By Stephen J. Sniegoski
The uprisings currently taking place against the autocratic regimes in the Middle East would seem to be in line with the neoconservatives’ advocacy of radical democratic change in the region. But there is one significant difference. The neocons had sought to use democratic revolutions to overthrow the enemies of Israel, even applying it, much less successfully, to countries such as Saudi Arabia, which were client states of the United States; but now democratic revolution is engulfing the Mubarak regime in Egypt, which maintained friendly relations with Israel. As Israeli writer Aluf Benn points out in Ha’aretz, “[t]he fading power of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government leaves Israel in a state of strategic distress. Without Mubarak, Israel is left with almost no friends in the Middle East.” [“Without Egypt, Israel will be left with no friends in Mideast,” January 29, 2011] In a situation where Israeli interests would be harmed by democratic revolution, the neocons’ ardor for this development has cooled dramatically.
Daniel Luban on Lobelog points out that in the first days of the Egyptian revolution the neocons were largely silent on this development and those who commented tended to express some skepticism as to its likelihood to bring about positive results. He quotes The Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith cautioning U.S. activists not to become too fond of the Egyptian demonstrators: “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.” Luban predicts that “[i]f 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.”
[ “More Silence from America’s ‘Democracy Promoters’,” January 27, 2011,]
While my own brief research confirms Luban’s point that the neocons have not championed radical democratic transformation in the current situation, I also found a number of commonalities and differences among the views of the neocons who voiced their opinions as the events in Egypt have become a featured topic in the mainstream media. In line with what Luban has written, I also did not find any neoconservatives who have explicitly abandoned their professed faith in their democratic agenda. For example, they maintain that the revolts validate their democratic prescription for American Middle East policy during the past decades—that had the U.S. actually fostered democracy in the region, the current revolutionary turmoil would not have ensued.
The neocons differ among themselves, however, in their assessment of the current situation and in their prescriptions for U.S. actions. Where they express skepticism of the positive nature of the ongoing revolution, they try to demonstrate how this does not conflict with their fundamental faith in democracy. In short, they profess to identify with the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian demonstrators but question whether democracy will result from their actions. It should be emphasized that it is essential for the neocons to praise the democratic aim of the uprising since they could not do otherwise if they intend to maintain their image as champions of democracy at a time when most of the world wholeheartedly identifies with the Egyptian pro-democratic protestors. Moreover, since most observers agree that the Mubarak regime cannot survive, it is strategically necessary for the neocons to jump on the bandwagon and encourage the U.S. government to guide the revolution in directions beneficial to American–and, of course, Israeli—interests, under the guise of preventing it from leading to an alleged greater tyranny of the radical Islamists.
The neocon whose views seem to have changed the least is long-time neocon operative Elliott Abrams, the son-in-law of neocon godfather Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. In assessing the current situation, Abrams heaped blame on America’s traditional Middle East foreign policy that had ignored the domestic policies of autocratic regimes in its focus on U.S. geostrategic interest and regional stability.
[“Egypt protests show George W. Bush was right about freedom in the Arab world,” Washington Post, January 28, 2011, ]
Abrams writes that Egyptian President Mubarak, along with Tunisia’s recently deposed leader, Ben Ali, had “proffered the same line to Washington: It's us or the Islamists.” He contends that “[r]uling under an endless emergency law, he [Mubarak] has crushed the moderate opposition while the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has thrived underground and in the mosques.” Mubarak’s tyrannical policies, in effect, made the Islamist Brotherhood his major opposition, which then enabled him to justify “the lack of democracy by saying a free election would bring the Islamists to power.” Abrams acknowledges that while radical Islamists might win free elections, “the regimes that make moderate politics impossible make extremism far more likely. Rule by emergency decree long enough, and you end up creating a genuine emergency. And Egypt has one now.”
Abrams asserts that George W. Bush’s democracy agenda (inspired, of course, by the neocons) had it completely right about the Middle East, quoting from a Bush 2003 speech which read: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."
Abrams points out that there was considerable resistance to the “democracy” agenda as unrealistic from within the Bush administration and that the Obama administration abandoned it. He stresses that it has now become essential for Obama to emulate Bush: “Now is the time to say that the peoples of the Middle East are not ‘beyond the reach of liberty’ and that we will assist any peaceful effort to achieve it – and oppose and condemn efforts to suppress it.”
Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, and perhaps the most prominent neoconservative active today, expresses somewhat belated support for the revolutionary cause in Egypt but wants to make sure that the United States will guide it in the proper direction. “Mubarak,” he contends, “is now part of the problem, not part of the solution. His attempt to hang on to power is now an obstacle to stability in Egypt, to say nothing of considerations of freedom for the Egyptian people and the long-term interests of the United States. Surely, I would say, it’s time for the U.S. government to take an active role (much but not all of it behind the scenes), working with the army and civil and political organizations to bring about a South Korea/Philippines/Chile-like transition in Egypt, from an American-supported dictatorship to an American-supported and popularly legitimate liberal democracy.”
