David Rothkopf rails against “literalists” in foreign policy debate:

Recent events in Egypt have revealed that one particularly powerful group comprises those who, no doubt out of good intentions, find themselves confounded not so much by events as by semantics. The continuing debate over whether to call the upheaval in that country a coup or not and whether Barack Obama’s administration is right or wrong to sidestep the term illustrates this. It reveals a group in the policy community that has done a great deal of damage to some of America’s most enlightened impulses over the years. You might choose to call the group by the label that so many of its members have embraced professionally: lawyers. But another term that also captures their true nature is “literalists.”

The depressing thing about this is that there still is a continuing debate over whether an obvious military coup is a coup. We might have hoped that this debate would have been settled and done with by now. It’s one thing to say that the administration has good reasons to pretend that there hasn’t been a coup in Egypt, but it’s more than a little odd to fault people for using the most accurate name to describe an event. A better description for the people that Rothkopf derides as “literalists” might be legalist, since most are emphasizing that the U.S. is legally required to suspend aid. These aren’t the people confounded by semantics, because they are the only ones in this debate not trying to play semantic games to avoid reaching an unpleasant conclusion.

Rothkopf continues:

These literalists are the ones who have made the fundamental error of confusing democratic processes and democratic principles.

It’s impossible to know whose argument he’s referring to, since he doesn’t cite anyone or link to an example, but this still misses the point. The “literalist” argument that there has been a coup in Egypt doesn’t require anyone to believe that Morsi and his supporters are genuine democrats or that they haven’t governed in an anti-democratic fashion. The “literalists” might say is that the military overthrow of an elected civilian government isn’t compatible with democratic principles, either, but what most of them do say is that the U.S. ought to respect its own laws.

He goes on:

Their views are the foundation on which illiberal democracies everywhere are based. They believe that if you check certain democratic boxes you are therefore advancing democracy, when, of course, in Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and, more recently, in Mohamed Morsy’s Egypt, the people know better. The number of leaders who have hijacked the trappings of democracy in order to claim legitimacy and have then used the power they gained to crack down on the media, arrest comedians for the wrong kinds of jokes, or imprison their enemies is manifold and, thanks to the literalists [bold mine-DL], growing.

Authoritarian populist regimes use and abuse some democratic forms, but I can’t think of many people in the U.S. or in Western foreign policy debates that would defend the proposition that these rigged systems represent advancing democracy for their countries. Authoritarian regimes have abused democratic forms for decades to suit their own purposes. If authoritarian populism is gaining ground in some places, this is because many former supporters of political reform in those countries have soured on democratic government. It has nothing to do with what nameless “literalists” have to say about it.