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.