The crisis in Egypt has exposed the divisions that separate neoconservatives from other hawkish conservatives (I’m not exactly sure which label to put on this latter group). People often confuse these two groups as one in the same, because they both are generally supportive of aggressive military action, skeptical of international institutions that undermine U.S. interests, strong defenders of Israel, often advocates of regime change, and so forth. But this other group is much more skeptical of democracy promotion.
A perfect way to demonstrate this divide is to look at John Bolton, who has often been misidentified as a neoconservative because he supported many of the same policies, but he has always eschewed this label – in Iraq, for instance, he’s said we should have toppled Saddam and then pulled out once we captured him. He was not on board with the nation building part. Not surprisingly, when it comes to Egypt, as many neoconservatives are cheerleading the protesters, Bolton has said:
I don’t think we have evidence yet that these demonstrations are necessarily about democracy. You know the old saying, “one person, one vote, one time.” The Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t care about democracy, if they get into power you’re not going to have free and fair elections either….
Let’s be clear what the stakes are for the United States. We have an authoritarian regime in power that has been our ally. We don’t know at this point what the real alternatives are.
He also said that the U.S. “better advised to remain silent” on Egypt.
I find myself more in agreement with Bolton on this one. Sure, it would be great if somehow a new, Western-style democratic government emerged that was friendly to the United States, but that’s only one of many possible outcomes stemming from the current chaos, and probably the least likely. Other possible outcomes are that the Muslim Brotherhood gains power as Hamas did in Gaza, or, at least attains more influence than it had under Hosni Mubarak. No matter what happens, there’s a good chance that the resulting government will be less friendly to the U.S. And the very minimum we can say is that we don’t really know how this will all turn out, and whether it would be good or bad for the U.S. is very much in doubt.
I differ from neoconservatives in two important respects – I’m not going to cheer the protests for the sake of cheering any groups that rise up against a despot without knowing what the result will be, and I don’t think that there’s much – if anything – America can or should do at this point to ensure a more favorable outcome. It was mind-boggling this week when I asked Sen. John McCain about the prospects of the Muslim Brotherhood being included in the government, and he said to me, “I think the United States should take every step to make sure there is a free and fair and open and transparent election, and that won’t happen.” So, not only is America going to ensure free and fair elections, but if we do so, the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood is going to suddenly disappear.
The neoconservative view is that U.S. support for tyrants in the Middle East has fueled resentment of America among the people, and that by encouraging democracy – even with force if necessary – we can reverse this trend, and have friendly, free governments in the region. It’s nice to believe that this could be the case, and I understand the temptation – I was taken in by the idea after the invasion of Iraq. But I think it’s too oversimplified.
Right now, many are saying that the chaos in Egypt shows that we can’t support autocrats, because in the end, they aren’t a source of stability. It may be true that Mubarak is no longer a source of stability, but for 30 years, he’s led the most important Arab nation (which controls the oil-transporting Suez Canal) and has kept its government about as friendly to the United States as can be hoped for in that region, he’s helped us in the war against terrorism, provided a check on Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and has maintained the peace treaty with Israel (the two countries were at war in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973). Now, certainly, his record on human rights is atrocious, so I’m not going to defend him on that front or root for him to brutally crack down on peaceful protesters. But at the same time, I’m not going to cheer for the protesters just because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy especially when the result of the protests could quite conceivably be a government that’s still autocratic, but also anti-American. And one that helps support terrorism rather than fight it.
With Iran, I was actively cheering on the protesters, because that regime is already autocratic, anti-American, and Islamist and it sponsors terrorism – it’s hard to imagine how things could possibly get worse. But with regards to Egypt, there’s not much to do right now other than sit back and hope for the best.