By Stephen J. Sniegoski
“If one thing has become clear in the wake of last week’s military coup d’état against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, it’s that democracy promotion is not a core principle of neoconservatism,” writes the astute commentator Jim Lobe. Lobe points out that a few neocons (he cites only Robert Kagan) did stick with the pro-democracy position but “[a]n apparent preponderance of neocons, such as Daniel Pipes, the contributors to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and Commentary’s ’Contentions’ blog,” tended to sympathize with the coup.
Even Kagan’s support for democracy was far less than an endorsement of Morsi’s right to govern, which he labeled “majoritarian” rather than democratic. Kagan wrote: “He ruled not so much as a dictator but as a majoritarian, which often amounted to the same thing. With a majority in parliament and a large national following, and with no experience whatsoever in the give-and-take of democratic governance, Morsi failed in the elementary task of creating a system of compromise, inclusiveness, and checks and balances.” (“Time to break out of a rut in Egypt,” “Washington Post,” July 5, 2013
It should be pointed out that if democracy required compromise, inclusiveness, and checks and balances, it is hard to believe that many countries conventionally regarded as democracies would pass the test. Certainly, Israel, as a self-styled Jewish State, would not. (The Founding Fathers of the United States in creating the Constitution took steps to try to prevent the liberty of individuals from being oppressed by a “tyranny of the majority” —democracy itself being negative term—but this has not been the case in all modern democracies.)
Instead of a military coup, Kagan held that a better approach would have been to leave Morsi in office but to rely on international pressure to compel his government to change its policies. Kagan contended that Morsi “deserved to be placed under sustained domestic and international pressure, especially by the United States, the leading provider of aid to Egypt. He deserved to have the United States not only suspend its bilateral aid to Egypt but also block any IMF agreement until he entered into a meaningful, substantive dialogue with his political opponents, including on amending the flawed constitution he rammed through in December as well as electoral law. He ought to have been ostracized and isolated by the international democratic community.” In short, Kagan advocated the use of international pressure to essentially prevent the democratically-elected Morsi government from enacting measures in line with its election mandate–and the fact of the matter is that in all of the elections Islamist parties won a significant majority of the overall vote–and force it to attune its actions to the demands of the “international democratic community,” that is, the Western nations aligned with the United States. (None of the previous statements should be considered an endorsement of Morsi’s policies but only a recognition that his government was far more attuned to the democratic process than has been the military junta, with its dissolution of a democratically-elected parliament, arbitrary rule, mass arrests, and killing of protestors against which the neocons would react with scathing moral outrage if committed by Assad or the Islamic Republic of Iran.)
It should be pointed out that while few, if any, neocons actually sought a restoration of the democratically-elected Morsi government, there were different degrees of sympathy for the coup. Max Boot, for example, viewed the coup largely in pragmatic terms, as opposed to democratic ideals. The danger was that the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood might cause them to turn to violence. “On the other hand,” Boot wrote, “if the military didn’t step in, there would have been a danger that the Brotherhood would never be dislodged from power,” which would seem to have been in his mind the greater danger even if the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties commanded the great majority of votes. (“America’s Egypt Policy After Morsi,” Contentions, Commentary, July 5, 2013,
More affirmative on the coup was Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute: “I never thought I would celebrate a coup, but the Egyptian military’s move against President Muhammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood regime is something the White House, State Department, and all Western liberals should celebrate.” Rubin put something of a positive spin on the military’s goals: “The military isn’t seizing power for itself — but rather seeking a technocratic body to ensure that all Egyptian communities have input in the new constitution, a consultative process that Morsi rhetorically embraced but upon which he subsequently turned his back.” (“What Obama should learn from Egypt’s coup,” July 3, 2013, http://www.aei-ideas.org/2013/
A similar interpretation was offered by Jonathan S. Tobin in his Contentions Blog for “Commentary Magazine” (July 7, 2013, http://www.commentarymagazine.
