jimsleeper.com » The Arab Spring’s False Neocon Friends

The Arab Spring’s False Neocon Friends

By Jim Sleeper – February 2, 2011, TPMCafe

David Brooks and Leon Wieseltier, whom I’ll politely call “historically neo-conservative” commentators, are singing Kumbaya and shouting whatever is Arabic for “Right on!” to Egyptians pressing for democracy and Hosni Mubarak’s departure.

At least one might think so, reading Brooks in the New York Times and Wieseltier in The New Republic. They aren’t actually there in Cairo with the demonstrators, of course. But they do sound amazingly like liberal Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who is in Egypt praising the movement for democracy. All agree that Obama hasn’t done enough to oust Mubarak and hearten the people.

Huh? This from Brooks and Wieseltier, who’ve long countenanced Mubarak and his regime without a murmur? If it was just them, it wouldn’t matter. But they’re exemplars of a mindset that endangers Egypt, Israel, and the United States, especially when it’s opportunistically on the side of what’s best in all three.

Egyptians, Brooks informs us, are no different than Russians, Ukrainians, and South Africans in their quest for dignity. True. Yet Brooks seems almost bizarrely out of character, as if he were channeling The Young Rascals: “All the world over, it’s so easy to see, people everywhere just wanna be free!”

Wieseltier, less rapturous than Brooks, decides that Obama is hesitating because he’s still recovering from Liberal Iraq War Syndrome and We Unjustly-Overthrew-Mossadegh Syndrome and is taking the wrong lessons from history. Although “the rebellion [in Egypt] is still maddeningly obscure, and [Obama] must be careful,” that only makes his “support for the democratizers of Egypt more urgent,” Wieseliter advises us.

He even quotes Kristof quoting demonstrators craving American support. Tahrir Square is Tienanmen; all it needs is a visit from the real Statue of Liberty, instead of a Chinese demonstrator’s poignant model. But I am not making light of the upheavals in the Arab world. I am observing the upheavals in neo-conservatives’ minds.

Wieseltier has determined that “Since the outcome of the revolution is completely unclear, we must do what we can to influence it….. Why should we not put ourselves in a position to retard and to impede the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been cunningly biding its time?” Brooks claims that a Working Group on Egypt, which he cites but doesn’t identify and which includes the neo-cons Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams, “has outperformed the U.S. government by miles” in “warning of Mubarak’s fragility.”

Kumbaya, this ain’t. But are the neo-cons’ calls for decisive American intervention the better part of realism? Are they drawing the right history lessons, themselves? Or have they contracted a few syndromes of their own? One, actually. But let’s get at it slowly.

I can’t help but recall Wieseltier’s joining with Richard Bruce (Dick) Cheney, Carl Christian Rove, and others, years before George W. Bush was president, to form the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, one of many neo-con outfits over the years (The Committee for the Free World, The Committee on the Present Danger, and other anti-Communist drum-bangers). This one urged war with Iraq long before most Americans even knew where it is.

I also recall Wieseltier’s signing, barely a week after 9/11, a public letter to President Bush from William Kristol’s Project for the New American Century that read, in part, ”even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”

I also recall Brooks’ writing to Yale students in 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq War, that since the number of democracies in the world had risen “from a handful to 140,…. You have to be pretty unrealistic to think that this great democratic tide can’t sweep through the Arab world as well. And you have to be pretty cynical to think that those of us who enjoy democracy shouldn’t…champion it everywhere.” Brooks cautioned against thinking that “if we try to champion democracy in Iraq we will only screw it up.”

That was then. Now, nine years later, the memory of our screwing things up undoubtedly fresh in his mind because he had so much to do with it, Brooks writes, “More than 100 nations have seen democratic uprisings over the past few decades. More than 85 authoritarian governments have fallen. Somewhere around 62 countries have become democracies, loosely defined.” But this time he warns that “the United States usually gets everything wrong. There have been dozens of democratic uprisings over the years, but the government always reacts like it’s the first one. There seem to be no protocols for these situations, no preset questions to be asked.”

I’ve written more about Wieseltier’s and Brooks’ protocols here at TPM (the column linked here has links to the PNAC letter and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq) and in The American Prospect, and as I watch them call yet again for American intervention for democracy, I can’t help but wonder what tail keeps wagging this neo-con dog.

Each such movement is unique, of course, its context fraught with different perils. But neo-cons’ democracy promotion strategies are so “flexible” that they’re more than a bit hypocritical.

