Daniel Larison

Speaking of Facile Arguments…

These arguments are facile, as Tunisia, with its very un-Islamic revolution, has just demonstrated, and Turkish democracy shows, and Egyptian restraint suggests. ~Roger Cohen

Turkish democracy in its present form took roughly eighty years to develop to a point where an Islamist party could win a general election, form a government, and remain in power uninterruptedly for almost a decade. Until very recently, Turkish democracy was severely constrained by the military and the courts. Egypt has had less time to develop the habits and institutions of representative and constitutional government than Turkey had since the foundation of the republic. Tunisia’s “un-Islamic revolution” was “un-Islamic” because of two decades of severe repression of Islamists.

While the Egyptian government has used the Muslim Brotherhood as a foil to justify its abuses and keep the rest of the population from agitating against the government too much, the Tunisian government crushed Islamists to such an extent that it could no longer use them as a bogey to scare the rest of the population into obedience. Ben Ali was too effective in his program of forced secularization for his own good. In the same way, the success of Kemalism in securing the secularism of the Turkish republic and much of Turkish culture made possible the political enfranchisement of Islamists. Once they ceased to appear as threats to a secular society, they became an acceptable political alternative. If Egypt isn’t Tunisia, it isn’t Turkey, either. Citing these two as reasons to be hopeful about what Egyptian democracy might produce is not much better than the propaganda we heard before the invasion of Iraq that “we had done it” in Germany and Japan before when skeptics challenged the idea that the U.S. could install a functioning democratic government in Iraq.

The outcome in Tunisia is still not certain, and we might remember that triumphalist Westerners were crowing about the “Arab spring” of 2005 on account of the anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon. Almost six years later, there is not much in Lebanon for these people to celebrate. It’s true that Najib Miqati as PM is not the end of the world, but we can say that only when we lower our expectations considerably. At each false dawn of Iraqi elections, the “Cedar” revolution, and the Green movement, Western pundits reliably dismiss past experience and the reasonable arguments of skeptics, and each time they are proved wrong. Ideas that were thoroughly discredited are recycled as if nothing had changed from 2003. Now we have Roger Cohen channeling Rumsfeld saying that democracy is “messy.” Actually, Rumsfeld said freedom was messy, but the two words were used interchangeably and ignorantly by Bush administration officials all the time.

Egyptian Islamists are biding their time so far, and there does not appear to be any rival faction that can command the same sort of organization and numbers. Yes, this is partly the doing of Mubarak’s government: he wanted non-Islamist political opposition to be weak to make the Muslim Brotherhood the main alternative, thereby guarding against Western pressure for allowing political competition, but it does suggest something about the basic weakness of liberal democratic forces in Egypt that they are not merely disorganized, but do not seem to exist in large numbers. Considering the sharp social and economic stratification, high illiteracy rate, and considerable poverty in Egypt, this is not surprising.

Cohen writes near the end:

Still, Iran’s paranoid rulers will shudder at Egyptian people power.

That would be interesting, except that the rulers in Iran aren’t shuddering, or if they are they aren’t letting on that they are worried. Officially, the Iranian government is spinning the uprising as a new Islamic revolution. That is obviously self-serving propaganda. What is objectively true is that one of the main foes of Tehran in the region is on the ropes, the allies of Tehran’s proxy in Hamas are in a position to acquire some stake in the Egyptian government if the regime falls, and Israel may no longer have the luxury of taking “cold peace” with Egypt for granted. Iran is gaining from Egyptian weakness, and the same people who confidently predicted that the Iranian regime was fatally wounded now believe that the protests in Egypt are going to dislodge Mubarak’s regime. Of course, Egypt isn’t Iran, either, but that is one more reason to doubt the success of Egyptian democracy.

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The Dangers of Democracy Promotion

Jim Antle is right to challenge the renewed enthusiasm for U.S. democracy promotion, and he also cites Kirkpatrick’s essay as I did the other day. Looking at the Economist Intelligence Unit’s report on democracy in 2010, I would add that Jim’s argument is even stronger than he thought. Their standards measure a broader number of factors including respect for civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, electoral process/pluralism, and political culture when they place countries on a spectrum from “full democracy” to “authoritarian state.” According to their calculations, 52.7% of countries in the world are ruled by “hybrid”* or authoritarian regimes, and this accounts for how 50.5% of the world’s population is governed. In MENA (Middle East/North Africa), 80% of the countries are authoritarian, and 15% are “hybrid” regimes:

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) remains the most repressive region in the world—16 out
of 20 countries in the region are categorised as authoritarian. There are only four exceptions:
Israel is the only democracy in the region, albeit a flawed democracy; and there are three hybrid
regimes (Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories).