[“Working Group on Egypt Calls for Suspension of U.S. Aid,” January 29, 2011,]
Writing in his blog “Neocon Corner,” Joshua Muravchik, a long-time neocon stalwart of a more leftist, social democratic, persuasion, views the crisis in Egypt as having great potential ramifications. “The uprising in the streets of Egypt could remake our world,” Muravchik contends. “Turmoil is contagious. . . . If the flames are not smothered fast in Egypt, which is still the most influential country of the Arab world, the conflagration will spread across the region.”
Muravchik posits three possible outcomes. The first, which he describes as “less than momentous,” would see Egypt becoming “more of a military dictatorship and less of a party-ruled state. And it might muddle along that way, as it has already for generations. The consequences would be sad for Egyptians, not so major for the rest of the world.”
[“What Egypt Portends: Three Scenarios,” January 28, 2011, ]
Muravchik next offers a “hopeful scenario” that would involve “an agreement between the regime and leading opponents on some kind of redistribution of power which could be meaningful only through honest elections. This would create a model that would be hard for the region’s other autocrats to withstand. A wave of democratization would spread over the Middle East like the one that hit Eastern and Central Europe in 1989.”
Finally, Muravchik sets forth the “frightening scenario” in which “the army crumbles . . . the revolution triumphs, and that the only organized force capable of picking up power from the streets . . . is the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The “best bet” for Egypt, Muravchik contends, is to have a fair election this year, and he emphasizes that it is essential for the U.S. “to throw its weight into the demand” that this be done. “If Obama makes such a call, many Egyptian voices will echo it,” Muravchik opines. “The current chaos could make things much better for Egypt and the region — or much worse. The time for Obama to find his silver tongue is now.”
David Frum, who crafted George W. Bush’s notorious “Axis-of-Evil” speech, provides more qualified support for the political upheaval in Egypt. Like Abrams, he agrees that dictatorships are ultimately fragile and that the U.S. should have actively pushed for democracy there long ago. “This week’s protests remind us that dictatorships do not deliver stability,” Frum asserts. “Dictatorships do not make reliable allies over the long term. Egypt’s friends should be planning — should have planned long ago — for a transition to a more representative form of government.” But Frum does not see the fall of the Mubarak regime as certain. And instead of supporting immediate revolutionary change, as sought by the street demonstrators, he argues for a slow transition to democracy, which “means gradually bringing more and more of the population into politics.” [“David Frum: Egypt’s small steps towards true democracy,” January 29, 2011.
When directed against what essentially were the enemies of Israel (a category in which he included Saudi Arabia), Michael Ledeen championed radical democratic revolution, expressing such extreme views as: “Creative destruction is our middle name. . . . It is time once again to export the democratic revolution, ”and “One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today.” (The Transparent Cabal, p. 209). But now confronted with an actual revolutionary upheaval, the ultra-radical Ledeen has metamorphosed into veritable paragon of caution, maintaining that “[i]n Egypt, which is by far the most important of the Arab countries affected by the tumult, there are genuine democrats and also members of organizations (from the Muslim Brotherhood to Islamic Jihad, Hamas, et al.) who would transform Egypt from an authoritarian to a totalitarian regime.” Allegedly quoting his grandmother, Ledeen observes: “Things are never so bad they can’t get worse.” [ “Egypt: Revolution? By Whom? For What?,” January 28, 2011, ]
Ledeen puts forth considerable effort to show how his current cautious stance does not conflict with his overall support for democracy. “We are supposed to be the revolutionaries, and we must support democratic revolution against tyranny,” he solemnly avers. “But we must not support phony democrats, and for the president to say ‘Egypt’s destiny will be determined by the Egyptian people,’ or ‘everyone wants to be free’ is silly and dangerous. Egypt’s destiny will be determined by a fight among Egyptian people, some of whom wish to be free and others who wish to install a tyranny worse than Mubarak’s. That’s the opposite of freedom. Think about the free elections in Gaza that brought the Hamas killers to power.”
Ledeen agrees with the other neocons that the traditional U.S. Middle East policy of all-out support for authoritarian leaders was bound to fail. “We should have been pressuring the friendly tyrants in the Middle East to liberalize their polities lo these many years,” he opines. “We should have done it in the shah’s Iran, and in Mubarak’s Egypt, and in Ben Ali’s Tunisia. It is possible to move peacefully from dictatorship to democracy . . . But we didn’t.”
Ledeen, however, sees a silver lining in the current crisis since, he maintains, it offers the ideal opportunity for the U.S. to come out in support of the Green Movement revolutionaries in Iran, stating that “if we’re going to praise the Tunisian and Egyptian freedom fighters, all the more reason to hail the true martyrs in Iran.” He emphasizes that it is necessary to “support democratic revolution. But not false revolutionaries.” And of course, he actually means that a “democratic revolution” is one that advances the interests of Israel, while “false revolutionaries” are those who act against Israeli interests.