In 1979, for instance, they won clout with presidential candidate Ronald Reagan after he read “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” by Jeane Kirkpatrick, in their flagship Commentary magazine. She urged the U.S. to stand with traditional autocrats (such as the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet) against democratic (but surely leftist and probably Communist) movements to overthrow them. At the same time, she urged the U.S. to ramp up its pressures on Communist states, whose totalitarian grip on their societies could be dislodged, if ever, only by American power.

The traditional autocrats, while often brutal, were anti-Communist, and unlike totalitarians, they respected their societies’ traditional religious and familial patterns, which preserved stability and, with it, hope of orderly evolution toward democracy. Reagan agreed, and made Kirkpatrick the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

But when the Argentine Jewish journalist Jacobo Timerman revealed that anti-Semitic, semi-fascist ghouls in his country’s military junta had tortured him for his Jewishness as well as his left-of-center politics, Commentary, always quick to spot anti-Semitism on the left and in the Arab world, excused it in a lengthy article by Mark Falcoff that tried to cast doubt on Timerman’s character and credibility.

If neo-cons can go that far, why not stay with the autocrat Mubarak, the cornerstone of Israeli security strategy – or, for that matter, with Saddam Hussein? The point is that did exactly that for years, democracy be damned. They even marginalized democracy-promoters within their own ranks at the American Enterprise Institute, such as Joshua Muravchik, who wrote ardently about helping ordinary Arabs to democratize Egypt.

Part of the reason for this discrepancy between their supporting Pinochet or the Argentine junta back then and their calling more recently for the removal of Hussein and Mubarak is that Communism imploded, denying the neo-cons their chief foil and energizer and confounding Kirkpatrick’s doleful predictions about totalitarianism’s staying power, as well as neo-cons’ hysterical warnings about “the present danger” of imminent totalitarian expansion.

Another part of the reason for their double standard was that the fall of Marcos — with a shove from Reagan, to many neo-cons’ consternation — and of Pinochet, and of the Argentine junta– with a shove from Margaret Thatcher — also discredited Kirkpatrick’s estimation of their reliability and stability.

Fortunately for neo-cons’ psychic equilibrium, however (and unfortunately for the rest of us), a new “present danger” arose: The Arab threat to Israel loomed larger than ever once Iraq’s Hussein, an horrifically brutal autocrat but an American ally of sorts against Iran, invaded Kuwait and sent scud missiles into Israel, which hadn’t joined in the Gulf War.

Suddenly, neo-cons were calling day and night for the democratization of Iraq. It would take only a “cakewalk,” the masses would greet us with flowers, and Brooks scoffed at any who thought that “if we try to champion democracy in Iraq we will only screw it up.”

Now, he writes that the subsequent experience can “teach us a few lessons. First, the foreign policy realists who say they tolerate authoritarian government for the sake of stability are ill informed.”

Take that, Jeane Kirkpatrick! But not all of us needed to learn this and other lessons Brooks offers. I have records only a click away showing that Brooks’ “us” and his “we” are imperial, at best: These were lessons that he and the neocons and AIPAC needed to learn. Others of us had learned them. Let him read my 1982 account of Commentary’s handling of the Argentine junta.

In 2006, as Brooks started to teach “us” the lessons that recent events had taught him, Joshua Muravchik, the ardent neoconservative democracy promoter, labored mightily to show that few lessons needed to be learned at all. In an essay for the American Enterprise Institute, “How to Save Neoconservatism,” he urged neo-cons to make sure that the U.S. would “bomb Iran” and teach the American public about the necessity.

Muravchik also urged the country to “Fix the Public Diplomacy Mess.” How? “The Bush administration deserves criticism for its failure to repair America’s public diplomacy apparatus,” he allowed, but “No group other than neocons is likely to figure out how to do that. We are, after all, a movement whose raison d’être was combating anti-Americanism in the United States. Who better, then, to combat it abroad?”

Who better, indeed! Still more hilariously, Muravchik has claimed recently in the Wall Street Journal that polls in the Muslim world show support for terrorism dropping more under Bush than under Obama. “Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama wanted to drive down support for terrorism among Muslims. Mr. Bush’s approach was to knock heads together and speak bluntly of the need for societal change. Mr. Obama’s approach has been to curry favor with publics and rulers alike. Mr. Bush’s approach may have worked better.

“Of course,” Muravchik concedes, “it may be that the critical factor in changing attitudes has not been U.S. policies but the actions of the terrorists themselves–who regularly turn their bombs against Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan and elsewhere.”