So, no, it isn’t 1979. It is the twenty-first century, and most of the world is still governed by authoritarian or semi-authoritarian political systems. Notably, of all the “beneficiaries” of so-called color revolutions, the EIU report classifies just one, Ukraine, as a “flawed democracy,” and the rest are “hybrid” regimes. While the last thirty years have seen remarkable advances in the spread of democratic government and liberal political culture, it cannot be stressed enough that many of these advances are still fragile and reversible in many places, and they are also very recent developments that everyone has to acknowledge to be historically atypical. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore political change, or pretend that democratization always leads to a new form of despotism, but it does mean that we shouldn’t ignore the clear lessons of the dangers that come from democratization-as-shock-therapy when they are clearly relevant. If democratists would like a more up-to-date version of the warning about the potential dangers of rapid democratization and economic liberalization, they can consult World on Fire.

* “Hybrid” regimes are identified by these characteristics:

Elections have substantial irregularities that often prevent them from being both free and fair. Government pressure on opposition parties and candidates may be common. Serious weaknesses are more prevalent than in flawed democracies–in political culture, functioning of government and political participation. Corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak. Typically there is harassment of and pressure on journalists, and the judiciary is not independent.

Update: Jim Antle wrote a follow-up post, in which he says, “So the basic point that creating democracy is difficult remains valid today.” It certainly does. If it weren’t for the odd inversion of the Bush years, in which most mainstream conservatives felt compelled to defend or at least acquiesce in a “freedom agenda” that could have been copied from the Carter or Wilson administrations, there wouldn’t be much of an argument on the right about this.

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Questioning the Realist Case for Egyptian Democracy

The latest news out of Egypt is that the military will not use force against the protesters. Certainly, that’s good news for all parties. To the extent that the U.S. has been able to use its contacts with the Egyptian military to encourage this restraint, that’s a good result for the administration’s efforts, but this news is consistent with the direction that Mubarak already seemed to be going with his new cabinet. In light of the naming of Mubarak’s new cabinet, which includes Omar Suleiman, who is widely seen as the military’s preferred successor to Mubarak, it seems unlikely that the military is openly defying the regime by ruling out force against the protesters. Instead, it seems that the military is providing a buffer between Mubarak and the protesters. Using the military as both a security and political shield to deflect the anger of the protesters, Mubarak seems to think he can ride out the storm. As Ashraf Khalil explains:

These new appointments are proof that Mubarak is well aware of the respect enjoyed by his armed forces. By stacking his new team with distinguished military figures, he’s hoping that their reputation can paper over his own tattered legitimacy.

If Mubarak is trying to hide behind the military’s good reputation, it makes sense that he would have the military take a relatively non-confrontational approach to the protesters. Instead of destroying the military’s reputation with a bloody crackdown, Mubarak wants to exploit that reputation and try to wait out the opposition. As Blake Hounshell notes, the new cabinet will actually be even less interested in reform than the outgoing one:

In fact, the reformers — Ahmed Nazif, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, Youssef Boutros-Ghali — won’t be in the new government. Although Al Arabiya reported that the latter two ministers refused to join, it’s also possible that Mubarak wanted to send a signal that he blamed their economic liberalization policies for stirring up unrest.

All of this is worth taking into account when discussing what the U.S. should or should not do in the coming weeks. Prof. Walt has offered a realist argument for pushing for democratic elections. I agree that “domestic considerations-including human rights-can be relevant for realists, particularly when thinking about one’s allies,” but I am not sure that “this is one of those fortunate moments when the United States does not face a clear tradeoff between its moral sympathies and its strategic imperatives.” If it were one of those fortunate moments, we would be seeing a very straightforward stance of support for the protesters as we saw in Tunisia. Tunisia was one of those “fortunate moments.” Virtually no one in the U.S. noticed it until it had already happened. As everyone keeps saying, Egypt is not Tunisia, because there is not the same luxury of endorsing the end of the regime without some significant consequences. The U.S. is stuck in the position that France would have been stuck in had Ben Ali not fled to Saudi Arabia: a major patron state supporting the “modernizing” autocrat as the least-bad of the available options and implicated in the existing regime.

Prof. Walt’s argument doesn’t persuade me. For example, he writes:

In other words, our support for Mubarak was directly linked to the “special relationship” with Israel, and the supposedly “strategic interest” involved was largely derivative of the U.S. commitment to support Israel at all costs. For those of us who think that the “special relationship” is bad for the U.S. and Israel alike, therefore, a change of government in Egypt is not alarming.

