The Spectacle Blog

In Egypt and Elsewhere, America Cannot Remain Neutral

By on 1.31.11 | 6:55PM

James Antle and John Tabin both make important points about democratization in Egypt and the Middle East. Antle rightly notes that "creating democracy where it has never existed before is extremely difficult and requires a great deal more than just free elections."

That, in fact, is precisely the point I made in an AmSpec blog entry on Saturday. Democratization, I wrote, is a long and developing process which includes an entire "infrastructure of institutions, customs, laws and societal arrangements that allow democracy to work and to flourish."

But as Tabin rightly points out, ever since Ronald Reagan was elected president, the world has changed dramatically and generally in a more democratic direction. This is in large measure attributable to a concerted change in U.S. foreign policy, initiated by Reagan and championed (with varying degrees of effectiveness and vigor) by George W. Bush.

The policy change initiated by Reagan involved putting the United States squarely on the side of freedom and democracy worldwide. And the result, as Tabin, observes, has been a dramatic sea change in governance, with 59 percent of countries now at least somewhat democratic, according to Freedom House.

In 1979, by contrast, as Jeanne Kirpatrick observed, "most governments in the world [were], as they [had] always been, autocracies of one kind or another."

Now, Antle is right to note that the liberal democratic wave has yet to really hit the Middle East and sub-Saharan North Africa. That's true, though we shouldn't give short shrift to the Iraqi people. The Iraqis, after all, have repeatedly and heroically demonstrated their commitment to democracy, even in the face of vicious and intimidating violence by a relative handful of Islamists.

In any case, the lack of a democratic tradition in the Middle East is precisely what makes the uprising in Egypt so remarkable and so promising -- and, therefore, so worthy of active and vigorous American support.

Here you have a widespread national rebellion against Mubarak's 30-year autocracy. And this in a place, Egypt, where none of the so-called experts seem ever to have envisioned liberal democracy taking hold.

And the protesters are not Islamists, radicals or pan-Arabists; they are Egyptians, many of them young people, who want nothing more than a better life and a more responsive government. The fact is that Egyptian civil society is a lot more advanced than Antle and other so-called foreign policy realists seem to realize or wish to acknowledge.

Caution and skepticism, of course, are always warranted. Revolutions are inherently risky. But that is precisely why it is incumbent upon the United States to exercise leadership: to help avert a nightmare scenario. Yet the man who campaigned on "hope and change" has said very little about promoting real hope and change where it is most urgently needed: in the heart of the Middle East.

The point is not to "pick winners and losers," as Antle suggests; it is to help create a political environment within Egypt in which the Egyptian people themselves can pick winners and losers.

And the point is not to have free and fair elections once; it is to create a dynamic within Egypt that will leader to greater democratization and development over time.

It is true that, in the short run, democratization in the Middle East might empower radical elements who threaten Israel and the United States. This is a real risk, but one that we must accept and sanction -- just as we did in Italy and France after World War II.

In the mid-to-late 1940s, you will recall, the communist parties in Italy and France commanded significant popular support and thus were allowed to compete in free and fair elections. Electoral competition served to expose and isolate the communists as the extremists that they were. And so, democratization in both Italy and France continued apace in spite of the communists.

In the same way, radical elements might attract popular support in Egypt and the Middle East. But the way to minimize their influence is twofold: First, ensure that the democratic political infrastructure is in place to hold rulers and legislators accountable to the people whom they govern.

The radicals espouse political and economic policies that cannot work. So long as they are held accountable (in free and fair elections) for their policy failures, we can be sure that their influence will wane over time.

Second, the United States and Israel must remain strong and assertive, both militarily and diplomatically. There's a reason, after all, that Egypt hasn't gone to war against Israel since 1973; and that reason ain't the Camp David Peace Accords. It is, instead, that Egypt recognizes that a war against Israel would be suicidal.

Israel, aided and abetted by the United States, must continue to make the cost of war prohibitive to any and all aggressors. And the United States must work to isolate the radicals -- politically, diplomatically and economically -- so that their attraction and allure to people throughout the Middle East steadily wanes over time.

Indeed, as the late great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis explained, "sunshine is the best disinfectant." Force the radicals to espouse workable public policies, and even to govern, and watch them fade into the ash heap of history. Or side with the autocrats and watch the radicals grow in unwarranted stature and influence throughout Egypt and the Middle East. That's the choice that now confronts us.

Still, we shouldn't overstate the Islamist threat in Egypt, as many American conservatives have done and, regrettably, continue to do. Everything that we've seen thus far demonstrates conclusively that the protesters are ordinary Egyptians with legitimate and democratic aspirations.

And the United States of America -- a country founded on the proposition that "all men are created equal; [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights... among [which] are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" -- cannot and must not remain neutral in the great and eternal struggle between liberty and tyranny.

We must choose sides; and we must choose liberty: because liberty is precisely what America and Americans are all about.

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