by Jim Lobe
If one thing has become clear in the wake of last week’s military coup d’etat against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, it’s that democracy promotion is not a core principle of neoconservatism. Unlike protecting Israeli security and preserving its military superiority over any and all possible regional challenges (which is a core neoconservative tenet), democracy promotion is something that neoconservatives disagree among themselves about — a conclusion that is quite inescapable after reviewing the reactions of prominent neoconservatives to last week’s coup in Cairo. Some, most notably Robert Kagan, are clearly committed to democratic governance and see it pretty much as a universal aspiration, just as many liberal internationalists do. An apparent preponderance of neocons, such as Daniel Pipes, the contributors to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and Commentary’s ‘Contentions’ blog, on the other hand, are much clearer in their view that democracy may be a universal aspiration, but it can be a disaster in practice, especially when the wrong people get elected, in which case authoritarian rulers and military coups are much to be preferred.
The latter group harkens back to the tradition established by Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams, among others, in the late 1970’s when anti-communist “friendly authoritarians” — no matter their human rights records — were much preferred to left-wingers who claimed to be democrats but whose anti-imperialist, anti-American or pro-Palestinian sympathies were deemed too risky to indulge. These leftists have now been replaced by Islamists as the group we need “friendly authoritarians” (or “friendly militaries”) to keep under control, if not crush altogether.
Many neoconservatives have claimed that they’ve been big democracy advocates since the mid-1980’s when they allegedly persuaded Ronald Reagan to shift his support from Ferdinand Marcos to the “people power” movement in the Philippines (even as they tacitly, if not actively, supported apartheid South Africa and considered Nelson Mandela’s ANC a terrorist group). They were also behind the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-governmental organization headed by one of Kirkpatrick’s deputies, Carl Gershman, and designed to provide the kind of political and technical support to sympathetic groups abroad that the CIA used to supply covertly. (Indeed, the NED has not been wholly transparent, and some of its beneficiaries have been involved in highly undemocratic practices, such as agitating for military coups against democratically elected leftist governments, most recently in Haiti and Venezuela. I was at a dinner a few years ago when, in answer to my question about how he perceived neoconservative support for democracies, Zbigniew Brzezinski quipped that when neoconservatives talk about democratization, they really mean destabilization.) In a 2004 op-ed published in Beirut’s Daily Star, I wrote about how neoconservatives have used democracy promotion over the past quarter century as a means to rally public and Congressional support behind specific (often pro-Israel, in their minds at least) policies and strategic objectives, such as the invasion of Iraq.
The notion that neoconservatives really do promote democracy has now, however, become conventional wisdom, even among some foreign-policy realists and paleoconservatives who should know better. In his 2010 book, NeoConservatism: The Biography of a Movement, Justin Vaisse, then at the Brookings Institution and now head of policy planning at the French foreign ministry, included democracy promotion among five principles — along with international engagement, military supremacy, “benevolent empire” and unilateralism — that are found at the core of what he called “third-age neoconservatism,” which he dates from 1995 to the present. (In a rather shocking omission, he didn’t put Israel in the same core category, although he noted, among other things, that neoconservatives’ “uncompromising defense of Israel” has been consistent throughout the movement’s history. In a review of the book in the Washington Post, National Review editor Rich Lowry included “the staunch defense of Israel” as among the “main themes” of neoconservatism from the outset.)
In his own recent summary of the basics of neoconservatism (and its zombie-like — his word — persistence), Abrams himself praised Vaisse’s analysis, insisting that, in addition to “patriotism, American exceptionalism, (and) a belief in the goodness of America and in the benefits of American power and of its use,”…a conviction that democracy is the best system of government and should be spread whenever that is practical” was indeed a core element of neoconservatism. (True to form, he omits any mention of Israel.)
It seems to me that the coup in Egypt is a good test of whether or not Vaisse’s and Abrams’ thesis that democracy is indeed a core element of neoconservatism because no one (except Pipes) seriously contests the fact that Morsi was the first democratically elected president of Egypt in that country’s history. I will stipulate that elections by themselves do not a democracy make and that liberal values embedded in key institutions are critical elements of democratic governance. And I’ll concede that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were not as inclusive and liberal as we in the West may have wished them to be.