As someone who agrees with Prof. Walt that the current U.S.-Israeli relationship is unbalanced, dysfunctional, and bad for both parties, I might agree that a change of government in Egypt would not be alarming if that relationship were significantly different from what it is today. However, the “special relationship” still exists, and it isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future, so the U.S. will have to cope with the effects of Egyptian political change on Israel, and the U.S. will be implicated in Israeli actions in response to the new Egyptian government. If the U.S. could rearrange all of our other relations in the region to make the impact of Egyptian regime change on U.S. policies minimal, this would indeed be a “fortunate moment,” but there is no question of that kind of realignment happening in the short space of time necessary to make Egyptian regime change anything other than troubling. The “special relationship” with Israel becomes more of a liability for the U.S. if Mubarak goes, which becomes another argument for changing the relationship, but that isn’t actually an argument for the U.S. to support Mubarak’s departure or help usher in a democratic Egyptian government.

It isn’t hard to imagine how a change in Egypt’s regime would politically strengthen advocates for the current U.S.-Israeli relationship. As Egypt goes from “cold peace” to something less friendly, “pro-Israel” hawks in the U.S. will go into overdrive demanding that the U.S. become even more supportive and uncritical in relations with Israel. It doesn’t matter politically that this will actually be harmful to the U.S. Recent disputes between Turkey and Israel should have made it obvious that U.S. strategic interests favored supporting Turkey more than the U.S. has been, but the opposite has occurred. U.S.-Turkish relations have soured, and criticism of Israeli policies has become more muted, because Turkey became a target of vilification on account of its clashes with Israel. The siege rhetoric Israeli and “pro-Israel” hawks have used for decades may become a little bit more credible with a less friendly Egypt on its doorstep, and this and future administrations will have even less room to criticize and pressure Israel. A lot of this will be the usual over-hyping of threats and hyperbolic language that we have heard for a long time, but there could be just enough truth in it to make it harder to change the relationship with Israel in a constructive way.

It is easy to see how reduced Egyptian pressure on Gaza and a steady supply of arms into Gaza from Hamas’ ideological confreres could create conditions that an Israeli government would use to justify an unwise, excessive military action against Gaza and targets in Egypt. Everyone seems to be banking on continued peace between Egypt and Israel, as if Egypt were the only state that could launch a military action. As long as the Egyptian government is more or less in its current form, whether under Mubarak or Suleiman, that probably heads off a broader international crisis sparked by any renewed fighting in Gaza. If a new Egyptian government that is much more sympathetic or openly supportive of Hamas comes to power, and if members of the Muslim Brotherhood actively aid Hamas, an Israeli government might believe that it has to launch a “preventive” war to strike at Hamas’ supporters. Put another way, does Prof. Walt have confidence that either a Likud or Kadima-led Israeli government would not order military strikes against targets inside Egypt if it believed it was “defending itself” against Hamas in the process? We have heard endlessly since the fall of Hariri’s government that Israel would have justification to target all of Lebanon now that a Hizbullah-backed government is in power there. What would make Egypt’s democratic government more secure against such a fate, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood belonged to or even ran the government?

Invoking democratic elections is the standard answer that everyone now gives as the way to resolve the crisis in Egypt, and Prof. Walt is arguing for the same thing, but what if it really is the wrong answer? If these elections empower the opposition united behind ElBaradei, they would also empower his allies in the Brotherhood, for which ElBaradei has been making excuses since he arrived on the scene.

Walt also argues that a new Egyptian government wouldn’t be focused on changing Egyptian foreign policy:

Although ordinary Egyptians do feel strong sympathy for the Palestinians, the primary concern of those now marching in the streets is domestic affairs, not foreign policy.

True enough. Likewise, the people marching in Tbilisi were outraged by corruption and electoral fraud more than they were concerned about South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but Georgia’s experience since 2003 has been overwhelmingly defined (and not for the better) by Saakashvili’s foreign policy preoccupations with the separatist republics and integration into NATO. To take a different and less dramatic example, the DPJ in Japan came to power largely because of strong anti-incumbency sentiment, economic anxieties, and disgust with official corruption, but practically the first thing Hatoyama did after winning election was to try to re-open negotiations over the Okinawa basing agreement. Practically everyone said that the DPJ would not make its foreign policy adjustments a priority, and that was incorrect. The row with the U.S. caused Hatoyama to resign, so this decision was not without its price, but American observers significantly underestimated the extent to which Okinawa basing mattered to the new government and its supporters. So we have recently seen two examples of new, untested democratic leaders making controversial or disastrous forays into foreign policy when it might have made more sense to focus solely on domestic issues.

What the protesters in the streets want or don’t want may not matter when it comes to a new government setting foreign policy. This is not only because foreign policy is not as directly affected by popular opinion as other policies, but because the opposition leaders do have very strong disagreements with Mubarak’s foreign policy. Many Western observers overstated the impact of a successful Green movement on Iranian foreign policy, not understanding that they shared many of the same priorities as the government, and it seems to me that many people are making the opposite mistake now by underestimating the degree of change in policy that a new government will introduce. One thing that suggests that there may be more continuity in foreign policy than I am considering here is the likely survival of military and intelligence institutions in any new system, but that assumes that the new government is going to be willing to tolerate a large role for these institutions in setting policy.

