The trouble with this view of democracy promotion is that it is unfalsifiable: if democracy doesn’t take root, that just shows we didn’t try hard enough; if democracy takes root without liberal results, just be patient — freedom is on the march! The sheer fact that people with no direct connection to Saddam Hussein found Iraq a livable place under his brutal dictatorship and now do not should tell us that all is not well there. After a certain point, you have to look at countries electing Islamist parties and descending into sectarian chaos, with total catastrophe only averted by the presence of thousands of American troops, and ask if theory meets practice. Eventually, repeatedly invoking our successes in World War II and the Cold War becomes an exercise in missing the point.
In the short term, there is no obvious way to both advance American interests in Egypt and democracy for Egyptians unless you pretend it is impossible for anti-American forces to take a bigger role in the Egyptian government. (See McCain, John.) We’ve already paid for some of the guns that are being fired on the protesters. Are we sure that Egyptians want our leadership? Do they get a say?
The United States needs to “develop a civic infrastructure of institutions, customs, laws and societal arrangements that will sustain democracy over the long haul” for a foreign country? Who is going to do that? The Obama administration? Give me a break. The only way I would support that is if I thought it would distract them from their usual task of wrecking and bankrupting this country. But the Bush administration seemed perfectly capable of multitasking on the country-wrecking and bankrupting front, so I am sure the Obama administration would prove similarly nimble.
And that is why I don’t think a sweepingly ideological, black-and-white approach to dealing with the world is always helpful: because it is not always moored in reality. We have not Facebooked and tweeted our way out of deep-seated ethnic and religious strife in much of the world. There is very little evidence aside from bloggers’ confident assurances that we have even the faintest notion of what we are doing when it comes to nation-building in the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt is the Egyptians’ country. It belongs to them, not us. They did not vote us their leaders. Let them shape their future, as free of our “facilitation” as possible.