering, McCarthyite, crude, etc. As for conservatives, many of them harrumphed, as only conservatives can: “‘Freedom’! ‘Democracy’! A desire ‘beating in every human heart’! What a crock!”

But a culture has to be created to allow such ideas to flourish, which brings us to Stanley Kurtz’s contrarian take, also at the Corner.  “Revolution in Egypt? I’m Pessimistic:”

Ever since 9/11, I’ve been skeptical of plans for what I consider to be overly rapid and naively optimistic American plans to democratize the Middle East. It’s not that I’m against democracy, or even against policies designed to encourage it over the long term. The problem is that what Americans actually mean by democracy is not just elections, but liberal democracy, the broader cultural attitude toward individual liberty that’s necessary to make elections work. Bring elections prematurely to a country with a deeply illiberal culture, and you are asking for trouble. We Americans tend to take our liberal democratic values for granted, and so we’re often slow to recognize that merely giving Middle Easterners the ballot isn’t enough to turn them into liberal democrats.

World War II saw America and its allies first utterly flatten Germany and Japan, and then rebuild their infrastructures, but much more importantly, their cultures from the ground-up. The former was due in part from the limitations of our military technology at the time, which simply didn’t allow for much precision. The latter occurred because of the free west’s unshakable belief that liberal democracy was a far better system that what it was replacing amongst the former Axis nations.

As we saw when “Shock and Awe” occurred in the opening phases of our liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein, which quickly crippled Iraq’s government, particularly its ability to communicate with its army, and minimized, as much as any attack can, casualties to civilians, America’s military is now far more advanced technologically than it was in 1945. But our cultural confidence has regressed, arguably in equal measures, since then. Today, our government — even when it was led by a man as pro-freedom as GWB — simply lacks the confidence to hit the CTL-ALT-DLT keys on another nation’s culture, hence the situation that Kurtz describes above, where we champion democracy, but aren’t willing to incubate a culture in which it will flourish.

We don’t know how Iraq will ultimately turn out, particularly with Iran continuing to snipe at it, and Afghanistan remains a basket case of a nation from all accounts. Both of these nations are better off than they were when Saddam was in power and the Taliban operating unrestricted. But they’re also still each remarkably imperfect models for Egypt to draw upon.

Am I wrong? This is one time I’d very much like to be.