Daniel Larison over at The American Conservative -- perhaps the web's foremost purveyor of realpolitik -- has informed my thoughts on Middle Eastern democratization more than any other writer.
Larison has written a number of compelling columns about why "free and fair elections" in Egypt are a fool's errand, one of which we cited on February 8 that in fact references President Reagan's policy toward democratic forces (and the pro-American dictators the forces were seeking to overthrow) in Nicaragua and the Philippines.
In short, I agree with nearly all of Larison's points when it comes to American foreign policy abroad. The policy pushed by the Bush administration post-9/11 of "square-peg/round-hole" democracy -- and America's role as democracy's deliverer to the oppressed -- is a terrible idea for many reasons. First, the American military -- as demonstrated by the obstacles encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq -- is simply not capable of toppling repressive regimes, then engaging in long-term nation-building, one country after another. Less than half of the world's recognized states even pretend to be democratic, and short of drafting another 10 million adults into the armed forces, there is simply no way to functionally put this "democracy agenda" into practice. Second, post-9/11 proponents of democracy -- and those who cheer the Egyptian protesters in the streets -- completely ignore the consequence of what has happened when Arab peoples have been afforded "free and fair elections." In Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq (al-Sadr), Iran (Ahmadenijhad) and Gaza (Hamas), serious anti-American forces have gained a foothold on power anytime they have secured a place on a ballot.
As Larison noted, time and again, Bushian democratizers ignore the consequence of leaving governance to Arab popular opinion.
In a 2009 poll of Egyptians conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, 60% of respondents believed that government "should be based on a form of democracy that is unique for Islamic countries." Seventy-five percent of respondents agreed that "there should be a body of senior religious scholars that has the power to overturn laws when it believes they are contrary to the Quran." And 34 percent said that a non-Muslim should not be allowed to run for president. In a more recent poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a very narrow plurality of Egyptians (36 percent to 29 percent) believe their country should have good relations with the United States, and over half of respondents say they do not trust America at all. A clear plurality of respondents (34 percent to 19 percent) believed that Egypt should either abrogate its peace treaty with Israel "and join as a full partner in the 'resistance front' against the Zionist entity" or distance itself from its relationship with the United States, versus opposed maintaining American ties. Similarly, nearly as many respondents (15 percent to 19 percent) said Egypt should restore full, friendly relations with Iran and Syria versus maintaining its relationship with the United States.
As Larison has implied, in many cases in the Middle East -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan and probably Egypt as the most noteworthy -- autocracies are in the best interests of the United States because, quite simply, ruling regimes are much more friendly toward the United States compared to the Arab street. At the risk of painting with a broad brush, this fact is actually quite obvious based on the above survey results from Egypt. Additionally, as Larison has expressly pointed out, when democracy is tried in developing or Middle Eastern countries, often the more extremist candidates seem to rise to power.
I genuinely empathize with the aspirations of those brave Egyptians who have taken to the streets. But I am an American, and my sole allegiance is to the country I love so deeply.
If it is in America's best interests that an autocrat remain in power, then it must be so.