The world owes a great debt to Ronald Reagan, who richly deserves every encomium published on the occasion of his 100th birthday. But pace John Guardiano, “putting the United States squarely on the side of freedom and democracy worldwide” is a great oversimplification of what actually happened. On Marcos’ Philippines and apartheid-era South Africa, to cite two examples, Reagan generally supported our allies until the clamor in the streets made clear that they must go — roughly the equivalent of U.S. policy toward Egypt today.
Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy in its former republics remains a fragile thing. Even in Russia, the government still frequently flirts with authoritarianism. Although Freedom House designates 72 percent of the region as at least partly free and a plurality of it as free, 55 percent of the population still lives in countries it classifies as not free. This is not to deny the advances in liberty that have occured in the former Soviet bloc, but merely to point out that even here democracy is not built easily and is about much more than elections.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the foundations for democracy are weaker (and infinitely weaker than in postwar France and Italy). Again, the only free country in the region is Israel. The Economist Intelligence Unit classfies the region as 80 percent authoritarian and 15 percent “hybrid,” which seems rather generous. The recent track record for democracy promotion in the region is frankly not very good and we’ve seen numerous false starts — the Iraqi elections, the Cedar Revolution, the Green Revolution — that validate the case for caution and skepticism. What’s happening in Egypt right now doesn’t seem likely to result in either an Islamic revoltion 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.
Moreover, we shouldn’t be naive about how the United States and Israel are viewed by the “Arab street.” Over the objections of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Bush State Department insisted that Hamas be allowed to run in Gaza’s elections and then were shocked when they actually won. This put the U.S. in a difficult position, to put it mildly. As we see when we read people calling for democracy in Egypt only so long as the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t benefit, many democratists plainly do want to pick the winners and losers in Egypt and elsewhere — and somewhat understandably so, given who some of the winners would obviously be. The transition to genuinely liberal democracy for these countries is one we don’t have the right, the knowledge, or the ability to micromanage.
Finally, thinking about complicated foreign policy matters in such sweeping ideological terms — “The United States cannot be neutral here or elsewhere!” — just isn’t helpful. Mubarak versus the Muslim Brotherhood is not morally equivalent to the Free World versus Communism or the Allies versus Nazism, and no matter how sincere the longings for better government are those could conceivably be the two alternatives that are really in play. The United States should put itself broadly on the side of the basic rights of the Egyptian people and then stand back and let the Egytpians make the government in their own country.