David Brooks likewise wrote on July 4 in his piece “Defense of the Coup” in the “New York Times”: “Promoting elections is generally a good thing . . . . 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 necessary to investigate the core of a party’s beliefs, not just accept anybody who happens to emerge from a democratic process.” But Brooks shows little optimism about democracy in Egypt, holding that the “military coup may merely bring Egypt back to where it was: a bloated and dysfunctional superstate controlled by a self-serving military elite. But at least radical Islam, the main threat to global peace, has been partially discredited and removed from office.” And contrary to the neocons’ nation-building: “It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.”http://www.nytimes.com/2013/
While many commentators have portrayed the neocons as naïve adherents of universal democracy, which would make it appear that their positive presentation of the Egyptian coup, or at least failure to strongly criticize it, constituted a complete reversal in their thinking, in actuality, they never adhered to the fundamental tenets of democracy without significant qualifications. As I pointed out in “The Transparent Cabal” (which devotes an entire chapter specifically to this issue), the idea of instant democracy would seem to have been simply a propaganda ploy to generate public support for war. When writing at length on exporting democracy to the Middle East, the neocons generally argued that it was first necessary for the United States to “educate” the inhabitants of the Middle Eastern states in the principles of democracy before actually implementing it. For instance, in September 2002, Norman Podhoretz, one of the godfathers of neoconservatism, acknowledged that the people of the Middle East might, if given a free democratic choice, pick anti-American, anti-Israeli leaders and policies. But he held that “there is a policy that can head it off,” provided “that we then have the stomach to impose a new political culture on the defeated parties. This is what we did directly and unapologetically in Germany and Japan after winning World War II.” (Quoted in “Transparent Cabal,” p. 215). Similarly, in the book, “An End to Evil: How to Win the War” (2004), David Frum and Richard Perle asserted that establishing democracy must take a back seat when it conflicted with fighting Islamic radicals: “In the Middle East, democratization does not mean calling immediate elections and then living with whatever happens next.” (Quoted in “Transparent Cabal,” p. 216)
Max Boot, in the “Weekly Standard” in October 2001, argued “The Case for Empire.” “Afghanistan and other troubled lands today,” Boot intoned, “cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” (Quoted in “Transparent Cabal,” pp. 216-217) David Wurmser supported the restoration of the Hashemites and the traditional ruling families in Iraq as a bulwark against modern totalitarianism “I’m not a big fan of democracy per se,” exclaimed Wurmser in an October 2007 interview. “I’m a fan of freedom and one has to remember the difference. Freedom must precede democracy by a long, long time.” (Quoted in “Transparent Cabal,” p. 218) Paul Wolfowitz was enraged by the Turkish military’s failure to sufficiently pressure the Turkish government to participate in the war on Iraq. “I think for whatever reason, they did not play the strong leadership role that we would have expected,” Wolfowitz complained. Presumably, Wolfowitz would have preferred a Turkish military coup over the democratic repudiation of American policy goals. (“Transparent Cabal,” p. 219)
Regarding Israel itself, it would seem that if democracy were the neoconservatives’ watchword, they would work to eliminate Israel’s undemocratic control over the Palestinians on the West Bank and try to make the country itself more inclusive—and not a state explicitly privileging Jews over non-Jews. The neoconservatives would either promote a one-state democratic solution for what had once been the British Palestine Mandate (Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank) or else demand that Israel allow the Palestinians to have a fully sovereign, viable state on all of the West Bank and Gaza. Instead of taking anything approaching such a pro-democracy stance, however, the neoconservatives have done just the opposite, backing the Israeli Likudnik Right, which takes an especially hostile position toward the Palestinians with its fundamental goal being the maintenance of the exclusivist Jewish nature of the state of Israel and its control of the occupied territories.
As Jim Lobe correctly points out, it is not democracy but rather “protecting Israeli security and preserving its military superiority over any and all possible regional challenges” that is “a core neoconservative tenet.” Thus, the neocons used democracy as an argument to justify the elimination of the anti-Israel Saddam regime. And the neocons saw the elimination of Saddam as the key to the elimination of Israel’s other Middle Eastern enemies. They currently support democracy as an ideological weapon in the effort to bring down the Assad regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran. To repeat, the obvious common denominator among these three targeted countries is that they have been enemies of Israel.