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Huntsman 2012? Why?

The White House expects Jon Huntsman, the U.S. Ambassador to China, to resign his post this spring to explore a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, top Democrats said. ~Politico

I still don’t understand what he’s doing. It’s not as if Republicans have spent the last two years clamoring for another John McCain-like candidate, much less someone who endorsed McCain early on and surrounds himself with a lot of McCain advisors. If these reports are correct, Huntsman isn’t just doing this as a “centrist” protest candidate in the time of the Tea Party. He isn’t running to promote civility and public service. Presumably, he wants to make a serious bid for the nomination, either as a way to set up for a successful run later or in order to win in this cycle. The problem is that everyone understands that he has no chance of making a serious bid for the nomination, so why do it?

The common assumption seems to be that any success that Huntsman does have will come at Romney’s expense. Personally, I find that very satisfying, and Obama supporters should be pleased by the prospect of a Huntsman campaign. If I were a Republican partisan, I would be a bit concerned that Huntsman could do just enough damage to Romney by peeling off moderate voters that an even weaker nominee manages to win. Huntsman isn’t a credible candidate to win the nomination for all the reasons that have been laid out in the article and elsewhere, but he could be a spoiler in many primaries. Moderate Republicans who might like Romney (or at least the pre-2005 Romney) could look to Huntsman as a former governor with a record of competent management without any of the insufferable phoniness of Romney, and fiscal conservatives who don’t trust Huckabee, aren’t excited by Daniels, and can’t bring themselves to back Johnson might find Huntsman as a suitable alternative. Some national security hawks might prefer that their views be associated with a candidate who has a reputation for being knowledgeable. Huntsman would probably be as hawkish as most of the others, and his background could lend credibility to otherwise bad arguments. If there’s one thing the GOP doesn’t need, it’s a McCain foreign policy articulated by someone who can’t be quite so easily dismissed as ignorant or ideological.

What intrigues me about Huntsman’s campaign is that it seems to make no sense at all. Something else I find interesting about it is that he will be the only 2012 candidate who has been elected to office and possesses foreign policy experience. His presence in the primary field will draw attention to the lack of experience that all of the others have, and it will make the attempts of Romney, Pawlenty and Thune, among others, to claim expertise in foreign policy seem even more ridiculous than they already do. It can’t help the eventual GOP nominee that Huntsman will have been pointing out his lack of qualifications on national security and foreign policy in debate after debate. Then again, Huntsman can’t be a particularly effective critic of Obama’s foreign policy as someone who was responsible for advancing the administration’s China policy, which neutralizes the one clear advantage he has over the others.

Update: Dave Weigel doesn’t understand it, either. Josh Green guesses that this is how Huntsman sets the stage for making a more competitive run in 2016. The trouble with this interpretation is that anyone running in 2016 will probably be running against Obama’s policies (assuming Obama is re-elected), and so association with Obama will probably have become more of a liability inside the GOP by then. Had a Democrat appointed by Bush run for president in 2004, he would have done badly, but not as badly as he would have done running in 2008. It may be that Huntsman thinks that 2012 might be his best chance. Perhaps he believes that his prospects, as poor as they are right now, will keep getting worse as time goes by.

Second Update: Ezra Klein wonders how Huntsman’s campaign could go anywhere. Chris Cillizza offers the “case for Jon Huntsman,” which drives home just how bizarre a Huntsman candidacy is. For Cillizza, the fact that no one knows who Huntsman is could help him, since “Republican voters desperately want new and different people running for office.” One small problem with this is that the “new and different people” in question succeeded by opposing incumbents who held views similar to Huntsman’s. I’ve already addressed the limited value of Huntsman’s foreign policy experience.

The one advantage that Huntsman might have is that he could argue that he is more electable in a general election, but that requires him to make the argument that he believes that conservative positions on a number of issues are political liabilities. He may believe that, and it might even be true in some cases, but it won’t win over primary voters. Huntsman might be more electable than many of the others (assuming that his hypothetical nomination didn’t cause a drop in turnout and defections to third parties), but that by itself isn’t going to get him the nomination. Finally, Cillizza mentions that Huntsman is a “reformer with results.” Really? Part of the case for Huntsman is that he can effectively imitate the Bush 2000 campaign? That was a lackluster campaign that won the nomination solely on Bush’s name, fundraising and connections. Huntsman doesn’t have the name or most of the connections, and he is not going to be anointed as the front-runner. Republicans have nominated moderate “reform” governors from the West to their presidential tickets (with Palin as VP) in the last three cycles, and it hasn’t gone well. If this is the case for Huntsman, there is no need to make the case against.

