Two Essays on Neocon Split over Egypt

Jack Ross, the American Conservative blogger, has an enlightening essay on Right Web about the neoconservative split over the current events unfolding in Egypt. Ross’s tack is somewhat different than the one offered here by Daniel Luban (see below).

Instead of highlighting the differences between some neocons and the Israeli right, Ross focuses on the way neoconservatives try to have it both ways: promoting democracy (taking credit for Egypt as a after-effect of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq) and staunchly opposing figures like Mohammed ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood. The contrast is between the “freedom crowd” and the “Islamophobes.”


What accounts for this divide in neoconservative discourse? Nuances abound to be sure. For instance, while the case of Leon Wieseltier seems to be a horrified response to the fear that the Egyptian revolution bodes ill for Israel, a deeper pathology seems to be at work with the doctrinaire neoconservatives clustered around Commentary magazine. In a curious legacy of neoconservatism’s roots in Trotskyism, the neocon core seems to be characterized by a pathological insistence upon its internationalism, which leads them to their insistence that they are in fact witnessing the birth of a global democratic revolution. This also, it should be noted, seems to supersede any petty scores to be settled in defense of the Bush administration. Dana Perino amply covered that ground on Fox News, even to the point of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the other hand, the Anti-Islamist Scare that has gained full steam since the election of Obama appears to be a completely distinct phenomenon from historic neoconservatism, notwithstanding how opportunistically it has been embraced by figures like Bill Kristol and the Liz Cheney-led Keep America Safe. It is a phenomenon straight from the pages of Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style In American Politics. Whereas Hofstadter famously pointed to projection in the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan who “donned priestly vestments and constructed an elaborate hierarchy and ritual,” the backlash against the so-called Ground Zero Mosque—with its frank talk of “sacred ground”—reflected the desire to construct an American holy of holies.

Examining this same divergence, Daniel Luban has a similar article up at IPS. He explores the evolution of neoconservatism on democracy promotion, which brings the current divide into focus and hints at some disingenuousness among the ‘pro-democracy’ crowd. (Elliott Abrams, Dan notes, supported undemocratic regimes in Latin America when the region was in his portfolio during the Reagan administration.)

Luban (with my links):

“The U.S. should make clear in an unambiguous way that a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt is a danger to American interests and could even lead to American intervention,” David Wurmser, former Vice President Dick Cheney‘s senior Middle East [adviser], told the “Forward”, the largest-circulation Jewish weekly, Thursday.

This ambivalence among neo-conservatives over Egypt may reflect a deeper ambivalence over democracy promotion. Both neo-conservatives and their critics often portray democracy promotion as the central tenet of the movement, but the historical record undercuts this portrayal.

The early tone of the movement regarding foreign policy was set by Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which argued for supporting “friendly” authoritarian governments against their left-wing enemies. Kirkpatrick’s vision helped guide neo-conservative foreign policy throughout the 1980s, when neo-conservatives – notably including Elliott Abrams – helped prop up or defend military dictatorships throughout Latin America, and even apartheid South Africa, as Cold War allies against the Soviet Union.

While the movement became more explicitly committed to democracy promotion in recent decades, its democratisation efforts have unsurprisingly been far more focused on hostile, rather than friendly, regimes – left-wing governments during the Cold War; more recently, governments that are seen as antagonistic to either the U.S. or Israel.

When elections have brought enemies rather than allies into power – as occurred in 2006 when Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections – neo-conservatives have been among the first to call for punitive actions.

Thus, when John Bolton, the hawkish former U.S. ambassador to the UN, cited Jeane Kirkpatrick in a Thursday interview with Politico to argue that the U.S. should support Mubarak, he could stake a claim to being as much the legitimate heir of neo-conservatism as the anti-Mubarak neo-conservatives themselves.

I’m still figuring this all out for myself, but these two commentaries are certainly helpful. (I’m traveling next week, but hopefully will have time to blog some of my developing ideas.)

