More Silence from America’s “Democracy Promoters”

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how remarkably tongue-tied the US’s self-proclaimed champions of democracy promotion and human rights on the neoconservative right became in response to the protests against a US ally in Tunisia. Now, Jack Ross has a funny post describing a similar phenomenon occurring in response to the protests in Egypt. Look around the neocon blogosphere and one is struck by the dearth of writing on the protests: Commentary has a single blog post that notably stops short of advocating any US response to the protests; the Weekly Standard‘s Lee Smith warns US observers not to get too attached to the protesters:

It is not always a good thing when people go to the streets; indeed the history of revolutionary action shows that people go to the streets to shed blood more often than they do to demand democratic reforms. Perhaps it is an appetite for activist politics that explains why so many Western observers are now captured by the moment. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why it seems as if no one had learned from the failures of the Bush administration’s freedom agenda—namely the Palestinian Authority elections that empowered Hamas—or could remember its successes.

(Smith, who has seemingly never met an orientalist cliche he doesn’t like, also explains Mubarak’s actions by informing us that “[t]he test of an Arab dictator is not the virtue of his rule, but the length of it, and to be followed by his progeny extends his name further into the future.” The fact that nepotism and dynastic succession are not phenomena exclusive to the Arab world, and that authoritarian rulers in general typically like to hang on to their power, seems not to have occurred to him.)

The Washington Post editorial page has for some time now been issuing noble-sounding calls for democratic elections in Egypt that have pointedly refused to suggest that the country’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, should be allowed to participate. This is in line with a general axiom of neocon policy-making in the Middle East, namely that democracy promotion is desirable if and only if it brings to power parties that are acceptable to Israel. So it is no surprise that the Post has issued a rather equivocating editorial on the current protests that closes by suggesting merely that “Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama need to begin talking about how [the Mubarak government] must change.” Similarly, National Review cautions that “Mubarak Should Go – But Not Yet,” and warns that the US “shouldn’t fool ourselves about our ability to influence events on the ground.”

As it happens, I don’t think all of this is bad advice. It’s true that the US shouldn’t overestimate its ability to influence (much less control) popular uprisings in other countries; similarly, we should be hesitant in rushing to publicly brand such protest movements with an American seal of approval — not least because such a seal of approval can be far from helpful to the protesters themselves. Yet the contrast with what these same commentators were saying during the 2009 Iranian election crisis, for instance, is remarkable. Then, they excoriated the Obama administration for taking roughly the same approach that they are advocating now — despite the fact that the US’s patronage of Mubarak gives it a much greater ability to influence the situation in Egypt than in Iran.

As Ross suggests, this combination of outright silence and incoherent messaging probably reflects confusion in the neocon camp as to what the party line should be going forward. However, I think we can all predict what will happen once the dust settles. If the protests are ultimately unsuccessful, the neocons will attack Obama for letting the protesters twist in the wind; if the protests are ultimately successful, they will claim the events in Egypt as vindication for the Bush democracy promotion agenda (as Jennifer Rubin has already tried to do with Tunisia).

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. They will blame Obama for not supporting an ally, as there is no way another gov’t could be more supportive of Israel than Mubarak. (I sure hope I’m not proven wrong, perhaps another gov’t could actually lob bombs into Gaza, that WOULD be worse)

  2. The neocons will blame Obama if the protests are unsuccessful? Well, perhaps. But surely they will be quite content if Mubarak remains in power?

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