James Antle laments that our “recent track record for democracy promotion in the [Middle East and North Africa] is frankly not very good.” He points to the “numerous false starts — the Iraqi elections, the Cedar Revolution, the Green Revolution — that validate the case for caution and skepticism.”
I’m not sure what Antle means when he says that the Iraqi elections have been a “false start.” I think, to the contrary, the elections in Iraq have been quite promising. But his larger-scale point is well taken: Democratization in the Middle East and North Africa is difficult and challenging.
But what Antle doesn’t seem to appreciate is that this is precisely why it is incumbent upon the United States to exercise a leadership role internationally (and, especially right now, in Egypt): to help foster liberty and to tilt the scales in favor of democracy and self-rule.
The point is not to “micromanage” the democratization process, but rather to facilitate it. And, as the undisputed leader of the free world, that is, indeed, something the United States must do.
“What’s happening in Egypt right now,” Antle writes, “doesn’t seem likely to result in either an Islamic revolution or a liberal democracy. But we don’t really know, no matter how many confident predictions you read in newspaper op-eds or blog posts.”
That’s exactly right: We don’t know for sure how Egypt will turn out. Which is why the Obama administration and Congress had better act with dispatch to try and shape a positive outcome there.
Yet Antle would have us throw up our hands. ‘Why even bother?’ he effectively asks. Democratization is not something we do well.
I think Antle’s judgment here is premature. The United States hasn’t been promoting democracy for very long, after all — and we certainly haven’t done so with much vim and vigor.
The Obama administration, for instance, shamefully abandoned the Iranian protesters and simply watched with apparent indifference as that country’s “Green Revolution” was crushed.
And regrettably, as Eli Lake has observed, even the Bush administration, despite its commitment to the “Freedom Agenda,” nonetheless coddled and accommodated Mubarak’s dictatorial suppression of green, democratic offshoots in Egypt.
The United States has been similarly disengaged from Lebanon, and at precisely the time when American leadership there is most urgently needed and required.
So the failure is bipartisan. But it is a failure to promote democracy and not a failure of democracy promotion.
Antle correctly notes that democracy in Egypt and the Middle East may result in the election of illiberal figures who are hostile to America and Israel. This is true — and it underscores the need to develop a civic infrastructure of institutions, customs, laws and societal arrangements that will sustain democracy over the long haul.
But again, the United States should not simply wish for the development of this civic infrastructure; we should actively facilitate its construction.
So I am not naïve about what democracy might mean in Egypt and the Middle East: it certainly will complicate U.S. foreign policy and challenge policymakers in new and potentially dangerous ways. But what is the alternative? To continue supporting autocrats whose repression is itself a stimulus to Arab radicalism?
I am, I believe, more sanguine than Antle about the prospects for Egyptian and Middle Eastern democracy because I recognize that in a world of instantaneous communication and international travel, the universal aspiration for freedom cannot long be denied.
Of course, we shouldn’t overestimate America’s ability to shape and influence events overseas; but neither should we underestimate the extent to which we can effect much-needed change.
Finally, Antle doesn’t like the way I have framed the issue, in “sweeping ideological terms,” involving liberty versus tyranny. This “just isn’t helpful,” he says.
But why isn’t it helpful? Antle doesn’t say. I think it’s an accurate depiction of what’s at stake in Egypt and the Middle East.
Granted, tyranny in Egypt, a poor and underdeveloped country, is a lot less significant than tyranny in, say, Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany or even modern-day, Mullah-run Iran. For a variety of reasons — political, strategic, military, economic and demographic reasons — these latter countries posed, and pose, a far greater threat to American liberty.
But what Antle fails to appreciate, I think, is that in our increasingly close-knit and interdependent world, a world of international travel and instantaneous communication, culturally and geographically distant threats are a lot more dangerous and worrisome than we may realize.
The safe distance that we perceive, in fact, may be a mirage — as we learned on September 11, 2001.
And so, it is incumbent upon the United States to act preemptively in order to keep threats from ever materializing. Seizing this newfound opportunity to facilitate democratization in Egypt is an important and integral part of our preemption efforts.
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