But I will note that on the point of Dan’s original post — the split between Israel and the neocons — I do view with skepticism some commentaries (most of which come from neocons) that tout the narrative of: ‘Look! Neocons are not in the thrall of the Likud.’ (As a rule, because of his history of dissembling, I take anything Abrams writes with a grain of salt.)

This line, from the horse’s mouth, is attacking a straw man. We neocon-watchers at this site, at least, have never said that U.S. neoconservatives take marching orders from Likud, but rather that neocons are closely aligned with the rightist Israeli party.

Furthermore, if a Democrat criticizes something done by the Democratic Party (as happens quite regularly), it would be specious to say, ‘Look! She is not a Democrat at all!’

Likewise, I don’t think that neocons are a monolith, and this split between them reveals so much because it is public, whereas neocons, a politically adept group, have usually displayed great messaging discipline.

Nonetheless, the neoconservative disagreements on this issue (both among themselves and with Likud) seem to show that the upheaval in Egypt is coming home to the U.S. discourse on Middle East policy. Here’s hoping the shift is productive.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. I’m always happy to see the cross-pollination between Left and Right that this site occasionally provides for its readers. It’s something of a hobbyhorse of mine that folks on both sides of the ideological spectrum must seek common ground in order to combat the neocon world view and the evangelical social agenda (if I may so term the latter, realizing that conservatives Catholics, Jews and others share that agenda).

    But I think both Ross and Luban are missing an important point. Divisions among neoconservatives over whether or not to support democratic movements are merely tactical in nature. Both sides of the divide close ranks over the issue of Israel. It’s a question of which is better for Israel, sticking with autocrats or supporting and trying to “shape” democratic movements. The ultimate aim of both sides is the same: whatever is better for Israel should be our policy. Although it is rarely stated openly, Israeli and not American interests come first. When pressed, the neocons will simply say that the interests of the two states are identical. That this the purest sophistry is eminently clear. No two states can share identical interests.

    Take, for example, the U.S.-British alliance in World War II. It was certainly in their joint interest to defeat Hitler. But beyond that, their interests diverged to a remarkable degree, with the U.S. seeking the dissolution of the British Empire and, above all, the end of any from of imperial preference in British trade policy. Britain on the other hand sought to hold the empire together, remain a great power, and stay solvent (in fact the U.S. made sure that Britain became economically dependant on America).

    With respect to the U.S.-Israeli relationship, there is no overriding aim that is in the interest of both countries. Israel’s overriding aim is, of course, to survive. There is considerable sentiment in the U.S. that supports the Israeli survival agenda, but is that sentiment actually coterminus with U.S. interests? On the contrary, nothing has been more detrimental to U.S. interests in the Middle East than our support for Israel. If Israel did not exist, the U.S. would have no difficulties whatsoever in the Middle East. (As an aside I will note that the Israeli tie has cost the American taxpayer several hundred billion dollars in aid paid out to support our Israeli “client”. Even by today’s standards of currency depreciation, that’s not chump change.)

    Today’s New York Times contains an article by Helene Cooper and Mark Landler in which the following paragraph can be found. I quote:

    “The Isrealis are saying, apres Mubarak, le deluge,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. And that, in turn, Mr. Levy said, “gets to the core of what is the American interest in this. It’s Israel. It’s not worry about whether the Egyptians are going to close down the Suez Canal, or even the narrower terror issue. It really can be distilled down to one thing, and that’s Israel.”

    Really? Truly the world of American policy has turned upside down, at least in the Middle East. Israel is NOT an American interest, it’s a liability. How much more do we have to suffer on its behalf before we recognize this plain and simple fact?

  2. I agree with Jon 100%. It’s all about Israel, every thing else is sophistry, pure and simple. You can only listen to hypocrisy and utterly subjective analysis and come to one conclusion. This unrest in Egypt has underscored the liability of Israel. The Suez is vital, Israel, utterly useless, total liability–but many men have done the same (cars and women)

  3. Israel plays Cleopatra to America’s Mark Antony, a romance which ended somewhat tragically for both – but especially Mark Antony

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