But it’s also worth pointing out that their opposition — be it among Mubarak holdovers in the judiciary and the security forces or among the liberals and secularists who played catalytic roles in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak and now again against Morsi — did not exactly extend much in the way of cooperation with Morsi’s government either. (Indeed, Thursday’s New York Times article on the degree to which Mubarak’s cronies and his so-called “deep state” set out to deliberately sabotage Morsi’s rule recalls nothing more than what happened prior to the 1973 coup in Chile.) And we shouldn’t forget that Morsi not only won popular elections outright, but that that Islamists, led by the Brotherhood, gained a majority in elections for parliament (that was subsequently dissolved by the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Constitutional Court). Morsi and his allies were also able to muster 64 percent of the vote in a referendum to ratify a constitution, however flawed we may consider that (now-suspended) document to have been. In any event, the democratic election of a president is not a minor matter in any democratic transition, and ousting him in a military coup, especially in a country where the military has effectively ruled without interruption for more than half a century, does not exactly make a democratic transition any easier.
Now, if Vaisse and Abrams are right that democracy is a core principle of neoconservativism, one would expect neoconservatives to be unanimous in condemning the coup and possibly also in calling for the Obama administration to cut off aid, as required under U.S. law whenever a military coup ousts an elected leader. (After all, the “rule of law” is an essential element of a healthy democracy, and ignoring a law or deliberately failing to enforce it does not offer a good example of democratic governance — a point Abrams himself makes below. Indeed, the fact that the administration appears to have ruled out cutting aid for the time being will no doubt persuade the Egyptian military and other authoritarian institutions in the region that, when push comes to shove, Washington will opt for stability over democracy every time.)
So how have neoconservatives — particularly those individuals, organizations, and publications that Vaisse listed as “third-age” neoconservatives in the appendix of his book — come down on recent events in Egypt? (Vaisse listed four publications — “The Weekly Standard, Commentary, The New Republic (to some extent) [and] Wall Street Journal (editorial pages) — as the most important in third-age neoconservatism. Almost all of the following citations are from three of those four, as The New Republic, which was still under the control of Martin Peretz when Vaisse published his book, has moved away from neoconservative views since.)
Well, contrary to the Vaisse-Abrams thesis, it seems third-age neoconservatives are deeply divided on the question of democracy in Egypt, suggesting that democracy promotion is, in fact, not a core principle or pillar of neoconservative ideology. If anything, it’s a pretty low priority, just as it was back in the Kirkpatrick days.
Let’s take the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page as a starter.
Here’s Bret Stephens, the Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Global View” columnist even before the coup:
[T]he lesson from Egypt is that democracy may be a blessing for people capable of self-government, but it’s a curse for those who are not. There is a reason that Egypt has been governed by pharaohs, caliphs, pashas and strongmen for 6,000 years.
The best outcome for Egypt would be early elections, leading to the Brotherhood’s defeat at the hands of a reformist, technocratic government with military support. The second-best outcome would be a bloodless military coup, followed by the installment of a reformist government.
And here’s the Journal’s editorial board the day after the coup:
Mr. Obama also requested a review of U.S. aid to Egypt, but cutting that off now would be a mistake. Unpopular as America is in Egypt, $1.3 billion in annual military aid buys access with the generals. U.S. support for Cairo is written into the Camp David peace accords with Israel. Washington can also do more to help Egypt gain access to markets, international loans and investment capital. The U.S. now has a second chance to use its leverage to shape a better outcome.
Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.
Now, consider the New York Times’ David Brooks (included by Vaisse as a third-age neocon in his Appendix) writing a column entitled “Defending the Coup”, just two days after the it took place:
It has become clear – in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere – that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. Many have absolutist apocalyptic mind-sets. They have a strange fascination with a culture of death.
…Promoting elections is generally a good thing even when they produce victories for democratic forces we disagree with. But elections are not a good thing when they lead to the elevation of people whose substantive beliefs fall outside the democratic orbit.
…It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.
Now is not the time to punish Egypt… If democracy is the goal, then the United States should celebrate Egypt’s coup.
…Rather than punish the perpetrators, Obama should offer two cheers for Egypt’s generals and help Egyptians write a more democratic constitution to provide a sounder foundation for true democracy.
On the eve of our nation’s founding, Egypt’s military has given their countrymen a chance for what Abraham Lincoln once called ‘a new birth of freedom.’
…Whether anything approaching real freedom can ever take hold in a place like Egypt, however, will depend on its people’s rejection (sic) the liberty-crushing Islamic doctrine of shariah. Unfortunately, many Egyptians believe shariah is divinely mandated and may wage a civil war to impose it.
