In the Arena

Fast Forward Freedom Agenda?

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There’s a lot of interesting back and forth in the neoconservative policy world these days about Egypt and freedom–and in most cases, the neoconservatives are showing an impressive amount of intellectual integrity. Elliot Abrams started the ball rolling over the weekend with this Washington Post piece, supporting the Egyptian protesters even though their victory may have dire consequences for Israel. “Dictatorships are never stable,” he writes and adds, “Regimes that make moderate politics impossible make extremism far more likely.” I’m not so sure about the former statement–the sultan of Oman has run a pretty stable and enlightened operation and is much beloved by his people–but the latter certainly seems right.

Other neos–Pete Wehner, Max Boot, John Podhoretz–are all making similar points, even as Israeli commentators freak out over the possibility that Egypt will go Iran on them. (Other neoconservative commentators, like Anne Bayefsky, rather hilariously see Mohammed El Baradei as the second-coming of Ayotullah Khomeini.) Some of the motivation here is reflexive chest-thumping for George W. Bush’s post-WMD rationale for the Iraq war, also known as his “forward freedom agenda.” This consisted of a lot of idealistic rhetoric and some disastrous policy decisions–pushing for an election that only Hamas wanted in Palestine; pushing an entirely inappropriate Afghan constitution, in which the power is made to flow top-down in a famously bottom-up country. Even Condoleezza Rice’s feisty Cairo speech of 2005, calling on Mubarak to reform his government, was followed up by…nothing.

Still, I do credit the intellectual integrity of people like Elliot Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz. Any sane U.S. policy toward the ancient dictators of the Middle East has to contain a fair amount of private shoving toward democratic reform. (As Kenneth Pollack cleverly proposes in A Path Out of the Desert, concrete reform should be greeted with increased foreign aid–carrots work better than sticks with these autocrats.) But a certain amount of, ahem, realism should be part of any U.S. foreign policy as well. In Egypt, that realism consists of this acknowledgment: the amount of post-Mubarak freedom will be no more nor less than the Egyptian Army allows. If the world, and the Egyptians, are lucky, the army will emulate its brethren in Turkey, which gradually midwifed a transition to democracy; if Egypt is unlucky, Islamist forces lurking in the officer corps will midwife another Iran. Given the Egyptian Army’s strong ties to the U.S. military–a smart policy supported by Presidents of both parties since, yes, Jimmy Carter–a careful transition to democracy is not out of the question.

And make no mistake: it is a careful transition we want here. I’ll have more to say about all this in my print column this week.