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The “Freedom Agenda” Has Been a Disaster, So Why Would We Want More?

Some say that a freedom agenda only opens the door to Islamists; the truth is that our support for secular dictators does more for Islamists than democracy promotion ever did. ~Danielle Pletka

I have seen some variant of this several times over the last few days. It is such a brazen lie that I marvel at how frequently some have been saying it, and how few people have objected to it. U.S. support for secular authoritarian rulers doesn’t do very much for Islamists. It does focus Islamist political grievances on the U.S. as a patron of those governments, but that isn’t actually much of an advantage for them. In Tunisia, which had what was in some respects the most repressive police state of all Arab authoritarian states, Islamists ceased to matter politically because the government suppressed them so severely. When the U.S. and France encouraged the Algerian government to ignore the results of the ’91 election, that didn’t help the Islamists in Algeria who were poised to take power, but instead triggered an awful civil war that resulted in the defeat of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the overall weakening of Islamist opposition to the government. Throughout all of this, as ugly as it was, the U.S. supported the Algerian government, and this was not exactly a boon for Algerian Islamists.

In the few places where it has seriously been tried in Arab countries, democracy promotion has directly led to the election and entrenchment of Islamist parties. This has happened in Iraq and Gaza, and to the extent that the “freedom agenda” extended to Lebanon it worked to the advantage of Hizbullah. For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t really matter whether one believes empowering Islamists to be a disaster, an inevitability, or even something desirable. What matters is that we understand that supporting secular authoritarian governments does not aid Islamist movements more than democracy promotion. Democratists are some of the best friends of Islamists, no matter how harmful to majority-Muslim countries their other preferred policies may be. To the extent that secular authoritarian states prefer to have a primarily Islamist opposition, which they can then use as a foil to justify any and all abuses, that still doesn’t make democracy promotion any wiser or less likely to aid Islamists. Instead of being a useful foil for autocrats, Islamists become a major and perhaps dominant force in the country’s politics.

It is true that Islamists become the de facto opposition to such governments, because they can appeal to the population’s religious identity, they offer an ideological alternative to the existing system, and they can draw on a rhetoric of justice and opposition to tyranny derived from certain episodes in Islamic history. They also remain at most as a permanent opposition with no access to real political power. If withdrawing support from secular authoritarian rulers is likely to lead to the acquisition of power by Islamist organizations through the democratic elections that follow, it is nonsense to say that it is the support for those rulers that is doing more for Islamists than the promotion of democracy.

Where the “freedom agenda” has succeeded in deposing governments overseas, it has brought even greater misrule and ruin on the countries in question. Having seen the results of the governments that resulted from them, it seems hard to deny at this point that Georgia, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine would all have been better off without the “benefits” of the so-called color revolutions. This is why I genuinely can’t understand why there are so many people here in the U.S. who seem eager to see Egypt go through the likely upheaval that previous “beneficiaries” of the “freedom agenda” have experienced. In the end, the color revolutions failed in terms of serving their respective countries’ best interests, and all of them backfired as means of expanding U.S. influence. Most of the people who were eagerly cheering on those failures are now urging the administration to push Egypt in the same direction. As ever, they are heedless of the consequences to the country that is being “liberated” as well as to the effects this will have on the U.S. and our other allies. Neither Egypt nor the U.S. will be well-served by following the advice of the people who have been consistently wrong in virtually every major foreign policy debate of the last decade and beyond.

Despite U.S. aid to Egypt, the American role in the current political crisis is not a central one, and that is how it should remain. Benign neglect, as Dr. Hadar says, is the best course.

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Mubarak and Wikileaks

But they also show U.S. pressure is viewed skeptically by Mubarak, who believes ill-advised U.S. pushes for reform in the Middle East have produced colossal mistakes, from the ouster of the Shah of Iran to the election of Hamas Islamists in Gaza.

“We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world,” the U.S. embassy in Cairo told Clinton in a cable before Mubarak’s visit to Washington in May 2009.

“He can harken back to the Shah of Iran: the U.S. encouraged him to accept reforms, only to watch the country fall into the hands of revolutionary religious extremists. Wherever he has seen these U.S. efforts, he can point to the chaos and loss of stability that ensued.” ~Reuters

The problem that democratists have is that Mubarak is basically right about all of this. Of course, he’s going to look for reasons to avoid opening up Egypt’s political system to more competition, but just because he’s self-interested doesn’t mean he’s mistaken. One thing to take away from this is that every other time the U.S. has claimed to be seriously interested in promoting political reform in the Near East, it has either been associated with the empowerment of militants and terrorists, the devastation and occupation of an entire country, or some combination of the two. We know why Mubarak doesn’t want political reform, but isn’t it remotely possible that his skepticism is more well-founded than Western demands for reform?

