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.

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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. The analysis is here is foolish.

    Its heads we lose tails we lose.

    The Muslim Brotherhood was funded directly by Hitler. Does anyone want such an organization controlling Egypt?

    Conversely, if the Egyptian regime hangs on, it will have no legitimacy will suck US aid and continue being a time-bomb waiting to go off all the while doing nothing to benefit the people of Egypt.

    In 1945, Singapore was a burned shell; in 1952 so was South Korea. Neither country has any natural resources – they invested in their people and pure economic development of industry. This is what could be in the Middle East.

    It takes leaders of vision and a social contract with their people to make that vision a reality. Yet any fair reading of the Egyptian press is a journey into a parallel reality of conspiracy, and failure. There is no accountability or taking responsibility. Until this changes, the Muslim Brotherhood will hold one election and then never have another.

  2. Scott, Jon:
    The points went over your head. Different Americans have different interests.There are no “American interests,” only the interests of different groups, which sometimes overlap, more often not. Those groups are differentiated along class, and not national, lines. The owners of Exxon and Petrogal have more in common in terms of interests than the owners of Exxon and I. Think through that. “Gee,” it is simple, but insistently mis-understood here. Why is “keeping the treaties with Israel” in my interest? I think the world will be safer with a different institutional arrangement in the Middle East. Why, in the long run, is keeping the Suez Canal open in my interest? Global trade induces serious environmental costs and it’s me and not the generation older than me that will pay the costs.

    Mr. “Gee”: “The American people have two interests in the Middle East: 1) buying oil from the region…bla bla” wrong in so many ways. The first is that foreign policy in the region is dictated by the oil companies not the American people. Oil companies want a belligerently managed chronically inflamed Middle East so that they can pocket increased oil profits, which correlate with war in the Middle East. Perhaps obliquely that actually serves American interests by theoretically inducing a substitution effect off oil, thereby reducing CO2 inflows in the atmosphere, but we’re in the realm of fantasy, having gone there to prove a pretty simple point: there is no “American interest” or “national interest,” those are metaphysical imports from IR theory, they’re meaningless and hide the fact that those interests are fields of contestation and until that’s taken as a departure point you will have no idea what’s going on in this world.

  3. Nothing went over my head. There are such things as “American interests.” If oil goes to $200 a barrel, you’ll understand what an “American interest” is.

    “Global trade induces serious environmental costs.” Your solution then is to end global trade? We should follow the example of 1930s Germany and strive for autarky? Feel free to starve and freeze if you like, but don’t think for a moment that the other 300 million of us want to join you. We share a common (or national) interest in remaining nourished and warm. Pie-in-the-sky economics are not a replacement for the hard facts of maintaining an acceptable standard of living. As for your world-historical musings, they lack any probative value and are unworthy of debate, I’m sorry to say.

  4. You insist on stupidity. Oil companies are owned by Americans. Oil consumers are Americans. Oil companies want to maximize profits. Oil consumers want to minimize costs. This leads to a a basic antagonism that cannot be resolved by resort to a mushy and warm metaphysic of “American interests,” which don’t exist, because if they did, and they were what you claim they are, then American owners of oil companies would not be American. You can have your metaphysics or you can have facts and logic. Not both. The rest of what you wrote were straw-men, having no connection to what I wrote. Again: interests are antagonistic. Understand this and let the mist fall from in front of your eyes and you’ll begin to understand the way the world works.

  5. As I indicated, the views you expressed are not worth further debate. I am sorry . . .

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