Clueless on Cairo
My three-week victory, your seven-year mess
It is difficult trying to figure out what the left’s position is on democracy and the Middle East. Here’s a brief effort.
Once upon a time, a number of prominent liberals — among them Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid — thought it was a good idea to remove Saddam Hussein and supplant his Baathist rule with democracy. I say that with confidence since one can watch the speeches of the senators in question on YouTube debating the 23-writ authorizations to use force in October 2002, in addition to reading the New York Times and Newsweek editorials between 2002-3 of prominent liberal columnists. The New Republic stable of authors was particularly in favor of the Bush-Cheney “just war” to invade Iraq. Jonathan Chait (who would go on to author an infamous essay about why "I hate George Bush”) and Peter Beinhart were especially hard on the fellow left for not joining the Bush effort.
By early 2004, almost all that liberal support had entirely dissipated, predicated on two developments. First, a presidential election was just months away and Bush’s war was no longer “mission accomplished” but turning into a campaign liability. Second, a resistance had formed under hard-core Islamists that was beginning to take a heavy toll on American forces. No WMD had been found, and it was now easy to suggest that one could withdraw support for building democracy in Iraq because two of the 23 writs for going to war were no longer operative, the effort was probably lost, and George W. Bush might well deservedly not be reelected.
No matter. Bush pressed on. His polls sunk yet he was barely reelected. His ongoing “democracy” agenda got little support from those who once had enthusiastically praised the Iraqi adventure and had proclaimed their belief in universal human rights. Few came to Sec. of State Rice’s support when in 2005 she chastised Hosni Mubarak’s regime to grant fundamental rights. Fewer saw any connection between Saddam's fate and America's pro-democratic stance and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the fright of Mr. Gaddafi who gave up his WMD arsenal, or the sudden willingness of Pakistan to harness Dr. Khan.
Instead, “spreading democracy” was seen by the left as a wounded George Bush’s quirky tic. His talk about "universal" freedom was ridiculed more as a manifestation of a sort of evangelical Christianity than genuine political idealism. Bush’s zeal for democracy, then, was orphaned: the right was now realist again ("they are either incapable of democracy or not worth the effort to implant it") and the left multicultural (“who are we of all people to say what sort of government others should employ?").
Then and now
Note especially that Barack Obama, both as senator and presidential candidate, derided the war, declared the surge as failed, and wanted all troops out of Iraq by March 2008, regardless of the effect on the struggling Maliki government. That Bush also confronted Putin over the putdown of Georgia, allowed a plebiscite in Gaza, and warned of the anti-democratic tendencies of a Chavez or Ahmadinejad was drowned out by Iraq. Remember that these were the days of Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore calling for a right-wing fundamentalist insurgent victory in Iraq, and novels and films envisioning the assassination of George Bush.
Fast forward to the presidency of Barack Obama. I think it is fair to suggest that all talk about promoting democracy was dropped entirely, and for three reasons: anything Bush had promoted was de facto tainted (“reset”); Obama’s multiculturalism accepted that all indigenous governments were more authentic than an imported Western democracy (cf. his silence over the brutal putdown of the Iranian dissidents); Obama was busy courting China and Russia, two authoritarian and powerful governments that could complicate any pro-democracy pressure on lesser states.
Better to be enemies
I note in passing once more that when it was a question of “tilting,” Obama usually seemed more fond of the anti-democratic than the democratic alternative: Syria and Iran were courted, Israel was snubbed; Colombia was ignored, Cuba and Venezuela got “outreach”; Eastern Europe was taken for granted, autocratic Russia was romanced. In short, whether because of Pavlovian anti-Bush tendencies, multicultural preference for authentic indigenous leadership, or wishing a stage for the postracial, postnational Obama to charm our enemies and achieve a “breakthrough,” Obama cared little at all about promoting human rights (note that all Obama's once shrill civil rights bluster about Guantanamo, tribunals, renditions, preventative detention, the Patriot Act, Iraq, and drone attacks was dropped — on the cynical but correct premise that the left would still idolize a President Obama even if he parroted Dick Cheney).
Back to Egypt
All of which brings us to Egypt. I think it would also be fair to say that the administration has been caught entirely surprised. Far from being a sort of national liberationist of the left, Obama is simply confused — his advisors now telling him that Mubarak must go, that he must go sometime, that the demonstrators are genuine democratic patriots, that they are dupes who will be pushed aside by the Muslim Brotherhood, which itself is either sinister or in fact reformed and a possible future U.S. partner.
In turn, the president seems to voice the last advice he was given, and so we are to assume two things: one, his make "no mistake about it" declaration will change and soon be rendered obsolete as conditions on the ground in Egypt change; two, he will artfully inject himself into the breaking news by the overuse of the now accustomed "I, my, mine" as he is self-constructed to be the catalyst for all that is becoming good and a long harsh critic of all that is turning bad. In other words, Obama will talk far too much and seek to turn someone else’s revolution into a showcase of his own rhetoric. And in adolescent fashion, Obama will reveal private conversations he has had with Egyptian leaders, both breaking confidentiality and portraying his interlocutors as either agreeing with his own advice or nodding to his dictates and directives.
What do I derive from all this? Hillary was right about her 3AM slur, and Obama is acting as any 2-year Senate veteran might in such a crisis. There is no consistent support from the left for democracy movements overseas. Strongmen like Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad, and Assad are weirdly seen as either untouchable or genuine in a way a Mubarak or a Jordanian king is not. And the latter are vulnerable only when it looks like they may fail; if they seem stable, we hear not a peep from Obama about their human rights records.
In short, the left has not yet sorted out its adherence to multiculturalism and its supposed support for human rights, which are usually antithetical. It apparently believes that any pro-democratic criticism of Obama’s tepidness is not worth the damage that might accrue to his agenda of universal health care, more entitlements, and left-wing domestic appointments. Whereas on the right there are three fissures over Egypt — neocon support for the protestors, realist support for Mubarak to keep a lid on things and change slowly, isolationist desires to keep the hell out of another costly obligation — on the left these days it is basically trying to explain postfacto Obama’s herky-jerky policies as coherent, successful, and idealist.
Predictions? I think unfortunately we may go the 1940s “we can work with Mao”/1970s "no inordinate fear of communism"/2000s "jihad can mean a personal struggle" route, where liberals believe that totalitarian nationalists somehow admire the American Revolution and our lack of a colonial heritage, and, as closet moderates, wish to work with us. That translates into a backdoor courtship with the Muslim Brotherhood, in the fashion we did with Khomeini, and ends in a decade or so with a Sunni Ahmadinejad and the betrayal of the present protestors — again, in the manner we did the Iranian moderate reformers in 1979-80 and again in 2009.
How odd that in support of the brave secular protestors in the streets of Cairo, we are already talking about not demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood — the existential enemies of every idealist now trying to win a free society from Mubarak, the dictator/non-dictator who must go now!, very soon, after he transitions a new government in the summer, when a new president is elected in the fall, or, as future events dictate, not at all.