Niall Ferguson dreams of the McCain administration that might have been:

The correct strategy—which, incidentally, John McCain would have actively pursued had he been elected in 2008 [bold mine-DL]—was twofold. First, we should have tried to repeat the successes of the pre-1989 period, when we practiced what we preached in Central and Eastern Europe by actively supporting those individuals and movements who aspired to replace the communist puppet regimes with democracies.

Western support for the likes of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity in Poland was real. And it was one of the reasons that, when the crisis of the Soviet empire came in 1989, there were genuine democrats ready and waiting to step into the vacuums created by Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Sinatra Doctrine” (whereby each Warsaw Pact country was allowed to do things “its way”).

No such effort has been made in the Arab world. On the contrary, efforts in that direction have been scaled down. The result is that we have absolutely no idea who is going to fill today’s vacuums of power. Only the hopelessly naive imagine that thirtysomething Google executives will emerge as the new leaders of the Arab world, aided by their social network of Facebook friends. The far more likely outcome—as in past revolutions—is that power will pass to the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements in the revolution, which in this case means Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.

The worrying thing is that Ferguson might actually believe this. Had McCain been elected, and had he managed to get to this point without starting WWIII over South Ossetia, he would most likely be facing very similar scenes. Democratists populating the McCain administration would have been agitating for pushing more political reform in these countries, and Washington would have started selecting the favorites that it wanted to promote, and it still wouldn’t have changed the reality that we wouldn’t know who will fill the power vacuums that are opening up in one country after the next. Western support for Arab liberals wouldn’t make them more successful than they would otherwise be. If Western backing were an important reason for the political success of the factions most Westerners prefer, the governments of Lebanon, Iraq, and Gaza would have a very different composition than they do. How are the “genuine democrats” doing there? We do know that actively supporting Russian liberals in the fashion Ferguson recommends didn’t lead to the greater success of Russian liberalism, but instead resulted in seeing it discredited and defeated for a generation.

Only the hopelessly naive (or the desperately opportunistic partisan) would believe that a little more McCain-sponsored Western support for, say, Ayman Nour would have dramatically altered the political landscape in Egypt in just a few years’ time. If “the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements” will be able to exploit the situation in Egypt now, they would have been able to do so even if the U.S. had followed all of the democracy promotion advocates’ advice. Nostalgia for Cold War successes is badly misleading. Western support for eastern European dissidents was all very well, but it wasn’t what made the revolutions in 1989 a success, and it wasn’t what led to the mostly peaceful transitions to democratic government in the years that followed. Westerners very much want to take credit for 1989 and afterwards (we “won” the Cold War, after all), but the reality is that this was something that the peoples of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union accomplished almost entirely on their own. The Western contribution to that political transformation was minimal, and we can be certain that if it had not turned out well hardly anyone would want to bring it up now.

The sobering thing about rapid political change in these countries is that there really is very little that the U.S. could have done differently in just the last few years that would have produced a significantly different outcome. Democratists look at what happened in the 1980s, they reason foolishly that 1989 happened because of what the U.S. and Western allies did in supporting political dissidents, and they conclude that “we did it before, we can do it again!” Just as Iraq war supporters stupidly invoked Japan and Germany as meaningful precedents for the political transformation that could happen in Iraq, Ferguson is invoking the successes of eastern European dissidents as precedents for what could have happened in the Near East.

What makes Ferguson’s comparison even harder to take is the presumption that Western support for eastern European dissidents was important to their success, when the success of eastern European revolutions in 1989 rested almost entirely with the peoples of those countries. Ferguson’s analysis and recommendations seem to hinge on believing that Western support for dissidents in communist states was important to the successful political transition in those states, because Ferguson can’t seem to imagine foreign political movements that succeed or fail regardless of what Westerners do or don’t do. Ferguson assumes that the “genuine democrats” don’t have much of a chance in these countries, which is a defensible, skeptical position, but then he destroys any credibility he might still have by arguing that the “genuine democrats” would have a decent chance at prevailing if only the U.S. and the West had promoted democracy a bit more.

If there is anything more pathetic than the usual round of “who lost [fill in the blank]?”, it is the risible attempt to claim that all would be well if there had just been more American emphasis on democracy promotion earlier on. Ferguson practically admits that the rest of his argument is nonsense when he stresses the poverty and relative lack of education of the populations in most of these countries.