What the report also shows is that the Obama administration has been pressing Mubarak for reforms. They just haven’t been doing it in public. That ought to put to rest the garbage analysis we’ve been hearing from the crowd at the Post that the protests in Egypt are somehow the fault of the administration’s supposed lack of agitation on the subject of reform. It should also drive home just how irrelevant American advocacy for reform really is: advocacy for these things has been going on all this time, and if anything Mubarak has simply become more stubborn and skeptical of the idea. Bearing the example of the Shah in mind, Mubarak has resisted. The better question is this: why do so many Americans want him to acquiesce in a process that will lead to regime collapse?

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“Dictatorships and Double Standards” Revisited

The emissary’s recommendations are presented in the context of a growing clamor for American disengagement on grounds that continued involvement confirms our status as an agent of imperialism, racism, and reaction; is inconsistent with support for human rights; alienates us from the “forces of democracy”; and threatens to put the U.S. once more on the side of history’s “losers.” This chorus is supplemented daily by interviews with returning missionaries and “reasonable” rebels.

As the situation worsens, the President assures the world that the U.S. desires only that the “people choose their own form of government”; he blocks delivery of all arms to the government and undertakes negotiations to establish a “broadly based” coalition headed by a “moderate” critic of the regime who, once elevated, will move quickly to seek a “political” settlement to the conflict. ~Jeane Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards”

Does this sound familiar? The moves that Kirkpatrick was attacking in late 1979 as disastrous are the very moves that administration critics are urging Obama to make.

Kirkpatrick went on:

In either case, the U.S. will have been led by its own misunderstanding of the situation to assist actively in deposing an erstwhile friend and ally and installing a government hostile to American interests and policies in the world. At best we will have lost access to friendly territory….And everywhere our friends will have noted that the U.S. cannot be counted on in times of difficulty and our enemies will have observed that American support provides no security against the forward march of history.

It can’t be stressed enough that many of the people faulting the Obama administration for not doing enough to undermine Mubarak and other authoritarian allied rulers are the same people who insist that he has been betraying and undermining allies for the last two years. Of course, Obama hasn’t been betraying any U.S. allies, and the administration still seems to understand that encouraging Mubarak’s downfall would be and would be seen as a strategic blow and humiliation for the United States. Americans should want to get out of the business of empire and power projection in the Near East, but there is no way that having a client government overthrown or actively encouraging its overthrow does anything but harm legitimate U.S. interests along with harming misguided hegemonist policies. If the U.S. didn’t insist on having a huge role in the region and meddling in its affairs, we wouldn’t need an alliance system that leads us to support such authoritarian governments, but very few of the people urging the administration to help wreck a major alliance want the U.S. to disentangle itself from the Near East.

Democracy promotion advocates continue to make the same arguments that were wrong when applied to Iraq, and they have not improved with time. Kirkpatrick made the basic conservative critique of democracy promotion three decades ago, and it remains valid now:

Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government. Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain-because they make heavy demands on all portions of a population and because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.

As legitimate as the grievances against the Egyptian government are, it is entirely possible that whatever comes after Mubarak and his allies could be dramatically worse. We seem to forget that political change can also be change significantly for the worse, and that empowering a dispossessed majority can lead to economic catastrophe, ethnic and/or religious violence, and contribute to an overall decline in the public’s welfare. Iraq war propagandists are busily trying to lay claim to the Egyptian protests as a legacy of the war. This is ridiculous, but it is possible that a post-Mubarak Egypt could suffer the same kind of upheaval, civil strife, and turn to majoritarian semi-authoritarianism that Iraq experienced as a result of its crash-course democratization. What is most amazing about the critiques directed against the administration’s cautious response is that the people making them show no awareness that their arguments about Egypt have all been made before, and have very often been seriously wrong:

In Iran and Nicaragua (as previously in Vietnam, Cuba, and China) Washington overestimated the political diversity of the opposition–especially the strength of “moderates” and “democrats” in the opposition movement; underestimated the strength and intransigence of radicals in the movement….

It is not only for the sake of U.S. interests that Americans should approve the administration’s wary, cautious approach, but also possibly for the sake of Egypt as well. ElBaradei or whoever might take the lead in a transitional government could prove to be little better and no more effective than Kerensky, and Egypt might go from autocratic gloom to something even worse. To the extent that our government has any role in what happens, it also has to take seriously the possibility that political change in Egypt will make Egypt worse off in the end.

Update: Speaking of Kirkpatrick, here is the obituary column Pat Buchanan wrote after her passing.

