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.