The Egyptian military, in contrast, has been quite close to Israel (about as close as possible given the views of the Egyptian populace), whereas the Muslim Brotherhood, like other Islamic groups, has expressed hostility toward Israel, even though Morsi had not taken a hostile position toward the Jewish state. The fact of the matter is that neocons took a tepid approach to the 2011 revolution against Mubarak, though most retained their pro-democracy credentials at that time by expressing the hope that he would be replaced by liberal democratic secularists, and expressed the fear of a possible Muslim Brotherhood takeover. (See Sniegoski, “Neocons’ Tepid Reaction to the Egyptian Democratic Revolution,” February 4, 2011, http://mycatbirdseat.com/2011/
While there were definite harbingers for the current neocon support for the overthrow of a democratic government, however, what does seem to be novel is the tendency on the part of some neocons to openly express the view that democracy was not possible at the present time, at least when applied to Egypt. This was hardly a new idea among the Israeli Right where, as pointed out in “The Transparent Cabal,” it was held that most Middle Eastern countries were too divided to be held together by anything other than the force of authoritarian and dictatorial rulers. Oded Yinon in his 1982 article, “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties” (translated and edited by Israel Shahak in a booklet entitled, “The Zionist Plan for the Middle East”) recommended that Israel exploit this internal divisiveness by military measures in order to enhance its national security. War that would topple an existing authoritarian regime would render a country fragmented into a mosaic of diverse ethnic and sectarian groupings warring among each other. If applied on a broad scale, the strategy would lead to a Middle East of powerless mini-statelets totally incapable of confronting Israeli power. (“Transparent Cabal,” p. 50)
Lebanon, then facing divisive chaos, was Yinon’s model for the entire Middle East. He wrote: “Lebanon’s total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short-term target.” (Quoted in “Transparent Cabal,” p. 51)
The eminent Middle East historian Bernard Lewis, who is a right-wing Zionist and one of the foremost intellectual gurus for the neoconservatives, echoed Yinon in an article in the September 1992 issue of “Foreign Affairs” titled “Rethinking the Middle East.” He wrote of a development he called “Lebanonization.” “Most of the states of the Middle East—Egypt is an obvious exception—are of recent and artificial construction and are vulnerable to such a process,” he contended. “If the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common identity. . . . The state then disintegrates—as happened in Lebanon—into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions, and parties.” (Note that Lewis held that Egypt, which some neocons have emphasized lacks any domestic consensus, was an “obvious exception” to this problem.)
David Wurmser, in a much longer follow-up document to the noted “A Clean Break” study, entitled “Coping with Crumbling States: A Western and Israeli Balance of Power Strategy for the Levant,” emphasized the fragile nature of the Middle Eastern Baathist dictatorships in Iraq and Syria, and how the West and Israel should act in such an environment. (“A Clean Break,” which included Wurmser and other neocons among its authors, described how Israel could enhance its regional security by toppling enemy regimes.) (“Transparent Cabal,” pp. 94-95)
While some neocons now maintain that Egypt lacked the necessary national consensus for viable democracy, they still take a pro-democracy stance toward Syria and Iran, as they had earlier taken toward Saddam’s Iraq. But as the neocons’ own expert on the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, indicated, these countries would tend to be less hospitable to democracy than Egypt. Why would neocons take a position contrary to that of their own expert? One can only repeat what was said earlier: an obvious difference would be that these countries are enemies of Israel—the fragmentation of these enemies would advance the security interests of Israel. In contrast, the replacement of the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood with military rule would improve Israeli-Egyptian relations; therefore, it is necessary to portray the role of democratic voting in Egypt in a negative light—that is, it would lead to chaos. Thus, it is not so much that the neocons are naïve democratic ideologues, but rather that they use ideas as weapons to advance the interests of Israel, as those interests are perceived through the lens of the Likudnik viewpoint. In summary, the current positions taken by the neocons confirm what I, Jim Lobe, and a few others have pointed out in the past.