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Deeply Unrealistic Democratism (II)

Do you still think the possibility of regional transformation remote? I’d say by definition the fall of Mubarak means massive regional transformation, and at this point it seems to me–and most observers, I think–more likely than not. ~Claire Berlinski

I appreciate the lengthy response to my earlier post. The disagreement centers on the expectation of Mubarak’s fall. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is likely at all, which makes this one of the few times that I agree with the Netanyahu government about something. It also centers on what seemed to me to be an unrealistic hope that the U.S. could lend support to Egyptian liberal democrats without also lending support to the Muslim Brotherhood. I would agree that there is another alternative besides Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, namely a new form of military “emergency” rule that would be no less repressive and perhaps even more hardened against political reform in the future. From what I have been seeing and reading, many observers are overstating the significance of the protests and the protesters’ ability to overthrow the government. We saw much the same thing in the summer of 2009 in Iran, and we heard the same demands that the administration take the side of the Green movement. Granted, Iran is not Egypt, and the U.S. has much more leverage in Egypt, but the call to “do something” is the same and it seems just as misguided now as it did then.

As for a U.S. response involving withdrawal of aid, it may be that we don’t disagree as much as I thought. Here we probably differ only about what would trigger the loss of aid. From the last post, Claire, it seemed as if you were willing to pull all aid or even impose sanctions if Mubarak’s security forces so much as roughed up another protester. Perhaps I misunderstood. What I was trying to say is that there is a line of unacceptable use of force that the U.S. shouldn’t tolerate. If Mubarak’s forces committed atrocities on the scale of something like Andijan in Uzbekistan, Washington would have to suspend aid.

Up to that point, it makes no sense to drop all support for an allied government. It’s not as if we can pretend that our government hasn’t been implicated in its activities for all these years. If an alliance with Egypt has genuine strategic importance for the U.S. it doesn’t make sense why our government would try to help undermine it in a crisis. One reason that it makes no sense is that Mubarak, his party, and his military backers most likely aren’t going anywhere. Even if Mubarak were to step aside personally, which I doubt, the regime apparatus behind him isn’t going to give up its power.

Maybe the U.S. could do without the Egyptian alliance. No matter how it turns out, openly siding with the protesters against the government will mean that the Egyptian alliance as we have known it will be dead or severely damaged. That has to be considered in connection with its effects on other U.S. allies and interests in the region. I am not as concerned with containing and checking Iranian influence as many Americans are, but overthrowing the current regime in Egypt will make it more difficult for Egypt to contribute to the goal of containing Iranian influence. Trying and failing to overthrow the regime will make Egypt look for other, more reliable patrons (it has done so before), and there are other major powers that wouldn’t mind making Egypt into a client state. They aren’t going to have any concerns about how Mubarak and his successors govern the place, and they probably aren’t going to be concerned about growing Iranian influence.

If the government is overthrown, it will probably have a good effect on reducing the suffering of the people in Gaza by ending the Egyptian part of the blockade, but it would make it easier for Hamas to operate. If the U.S. helps bring the regime down, the message will be that the U.S. pulled the plug on one of the only two Arab states to make peace with Israel. What are the odds that any other Arab state is going to see the benefits of formally recognizing Israel after that? As for Egypt itself, the fall of the regime could unleash terrible religious violence. The Christians of Iraq have already paid a terrible price as a result of the “liberation” of their country. The Copts and other Christians are at risk of facing similar treatment.

Critics of the Obama administration have routinely accused him of undermining or “selling out” allies and encouraging U.S. rivals. These charges have been baseless, but now it seems that unless Obama actively undermines Mubarak his critics are arguing that he will have erred horribly. If I understand your position, you are calling for the administration to abandon an allied government on the chance that a popular movement is going to overthrow it anyway. My view is that this greatly exaggerates the power of the protests, it underestimates the staying power of the current regime and its ruler, and it doesn’t take into account any of the consequences of success (overthrowing the regime) or failure (trying and failing to overthrow the regime).

P.S. The comparison with Poland is not as useful as it might seem. Washington has never had difficulty denouncing the actions of governments allied with major rivals. When the U.S. is the patron, as the USSR was for the Polish government at the time, Washington has understandably been less insistent on public denunciation and sanctions. It is also true that the U.S. helped the political transitions in South Korea, Chile and the Philippines in the 1980s, but the Reagan administration did so only when there was no perceived danger of creating an opening for communists and Soviet influence. If we’re looking to Reagan for an idea of how to proceed, it seems to me that his administration would have continued to support Mubarak. One of Reagan’s chief criticisms of Carter’s administration was that his human rights activism had undermined the Shah. Stating the truth would be excellent, and part of the truth is that the U.S. has supported the miserable dictator Mubarak because our government concluded that his rule was preferable to the probable alternatives. That still appears to be true, and for the most part the argument to the contrary seems to be based on little more than the hope that it does not have to be true.

Update: Michael has been making many of the same points on the main blog:

Four years ago, during some of the headiest days of Bush’s “democracy agenda”, our own State Department officials in Cairo told me that truly liberal parties in Egypt were “interesting to talk to but totally insignificant.” The idea that there is some huge reserve of middle class support for liberal democracy is an untested fantasy.