…If so, we should stand with those who oppose our common enemy – the Islamists who seek to destroy freedom worldwide. And that will require rooting out the Muslim Brothers in our government and civil institutions, as well.
In some quarters, the prospects for progress and liberalization are renewed; the Egyptian army may not be a champion of democracy, but its intervention probably prevented a darker future there. Egyptians at least have another chance.
Commentary magazine, of course, has really been the bible of neoconservatism since its inception in the late 1960’s and has since served as its literary guardian, along with, more recently, Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard, ever since. So what have its ‘Contentions’ bloggers said about the coup and democracy?
Here’s Jonathan Tobin on July 7:
The massive demonstrations protesting Morsi’s misrule that led to a military coup have given the president a chance to reboot American policy toward Egypt in a manner that could make it clear the U.S. priority is ensuring stability and stopping the Islamists. The question is, will he take advantage of this chance or will he, by pressuring the military and demonstrating ambivalence toward the possibility of a Brotherhood comeback, squander another opportunity to help nudge Egypt in the right direction?
…The problem with so much of what has been said in the past few days about Egypt is the misperception that what was going on in Cairo before the coup was somehow more democratic than what happened after it. It cannot be repeated too often that there is more to democracy than merely holding an election that enabled the most organized faction to seize power even if it is fundamentally opposed to democracy. That was exactly what occurred in Egypt in the last year as the Brotherhood won a series of votes that put it in a position to start a process by which it could ensure that its power would never be challenged again. Understood in that context, the coup wasn’t so much a putsch as it was a last ditch effort to save the country from drifting into a Brotherhood dictatorship that could not be undone by democratic means.
And here’s Tobin again, a day later and just after the apparent massacre by the military of some 51 or more peaceful Brotherhood demonstrators:
But it would be a terrible mistake if Washington policymakers allowed today’s event to endorse the idea that what is at stake in Egypt now is democracy or that the Brotherhood is a collection of innocent victims. Even if we concede that the killings are a crime that should be investigated and punished, the conflict there is not about the right of peaceful dissent or even the rule of law, as the Brotherhood’s apologists continue to insist. While our Max Boot is right to worry that the army’s behavior may signal an incapacity to run the country that could lead to a collapse that would benefit extremists, I think the more imminent danger is that American pressure on the new government could undermine its ability to assert control over the situation and lead the Brotherhood and other Islamists to think they can return to power. But however deplorable today’s violence might be, that should not serve as an excuse for media coverage or policies that are rooted in the idea that the Brotherhood is a peaceful movement or that it’s [sic] goal is democracy. The whole point of the massive protests that shook Egypt last week and forced the military to intervene to prevent civil war was that the Brotherhood government was well on its way to establishing itself as an unchallengeable authoritarian regime that could impose Islamist law on the country with impunity. The Brotherhood may have used the tactics of democracy in winning elections in which they used their superior organizational structure to trounce opponents, but, as with other dictatorial movements, these were merely tactics employed to promote an anti-democratic aim. But such a cutoff or threats to that effect would be a terrible mistake.
Despite the idealistic posture that America should push at all costs for a swift return to democratic rule in Egypt, it needs to be remembered that genuine democracy is not an option there right now. The only way for democracy to thrive is to create a consensus in favor of that form of government. So long as the Islamists of the Brotherhood and other groups that are even more extreme are major players in Egypt, that can’t happen. The Brotherhood remains the main threat to freedom in Egypt, not a victim. While we should encourage the military to eventually put a civilian government in place, America’s priority should be that of the Egyptian people: stopping the Brotherhood. Anything that undermines that struggle won’t help Egypt or the United States. [My emphasis]
So far, the picture is pretty clear: I’m not hearing a lot of denunciations of a coup d’etat (let alone a massacre of unarmed civilians) by the military against a democratically elected president from these “third-generation” neocons and their publications. Au contraire. By their own admission, they’re pretty pleased that this democratically elected president was just overthrown.
But, in fairness, that’s not the whole picture.
On the pro-democracy side, Kagan really stands out. In a Sunday Washington Post op-ed where he attacked Obama for not exerting serious pressure on Morsi to govern more inclusively, he took on Stephens’ and Brooks’ racism, albeit without mentioning their names:
It has …become fashionable once again to argue that Muslim Arabs are incapable of democracy – this after so many millions of them came out to vote in Egypt, only to see Western democracies do little or nothing when the product of their votes was overthrown. Had the United States showed similar indifference in the Philippines and South Korea, I suppose wise heads would still be telling us that Asians, too, have no vocation for democracy.
