Richard Cohen Beats The Drums For (Less) Arab Freedom

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Last August, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote a piece about the thanklessness of Arab populations around the world. “Say what you will about the Arab world, it’s hard to earn its gratitude,” he wrote, pointing to polls that showed declining support among Arab populations for Obama and his policies. In Cohen’s view, this ingratitude in the face of Obama’s rhetorical outreach could be explained almost entirely by the Arab fixation on a single issue. “What they want,” Cohen wrote, “and what they have been told repeatedly they deserve, is a return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel and control over all of Jerusalem.”

I have another theory. What Cohen calls a lack of gratitude is not the result simply of U.S. support for Israel, but also of a longstanding U.S. policy that prioritizes things like “regional stability” over the most basic human rights for Arabs, rights that American journalists like Cohen take for granted. Here is Cohen writing today, in a rather stunning column:

The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare. Egypt’s problems are immense. It has a population it cannot support, a standard of living that is stagnant and a self-image as leader of the (Sunni) Arab world that does not, really, correspond to reality. It also lacks the civic and political institutions that are necessary for democracy. The next Egyptian government – or the one after – might well be composed of Islamists. In that case, the peace with Israel will be abrogated and the mob currently in the streets will roar its approval. My take on all this is relentlessly gloomy. I care about Israel. I care about Egypt, too, but its survival is hardly at stake. I care about democratic values, but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights. What we want for Egypt is what we have ourselves. This, though, is an identity crisis. We are not them.

Did you catch that? Cohen is arguing that the ingrateful Egyptian people are not ready for basic human rights, like freedom of assembly, a free press and free democratic elections. They lack the “civic and political institutions” that we Americans have somehow earned. He goes on to speculate that the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that contested only 30 percent of parliamentary seats in the last election, would take over the country and govern with a philosophy best described through the lesser qualities of a thinker, Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966 and became an inspiration for far more radical movements, including Al Qaeda. (Cohen’s argument tars the entirety of support for the Muslim Brotherhood in a largely secular country with the more explosive and undemocratic views of one of its founders, though Cohen would surely (and accurately) object if I tried to, say, reduce Israel’s Likud Party to nothing more than a channel for the more offensive views of Ze’ev Jabotinsky or the acts of terrorism overseen by Likud’s first prime minister, Menachem Begin )

I certainly cannot predict how events will play out in Egypt or whether the Muslim Brotherhood, in a post-Mubarak government, will support the same Democratic institutions and principles that are now denied the Egyptian people. But to argue that the elimination of a Jewish state in Israel is at the heart of Arab disdain for U.S. policy, when thinkers like Cohen openly argue for denying the most basic human liberties for Arab populations, even as they peacefully demonstrate en mass in their public squares, seems to me a special kind of arrogance, one that is sure to breed even more ingratitude.

Ingratitude, because after all, Cohen cares about Egypt.