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Saakashvili’s Reckless Moves

If there were still any doubt that Mikheil Saakashvili is a dangerous buffoon, this (via Antiwar News) ought to dispel it:

Mikheil Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, told The Independent yesterday that attacks like Monday’s suicide bombing at a Moscow airport were “payback” for Russia’s policies in the North Caucasus, as he compared the country to a “crocodile ready to swallow you up”.

There’s no question that Russian policy in the North Caucasus is a contributing factor to the ongoing problem of terrorism in Russia. It is also interesting that Western observers are happy to provide this sort of analysis when it comes to terrorism directed against other nations, but most can’t quite seem to grasp that their own governments’ policies might have a similar relationship to terrorism. What is really remarkable here is that Saakashvili is making this point publicly just a few months after Georgia eliminated visa restrictions from the North Caucasus in what everyone could see was a calculated provocation on account of Russian security problems in the region. As Thomas de Waal wrote last fall:

Georgia, which also needs stability on its northern border, is also playing the irrational card. The Georgian government has embarked on a new policy of embracing the North Caucasus, which to Russian eyes looks like a strategy to divide it from the rest of Russia. President Saakashvili unilaterally announced a visa-free regime for the North Caucasian republics and made a speech at the United Nations about his vision of a “united Caucasus,” north and south. The sentiments would have been laudable from the mouth of a poet or even a businessman. Coming from the president of Georgia, they only stoked Russian paranoia and Russian-Georgian tensions.

Coming not long after the provocative decision on visas and just days after the horrible attack in Moscow, Saakashvili’s blunt words about “payback” seem designed to provide Moscow with an excuse to worsen relations and become even more inflexible in dealings with Tbilisi. In an even worse scenario, Saakashvili’s recklessness could provide the Russian government with a pretext for blaming Georgia for having some role in the Domodedovo bombing. I don’t expect a Georgian nationalist to have much sympathy for Russian victims of terrorism at this point, but I would expect a sensible head of state to have enough sense not to goad Moscow when it is responding to a terrorist atrocity. This is just one more reminder that Saakashvili is an irresponsible and reckless leader, and the U.S. indulges him and supports him at our and Georgia’s peril.

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Huntsman and 2012–This Time It May Not Be a Joke

U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (R) appears to be leaning toward a run for president in 2012 and a team of political operatives and fundraisers have begun informal talks and outreach to ensure he could rapidly ramp up if he decides to run. ~Chris Cillizza

This makes no more sense than it did three and a half weeks ago, but it seems that the Newsweek profile may not have been as silly and speculative as we all thought. As Cillizza’s post explains, “the breadth of the team that has formed to prepare for just such an eventuality suggests he is quite serious.” Looking at the list, we see that Huntsman’s inner circle is largely made up of old McCain, George W. Bush, and Jeb Bush advisors. If he were to run, Huntsman’s campaign is would be dominated by people with connections to the party establishment (such as it is), the Bush dynasty, and the part of the failed 2008 ticket that most conservatives loathe.

I suppose he can serve as the “competent, wealthy Mormon executive who is not Mitt Romney” candidate, but is there really high demand for such a candidate? If Romney is the candidate with a liability on health care, Huntsman has publicly supported cap-and-trade. This is a position that is generally far more unpopular with the general public, to say nothing of Republican primary voters.

What is Huntsman’s argument for a presidential bid? Presumably, Huntsman wouldn’t be foolish enough to run as the anti-Obama foreign policy candidate, since he can’t have that many serious disagreements with the administration as it regards policies in China and the surrounding region. Then again, Huntsman’s foreign policy experience is the one thing that clearly distinguishes him from the rest of the likely 2012 field. Of course, it is also the one thing that he won’t be able to use to any great advantage in the primaries. If he tries to run against Obama’s overall foreign policy, he won’t really have any credibility to do that, and if he attempts to distinguish himself from the leading candidates by staking out somewhat rational or sane foreign policy positions the other candidates will spend every debate tearing him apart as Obama’s man in Beijing. They will use every hawkish, democratist, and anti-Chinese platitude available to tar him as an appeaser, and it won’t matter what he has actually done during his time as ambassador.

One other glaring problem for Huntsman, as for many of the would-be Republican candidates this time around, is his obscurity. Outside of Utah and apart from a rather narrow set of people who follow Republican politics and foreign policy, Huntsman’s name recognition is horrible. One reason for this is that he vanished from the national scene and went to Beijing almost as soon as national reporters had started talking about him. James Joyner said that he had never heard of Huntsman before earlier this month, and James is a pretty well-informed person. If Huntsman is that unknown nationally, I would be amazed if he can catch up and become competitive with the well-established names among primary voters.

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