08 February 2011

On Egypt and democratization

With President Mubarak's recent announcement that he will not run for re-election in September, the popular energy dedicated to regime change in Egypt has begun to dissipate. To be sure, some protesters have vowed to remain in the streets until Mubarak leaves, but at this point, that appears to be a futile exercise. The strongman has agreed to step down, and the incoming leadership -- however fragmented by opposition factions -- will likely replicate many of the same policies that Egypt has followed during the Mubarak era. This ostensibly includes maintaining the existing peace treaties with Israel, and more critically, maintaining a cordial relationship with America. As Fareed Zakaria astutely noted in an excellent cover story on the Egyptian uprising, the popular Egyptian military will serve as a buffer to ensure that any change in civil society is only incremental.

This is an exceptionally good result for the United States. Certainly, bleeding-heart liberals and the Bushian pro-democracy/square-peg-round-hole crowd are frustrated by the fact that the wishes of the Egyptian populace will be largely unrealized. But while many of Mubarak's tactics in quelling the uprising have been reprehensible, the fact remains that Mubarak has been a tremendously valuable ally in stabilizing the Middle East, thwarting radical Islamist extremist elements in his own country and co-existing with Israel. It is simply in America's strategic interests that his regime, or a similar one, stays in power.

In virtually every place this "democratization" has been tried in the Middle East, regimes have appeared with serious and severe anti-American sentiments and policies. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is the dominant political party. In Iraq, the Iranian-backed Mutdaqa al-Sadr wreaks havoc. In Afghanistan, the Taliban remains reasonably popular. In Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadenijhad enjoys support among the poor, the uneducated and the deeply religious. And in Gaza, the Palestinians are governed by Hamas. Each of these political parties or figures is enormously antagonistic -- sometimes outright hostile -- to America. It is patently obvious that it would be in the best interests of the United States if, for instance, a Mubarak-like strongman came to power in Lebanon, displacing the democratically elected Hezbollah.

In short, to say that as a general rule, democracy promotion in the Middle East is in America's national interest simply ignores the results of democratic elections.

Just two days past Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday, it's important to remember what shaped the Gipper's foreign policy. As Daniel Larison noted, he was most certainly not a Bushian democratizer, but rather evaluated every foreign regime with one question in mind: What is in the best interests of the United States?

Larison writes:

Far from supporting Nicaragua’s ostensibly popular (and, post-1984, elected) government, Reagan was dedicated to overthrowing it. One of the main examples Guardiano uses to praise Reagan shows that Reagan was not only unsympathetic to popular movements when they posed a perceived threat to U.S. policy, but also that he actively tried to defeat them. Even if the Muslim Brotherhood remained only one force among many in a new regime, a new Egyptian government would almost certainly be much less interested in security cooperation with the U.S., and some or perhaps most members of any new government are going to look askance at U.S. policies. Put another way, the less influence the military has on any future Egyptian government, the less cooperative it is probably going to be. For some Americans, that is an argument in favor of regime change, but it simply doesn’t make sense to argue that empowering the Muslim Brotherhood helps “roll back radical Islam.” If “rolling back radical Islam” is the goal, it is hard to see how empowering some fairly radical Islamists will do that.

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