As to what Washington should do, Kagan was unequivocal:
Egypt is not starting over. It has taken a large step backward.
…Any answer must begin with a complete suspension of all aid to Egypt, especially military aid, until there is a new democratic government freely elected with the full participation of all parties and groups in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
Kagan clearly played a leadership role in gathering support for his position from several other neoconservatives who comprise, along with a few liberal internationalists and human rights activists, part of the informal, three-year-old “Working Group on Egypt.” Thus, in a statement released by the Group Monday, Abrams, Ellen Bork from the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative (successor to the Project for the New American Century), and Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies joined Kagan in complaining that “the reliance on military intervention rather than a political process to resolve crises severely threatens Egypt’s progression to a stable democracy.”
As to the aid question, the group argued that:
The Obama administration should apply the law that requires suspending $1.5 billion in military and economic aid to Egypt following the removal of a democratically-elected leader by coup or military decree. Not only is this clearly required under U.S. law, but is the best way to make clear immediately to Egypt’s military that an expedient return to a legitimate, elected civilian government—avoiding the repression, widespread rights abuses, and political exclusion that characterized the 18 months of military rule after Mubarak’s fall—is Egypt’s only hope. It is the only way to achieve the stability and economic progress that Egyptians desperately want.Performing semantic or bureaucratic tricks to avoid applying the law would harm U. S. credibility to promote peaceful democratic change not only in Egypt but around the world, and would give a green light to other U.S.-backed militaries contemplating such interventions.
The Egyptian military has already shown its eagerness to secure U.S. and international acceptance of its action; Washington should not provide this cost-free. The military helped sow the seeds of the current crisis by failing to foster consensus on the political transition, and its promise to midwife a democratic transition now is just as uncertain. Suspending aid offers an incentive for the army to return to democratic governance as soon as possible, and a means to hold it accountable. Cajoling on democracy while keeping aid flowing did not work when the military ruled Egypt in the 18 months after Mubarak’s fall, and it did not work to move President Morsi either.
Remarkably, in an apparent break with its past practice regarding the Group’s statements, this one was not posted by the Weekly Standard. That may have been a simple oversight, but it may also indicate a disagreement between the two deans of third-age neoconservatives — Kagan and Bill Kristol — who also co-founded both PNAC and FPI. The Standard has pretty consistently taken a significantly harder line against U.S. engagement with political Islam than Kagan. Curiously, FDD, whose political orientation has bordered at times on Islamophobia, also did not post the statement on its website despite Gerecht’s endorsement. (Indeed, FDD’s president, Clifford May, wrote in the National Review Thursday that he agreed with both Brooks’ conclusion that “radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government [and] …have absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets…” and with the Journal’s recommendation that Washington should continue providing aid to the generals unless and until it becomes clear that they aren’t engaged in economic reform or guaranteeing “human rights for Christians and other minorities…”)
Abrams’ position has also been remarkable (particularly in light of his efforts to isolate and punish Hamas after it swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and his backing of the aborted putsch against the Hamas-led government in Gaza the following year). On Wednesday this week, he argued in the Standard that U.S. aid must be cut precisely for the reasons I cited at the beginning of this post.
Look back at all those things we want for Egypt, and the answer should be obvious: We will do our friends in Egypt no good by teaching the lesson that for us as for them law is meaningless. To use lexicographical stunts to say this was not really a coup, or to change the law because it seems inconvenient this week, would tell the Egyptians that our view and practice when it comes to law is the same as theirs: enforce the law when you like, ignore the law when you don’t. But this is precisely the wrong model to give Egypt; the converse is what we should be showing them as an ideal to which to aspire.
When the coup took place last week, Abrams took the same position, noting that “coups are a bad thing and in principle we should oppose them.” He then noted, however, that
…[M]ost of our aid to Egypt is already obligated, so the real damage to the Egyptian economy and to military ties should be slight – if the army really does move forward to new elections. …An interruption of aid for several months is no tragedy, so long as during those months we give good advice, stay close to the generals, continue counter-terrorism cooperation, and avoid further actions that create the impression we were on Morsi’s side.