John Bolton, a long-time member of the neoconservative nexus, who currently is making noises about running for the Republican presidential nomination, did not even pay lip service to democracy in his negative portrayal of the political upheaval in Egypt. It should be said that this complete slighting of democracy makes Bolton something of an outlier among the neocons. Instead, he focuses solely on the Muslim Brotherhood bogeyman. He went so far as to say that he did not “think we have evidence yet that these demonstrations are necessarily about democracy. You know the old saying, ‘one person, one vote, one time.’ The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't care about democracy, if they get into power you're not going to have free and fair elections either.” To Bolton, the issue was one revolving fundamentally around American geostrategic interests. “Let's be clear what the stakes are for the United States,” Bolton asserts. “We have an authoritarian regime in power that has been our ally.” He believes, and seems to hope, that the Egyptian army, which he describes as the real power in the country, could take actions to suppress this revolutionary development. .[Bolton, AMB. JOHN BOLTON: Is Democracy Coming to Egypt at Last?]
From the neocons’ less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the ongoing democratic revolutionary wave in the Middle East, it is apparent that they are far from being democratic ideologues, as has often been claimed. And this has been apparent for some time. In The Transparent Cabal, I cite many instances where the neocons take positions that are contrary to supporting democracy–their opposition to democratic rights for Palestinians being the most egregious, but far from the only example. In fact, I point out that the “Neoconservatives have not always even claimed to be exponents of democracy as a policy goal; in fact, it was the rejection of pushing democracy as a foreign policy goal that loomed large in their early years. During the Cold War, the neoconservatives emphasized that it was essential to support dictatorships, if they were pro-United States, as part of the overall war on Soviet Communism. They were especially critical of President Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights in foreign policy, which they held had served to undermine anti-Communist pro-American dictatorships, such as the Shah’s Iran and Somoza’s Nicaragua, and facilitated their transformation into anti-American dictatorships that might align with the Soviet Union.” [The Transparent Cabal, pp. 227-228] In short, instead of being ideologues of democracy, the neocons largely use “democracy” as a rhetorical weapon to advance their own particular agenda, which currently involves advancing the interests of the state of Israel, which they claim to be identical to the interests of the United States.
Thus it would be expected that the interests of Israel would loom large in their assessment of the current political upheaval in Egypt. The neoconservatives thus express their support for democracy in general in Egypt, but then raise the specter of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt, and the concomitant emergence of an undemocratic theocratic state, if a free democratic election should actually take place. But why should the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the oldest and largest Islamic political organization, be prohibited from participating in the politics of Egypt? This trans-national organization renounces the use of force and expresses its commitment to democracy—a commitment which it has demonstrated in practice. The Brotherhood’s announced support for Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei to negotiate with the Mubarak regime would seem to dispel any anti-democratic intent. Moreover, political parties comprised of its members take part in other democratic governments, including that of Iraq, where the Islamic Party represents the religious Arab Sunni population. And the activist secular leaders of the revolution for democracy in Egypt (who would have the most to lose) do not express any grave fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would subvert a nascent Egyptian democracy. [“What's So Scary About Egypt's Islamists?,” Time, November 29, 2010, ]
It is quite apparent that Muslim Brotherhood is considered dangerous because it has long been hostile to Israel, and its impact on Egyptian policy would likely be to move the country away from its current friendly relationship with Israel. The Brotherhood's prescription for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to support the Palestinian armed resistance, especially that of Hamas. Although this certainly goes against the goals of Israeli and American foreign policy, it is no more a violation of democracy than the militant foreign policy positions expressed by various Israeli, or for that matter, U.S. politicians. For a true believer in democracy, Egyptian foreign policy should be something for the Egyptian people to determine, not the United States or Israel.
As I bring out in The Transparent Cabal, the fundamental goal of the neocons, as with the Israeli Right, is the destabilization and fragmentation of the Israel’s enemies, for which the rhetoric of democracy provides an ideal façade. Since Mubarak’s Egypt has maintained relatively friendly relations with Israel, it has not been targeted for destabilization and fragmentation. Instead the neocons have targeted Saddam’s Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which are enemies of the U.S. (in part, at least, due to the efforts of the Israel lobby), as well as of Israel. And, as described in The Transparent Cabal, the neocons have developed less-publicized plans to destabilize Saudi Arabia, a crucial friend of the U.S. but in various ways hostile to Israel.
It should be emphasized, however, that the neocon position toward Egypt could definitely change in the future, when it too could become a target for democratic destabilization. This view actually was mentioned in a controversial presentation in July 2002 by Laurent Murawiec, a senior fellow at the neoconservative Hudson Institute, before the Defense Policy Board (the advisory panel for the U.S. Department of Defense), at the behest of the board chairman, neocon guru Richard Perle. At a time, when the Bush administration was gearing up to make war on Iraq, Murawiec’s target for U.S. military intervention was ironically Saudi Arabia, which he described as the principal supporter of anti-American terrorism – “the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent.” Murawiec concluded his briefing with a summary of what he called a “Grand Strategy for the Middle East,” in which he stated that “Iraq is the tactical pivot. Saudi Arabia the strategic pivot. Egypt the prize.” In short, neocons are willing to consider destabilizing Egypt sometime in the future. Should a regime that is hostile to Israel emerge from the current turmoil, a plan to destabilize the country could move to the forefront. [The Transparent Cabal, pp. 203-204]