Published on February 1st, 2011 | by Daniel Luban10
Whither the Neocons?
Against the backdrop of the continuing crisis in Egypt, Max Boot takes note of the apparent divide between the Israeli right and American neoconservatives over how to respond to the situation. Much of Boot’s post is devoted to offering a familiar set of caricatures of those who have criticized the neocons and the Israel lobby; there is little in here that is interesting enough to be worthy of a response. But I think Boot does have the kernel of a worthwhile point in his portrayal of the split between Israel’s Likud and its usual allies on the neoconservative right. While the Netanyahu government has been quietly attempting to bolster Mubarak, prominent neoconservatives such as Boot and Elliott Abrams have called for the Egyptian strongman’s ouster and chided the Israelis for short-sightedness. (We should also note, however, that various American pro-Israel lobbying groups have also been taking the Israeli line and supporting Mubarak.) Boot’s point is that this proves that the neocons’ rhetoric about democracy promotion and the freedom agenda was genuine, not simply a fig leaf for advancing Israeli interests in the Middle East.
I think this basic point is one that’s worth exploring. Neoconservative claims to be ardent democracy promoters have always been met with well-deserved skepticism. Despite a great deal of high-flown rhetoric to the contrary, the movement has largely continued to abide by the framework set forth in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships and Double Standards”: hostile dictators bad, friendly dictators good, and democratization worthwhile only so far as it replaces rivals with allies. Egypt itself has served as a good example of this tendency, as the Bush administration quickly abandoned its “freedom agenda” in 2005-6 once it became clear that free and fair elections might very well bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. (Palestine was an even more striking example, as that pious democracy promoter Elliott Abrams helped launch a failed coup against Hamas after they won elections in 2006.) Still, it may be unfair to see the neocons’ support for democracy promotion as purely a cynical cover for other geopolitical goals. It is far from inconceivable that after reciting the pro-democracy script for so long, some neocons have genuinely come to believe it.
But I don’t think Boot has enough evidence at this point to show that the neoconservative calls for Mubarak to depart are rooted in democratic idealism rather than a concern for Israeli and US strategic interests. After all, a strong case can be made for abandoning Mubarak even on grounds of pure realpolitik; as Steve Walt notes, any smart realist prefers stable allies to unstable ones. Thus if Mubarak really is a dead man walking, as appears increasingly likely, it would serve neither US nor Israeli interests to continue propping him up.
The real question is not whether one supports Mubarak, but whether one is willing to support truly free and contested elections to determine his successor. After all, one can easily imagine a situation in which Mubarak departs but his successor (Omar Suleiman, say) continues to run a repressive US-backed regime in much the same vein. But will all those American commentators currently touting their love of Egyptian democracy continue to be so supportive if the democratic process threatens to bring the Muslim Brotherhood into power?
That is far less clear. In fact, many of the neocons appear unable even to deal with the possibility of a government led by Mohamed ElBaradei, who is about as much of a liberal secularist as the US could realistically hope for. Meanwhile, Charles Krauthammer is suggesting that the US’s “ultimate objective” should be keeping the Muslim Brotherhood out of power, and that “arranging for a transition to a secular moderate regime” — note the absence of the qualifier “democratic” — “is our number one priority.” One can easily anticipate a scenario in which US support for Egyptian democracy proves to be largely empty rhetoric, as it did during Bush’s second term.
So I hope that Boot is right, and that the neoconservatives will prove willing to support democracy in Egypt even if it brings into power a government less friendly to Israel than Mubarak’s. At the moment, however, the atmosphere of moral self-congratulation among American commentators seems a bit premature and unwarranted.