In other words, follow the law because we, the U.S., are a nation of laws, but, at the same time, reassure the coupists and their supporters that we’re basically on their side. This is a somewhat more ambiguous message than that conveyed by Kagan, to say the least.
Indeed, despite the fact that coups are a “bad thing,” Abrams went on, “[t]he failure of the MB in Egypt is a very good thing” [in part, he continues, because it will weaken and further isolate Hamas]. Washington, he wrote, should draw lessons from the Egyptian experience, the most important of which is:
[W]e should always remember who our friends are and should support them: those who truly believe in liberty as we conceive it, minorities such as the Copts who are truly threatened and who look to us, allies such as the Israelis who are with us through thick and thin. No more resets, no more desperate efforts at engagement with places like Russia and Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. A policy based on the simple principle of supporting our friends and opposing our enemies will do far more to advance the principles and interests of the United States.
Despite his call for Washington to stand faithfully by Israel, Abrams and the call to suspend aid were harshly criticized by Evelyn Gordon, writing in Commentary’s Contentions blog Wednesday, in which she argued that Israel’s security could be adversely affected by any such move:
The Republican foreign policy establishment, headed by luminaries such as Senator John McCain and former White House official Elliott Abrams, is urging an immediate cutoff of U.S. military aid to Egypt in response to the country’s revolution-cum-coup. The Obama administration has demurred, saying “it would not be wise to abruptly change our assistance program,” and vowed to take its time in deciding whether what happened legally mandates an aid cutoff, given the “significant consequences that go along with this determination.”
For once, official Israel is wholeheartedly on Obama’s side. Senior Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down spent hours on the phone with their American counterparts this weekend to argue against an aid cutoff, and Israeli diplomats in Washington have been ordered to make this case to Congress as well. Israel’s reasoning is simple: An aid cutoff will make the volatile situation on its southern border even worse–and that is bad not only for Israel, but for one of America’s major interests in the region: upholding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
Indeed,the implications of the coup on Israel and its security have been an explicit preoccupation for some neoconservatives. In her first jottings in the coup’s immediate aftermath, Jennifer Rubin, the neoconservative blogger at the Washington Post, praised the coup, called for massive economic assistance to stabilize the situation, and worried about Israel.
…Egypt may have escaped complete ruin by a skillfully timed military intervention, and there is no use denying that.
The primary and immediate crisis there is an economic one. As one Middle East observer put it: “They are broke. They can’t buy diesel. Without diesel they can’t feed their people.” This is precisely why the army was hesitant to again take over. Directly ruling the country would mean the economic meltdown becomes the army’s problem.
The United States and our Gulf allies should consider some emergency relief and beyond that provide considerable assistance in rebuilding an Egyptian economy, devastated by constant unrest and the evaporation of tourism.
Beyond that immediate concern, it will be critical to see whether the army-backed judge will adhere to the peace treaty with Israel and undertake its security operations in the Sinai. Things are looking more hopeful in that department if only because the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent, is now gone and disgraced. Egypt’s military has had good relations with both the United States and Israel so the issue may be more one of limited capability to police the Sinai (the army has to be fed, too) than lack of will.
Now, in fairness, none of this means that many — maybe even most — neoconservatives wouldn’t prefer a democratic Egypt as a general principle. Indeed, much of the advice offered by them over the past week has urged the administration and Congress to use aid and the threat of its withdrawal to coax the military into returning to the barracks, respect human rights, transfer power to civilians and eventually hold new elections in which Islamists should be permitted to participate in some fashion — if, for no other reason, than a failure to maintain some sense of a “democratic transition” (however cosmetic) could indeed force a cut-off in military aid. Such a move could present serious challenges to general U.S. security interests in the region and, as Gordon stressed, raise major questions about the durability of Camp David. But a democratic Egypt in which Islamists win presidential and parliamentary elections, draft a constitution ratified by a clear majority of the electorate and exercise real control over the army and the security forces? Judging from the past week’s commentary, most neoconservatives would much prefer Mubarak or a younger version of the same.
So, what can we conclude from this review about the importance of democracy promotion among the most prominent “third-era” neoconservative commentators, publications, and institutions? At best, there’s no consensus on the issue. And if there’s no consensus on the issue, democracy promotion can’t possibly be considered a core principle of neoconservatism, no matter how much Abrams and Vaisse would like, or appear to like it to be.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Rashad