As the carnage and chaos grow in Cairo, there are no easy answers for the United States in Egypt. But once upon a time, Republican leaders and their allies in the conservative commentariat had a simple answer indeed for the Middle East. Waiving their purple fingers in early 2005, the likes of David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer and Rich Lowry cheered American democracy promotion in the region, "God's gift to humanity" delivered by the barrel of a gun. But with the military's overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, the right-wing's best and brightest are having second thoughts about their support of the Bush Doctrine.
Take, for example, David Brooks of the New York Times. Faced with a choice of the lesser of two evils, Brooks declared he would be "defending the coup." The Egyptian military could offer the people the promise of the "substance" of democracy, while the Muslim Brotherhood elected by its "process" could not. The problem for Egyptians, he argued, was all mental:
Islamists might be determined enough to run effective opposition movements and committed enough to provide street-level social services. But they lack the mental equipment to govern. Once in office, they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them...
It's not that Egypt doesn't have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.
But back in 2005, Brooks suggested, President George W. Bush was providing all the ingredients budding Middle Eastern democracies needed to flower. As his Congressional Republicans waived their purple fingers to celebrate the just-completed elections in Iraq, President Bush declared in 2005 State of the Union address, "We've declared our own intention: America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." In response, a fawning David Brooks marveled, "Why Not Here?"
This is the most powerful question in the world today: Why not here? People in Eastern Europe looked at people in Western Europe and asked, Why not here? People in Ukraine looked at people in Georgia and asked, Why not here? People around the Arab world look at voters in Iraq and ask, Why not here?...
But this is clearly the question the United States is destined to provoke. For the final thing that we've learned from the papers this week is how thoroughly the Bush agenda is dominating the globe. When Bush meets with Putin, democratization is the center of discussion. When politicians gather in Ramallah, democratization is a central theme. When there's an atrocity in Beirut, the possibility of freedom leaps to people's minds.
Brooks was far from alone in having a change of heart about democracy in the Middle East.
Last fall, National Review editor Rich Lowry fretted that about Egypt's democratic future. "In the signature revolution of the Arab Spring, the country turned its back on a secular dictatorship only to fall into the arms of what looks like a budding Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship." The new pharaoh, he lamented, was the same as the old pharaoh, only less "progressive in comparison."
But in March 2005 (that is, over three years before Sarah Plain prompted him to sit up straighter and see starbursts), Lowry pointed to the Iraqi vote, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the call for elections in the Palestinian territories as vindication for George W. Bush. In "When Good News Strikes: Glum Liberals Try Coping with a Changing World," Lowry mocked the likes of Jon Stewart, Charles Peters and Daniel Schorr, crowing:
By toppling Saddam Hussein and insisting on elections in Iraq, while emphasizing the power of freedom, Bush has put the United States in the right position to encourage and take advantage of democratic irruptions in the region.
And so we have created the conditions for being pleasantly surprised by the positive drift of events in the Middle East, or unpleasantly surprised -- depending on your politics.
Depending on your politics, that is, and who's winning elections in both the Middle East and the United States.
Washington Post columnist and Fox News regular Charles Krauthammer embodies both contingencies in his support for democratic change. Applauding the military coup in Cairo, week, "The Brotherhood leadership, I think, understands that if it does an Algeria and decides it's going to go and make war on the army, it's going to lose and it will lose badly and be imprisoned and disperse or go back to the 1950s." In that sense, at least, Krauthammer was being consistent with his views from 1993, when Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak first found himself under threat from his own people. His lesson for the same for Egypt as it was for the FIS in Algeria and the Nazi Party in Germany:
In the case of Egypt, the question is becoming acute. President Hosni Mubarak is in the midst of a desperate campaign against Islamic extremists adept at terror and committed to a Khomeini-like Islamic state. The fall of Egypt, linchpin of the Middle East, would be an international calamity second only to the fall of Russia, linchpin of Eurasia. Mubarak is no doubt asking us, "Do you support me in my war against the fundamentalists?" Our answer has to be: Given the alternative -- yes.
Are we not violating the very tenets of democracy that are supposed to be the moral core of American foreign policy? No. Because democracy does not mean one man, one vote, one time. In the German elections of 1932 and 1933, the Nazis won more votes than any other party. We know what they did with the power thus won. Totalitarians are perfectly capable of achieving power through democracy, then destroying it.
Moreover, democracy does not just mean elections. It also means constitutionalism -- the limitation of state power -- in political life, and tolerance and pluralism in civic life. Yeltsin and Mubarak are clearly more committed to such values than those who would overthrow them. That is why it would be not just expedient but right to support undemocratic measures undertaken to avert a far more anti-democratic outcome. Democracy is not a suicide pact.
But in the spring of 2005, Krauthammer took the pages of Time to lead "Three Cheers for the Bush Doctrine." Like Lowry, he insisted American liberals and European snobs owed President Bush an apology. (They have been "forced to acknowledge that those brutish Americans led by their simpleton cowboy might have been right.") As he explained in the Washington Post, "The Arab Spring of 2005 will be noted by history as [a] turning point for the Arab world."
We do not yet know, however, whether this initial flourishing of democracy will succeed...But we do know one thing: Those who claimed, with great certainty, that Arabs are an exception to the human tendency toward freedom, that they live in a stunted and distorted culture that makes them love their chains -- and that the notion the United States could help trigger a democratic revolution by militarily deposing their oppressors was a fantasy -- have been proved wrong.
Krauthammer version 2005 could have been speaking to Brooks v.2013 when he added:
The left's patronizing, quasi-colonialist view of the benighted Arabs was not just analytically incorrect. It was morally bankrupt, too.
As it turned out, it was Bush's cheerleaders who quickly proved to be morally and intellectually bankrupt. When the White House changed hands in 2009, these champions of unqualified democracy promotion in the Middle East suddenly got cold feet when the autocrats' successors took to the streets and took power. For them, the right answer to that age-old American quandary about stability versus democracy, realism versus idealism depends on who is president here and who is protesting abroad.
But it wasn't just Barack Obama's election which disabused of them of their short embrace of people power on the Arab street. Hamas, after all, won U.S. sponsored Palestinian elections in 2006 and conquered Gaza after an American-backed clandestine operation backfired. (As former State Department official Liz Cheney lamented, "I don't think they were ready for it. I don't think we should have pushed it.") Now, Libya is in chaos, Iraq is threatening to descend into a second sectarian civil war, and the bloodbath in Syria has no end in sight.
Meanwhile in Egypt, many have to be looking at the wreckage and wondering, "Why not here?"