John Guardiano may turn out to be right that the protests in Egypt aren’t a replay of the Islamic revolution in Iran, but it is hardly clear that they are the equivalent of Jefferson-quoting demonstrators in Tiananmen Square either. We’ve seen numerous examples of free elections in majority-Muslim polities empowering Islamist parties, from Iraq to the Palestinian Authority. We’ve frequently seen bad governments replaced by worse governments or governments incapable of governing at all.
Creating democracy where it has never existed before is extremely difficult and requires a great deal more than just free elections, facts that proponents of the democracy promotion project are usually quick to acknowledge in theory but frequently slow to recognize in practice.
Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government. Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain — because they make heavy demands on all portions of a population and because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.
The above wasn’t written by Pat Buchanan or even George H.W. Bush. Those are the words of uber-Reaganite neoconservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, writing in Commentary, not Chronicles or the American Conservative. The democratists are right that U.S. support for authoritarian regimes has helped turn portions of the Arab and Muslim world against us. But it doesn’t automatically follow that the U.S. should jump into supporting the overthrow of those governments, especially given the real-world alternatives.
We simply don’t know the extent of the opposition’s liberalism. We don’t know whether the Muslim Brotherhood is hanging back during the protests to take advantage of the fall of Mubarak when it (possibly) comes. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. should attempt to prop up the existing government, even though it has been more reliable in the war on terror than a government in which the Muslim Brotherhood plays a large role would likely be. Our lack of knowledge should inspire caution and humility, the “humble foreign policy” once espoused by the president associated with the “freedom agenda.”
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