May be! Many thousands of Muslims — Sunnis, Shiites, democrats, editors, town-council members – have been slain in Iraq’s public spaces and private homes. Two and a half million have fled the country to escape this mayhem. So maybe Muslim disillusionment with terror owes even more to George Bush’s head-knocking than Muravchik is inclined to credit, and maybe it even owes something to the approach of Bush’s neo-conservative cheerleaders, including Muravchik, who now wants to bomb Iran.

Maybe I’m being a bit too churlish. Democracy is the oxygen of human dignity in society, and we should be glad that neocons agree with Kristof and other liberals this time in urging US support for Egypt’s democracy movement.

Maybe this sudden harmonic convergence can lighten what Yossi Klein Halevi, writing in the Times, calls “the grim assumption” of most Israelis and American neo-cons that “it is just a matter of time before the only real opposition group in Egypt, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, takes power. … Mohamed ElBaradei, the icon of the Egyptian protesters, and many Western analysts say that the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood has forsworn violence in favor of soup kitchens and edical clinics. Even if that is true, it is small comfort to Israelis, who fear that the Brotherhood’s nonviolence has been a tactical maneuver and know that its worldview is rooted in crude anti-Semitism.”

True enough, and that’s why many of us find ourselves on the same side of the table with Wieseltier, Brooks, Muravchik, and Halevi, urging American engagement with the democracy movement now. But the neo-cons have come to the table differently than the rest of us, and they’re heading somewhere else, in a tactical maneuver of their own.

They’re touting democracy out of rising desperation to head off horrors that, over the years, they’ve done more than they can admit to make more likely. We can “chicken and egg” this all night, but there’s no escaping that truth. While neo-cons bring the advantage of not being naïve about anyone’s motives, including their own, they also bring the disadvantage of not being trustworthy. They wouldn’t know how to extend trust cannily and bravely enough to elicit it from others if their lives depended on it. And, in a sense, they do depend on it now.

I don’t want to sound as purse-lipped and censorious about this as certain churches do or as curdled English majors at Harper’s and The Nation, swooning over the End of Days in faintly eschatological or ideological prose and displacing their bourgeois self-loathings onto the Jews. Still, for all of Brooks’ rhetoric about dignity and his denials that if we try to spread democracy, we’ll only screw it up, he has shown time and again that he doesn’t really believe it can be done. In 2006 he urged Americans to meet Iraqi insurgents’ “savagery with savagery” because the insurgents had “create[d] an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent.”

Far be it from me to say who created which environment over what period of time. But I doubt that our Iraq invasion was well-advised or that Israel has never missed an opportunity to improve its Middle East prospects. Halevi insists that “Since its founding, Israel has tried to break through the military and diplomatic siege imposed by its neighbors. In the absence of acceptance from the Arab world, it found allies on the periphery of the Middle East, Iran and Turkey. Peace with Israel’s immediate neighbors would wait.”

Yes and no. He glosses too much, as do all these new rhapsodists of democracy. Whether Halevi’s and Wieseltier’s history lessons, Muravchik’s manifestos, and Brooks’ democratic songs and dances are willful deceits or actual delusions, I won’t say, but let me offer a history lesson they’ve overlooked, perhaps for too long now for it to be of any use.

It’s from Hannah Arendt, in 1944, when many Jews felt with good reason that there was no justice for them in the world and that they could trust nothing but vengeful nationalism, dark violence, and cold power politics.

Arendt warned that if Zionists “continue to ignore the [forging of partnerships with neighboring] Mediterranean peoples,” including especially their immediate Arab neighbors, “and watch out only for the big, faraway powers, they will appear only as… the agents of foreign and hostile interests. Jews who know their own history should be aware that… the anti-Semitism of tomorrow will assert that Jews not only profiteered from the presence of the foreign big powers… but had actually plotted it and hence are guilty of the consequences… “

No one can credibly accuse of Arendt of being naïve about either the legitimacy or the duplicity of varied Arab grievances and motives. Yet she, who called for a Jewish army to fight the Nazis during the war, decided that it was right-wing Jewish nationalists who were naïve in deploying that strategy in Palestine as they did. These right-wing Zionists were even more naïve, she wrote, in trying to reinforce their strategy through Faustian bargains with the great powers:

“The big nations that can afford to play the game of power politics have found it easy to forsake King Arthur’s Round Table for the poker table,” she wrote, “but the small, powerless nations [the Jews in Palestine] that venture their own stakes in that game, and try to mingle with the big, usually end by being sold down the river.” Arendt understood that the cause of Arab democracy is a pressing one. But I think she would also know that Brooks is sounding so idealistic about it now, and Wieseltier so serious about it, only because they’ve squandered the advantages Israel once had. Now they have no other cards left to play, and they’re scared shitless of being sold down the river.