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The Democracy Promotion Fetish

Wilsonians and necononservatives alike have fetishized “democracy promotion” as a key goal of American foreign policy under the impression that it would lead to all those other good things, when in fact we probably had the cart before the horse.

So I’m not nearly as optimistic as some others are about the fate of a country that, given its druthers, would freely and fairly elect the Muslim Brotherhood in overwhelming numbers. And I’m highly sympathetic to the strategy of the Obama administration which — though it may look clumsy and wishy-washy from the outside — seems pretty clearly driven by a desire to save the Egyptian regime even as it shows Mubarak the door. ~Daniel Foster

That sums things up rather nicely. Foster has this one right.

What has stood out in a lot of American commentary over the last week is an embarrassing giddiness about the upheaval in Egypt. It’s partly the usual reckless American enthusiasm for anything that can be described as “people power,” but there is an eagerness to get on the “right side of history” that resembles nothing so much as a rush to mouth the most preciously politically correct pieties. There are not “right” and “wrong” sides of history. Indeed, the implied notion of historical inevitability in that phrase ignores everything about history that matters–its contingency, its uncertainty, and the importance of human agency.

There have also been the Iraq war supporters desperately trying to claim credit on behalf of Bush administration policies. Fortunately for them, what is happening in Egypt has nothing to do with those policies, because the outcome may prove to be as disastrous for all involved as the invasion of Iraq was. What is telling is that not even the Bush administration was foolish enough to continue pushing democracy promotion in Egypt. We have repeatedly heard the laughable counterfactuals that if only Obama had embraced the “freedom agenda” and publicly hectored Mubarak the Egyptian people would not now be rising up, as if fewer restrictions on secular and liberal candidates and free elections were going to lower the price of bread, slash inflation, magically produce more jobs, or reduce mass poverty. This idea would almost be comical if it weren’t shaping policy debate and pressuring the government to make foolish decisions.

If there were a free and fair election in the future, the current economic conditions in Egypt would make a liberal democratic or “democratic capitalist” movement even less popular now than it would normally be. Current Egyptian economic policy has taken a noticeable neoliberalturnunder Mubarak, liberal parties have difficulty winning broad public support for their economic policies in the best of times, and liberal movements tend to do badly in economically stratified societies, in which the liberals are badly outnumbered by a poorer majority that usually sees little benefit from liberal policies. Everyone has understandably been speculating on the possible role of the Muslim Brotherhood in a democratic Egypt, but that is hardly the only political misfortune that could befall a democratic Egypt. While the protesters undoubtedly have real political grievances, it is economic woes that have triggered both the Tunisan and Egyptian uprisings, and it is not an accident that these are two regimes that have been doing many of the “right” things on policy in the eyes of economic neoliberals. In those countries with the weakest foundations as democratic states, the backlash against neoliberalism in Latin America empowered political movements in several countries that have produced economic mismanagement, political illiberalism, and the emergence of authoritarian populist rulers. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if the same thing happened in a democratic Egypt.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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