Dumb and Dumber: When Neocons and Obama Liberals Agree
How neocons and Obama liberals have created catastrophe by consensus in the Middle East
Similarly, in April 2011, Kristol wrote:
The Arab winter is over. The men and women of the Greater Middle East are no longer satisfied by “a little life.” Now it’s of course possible that this will turn out to be a false spring. But surely it’s not beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to help reformers in the Arab world achieve mostly successful outcomes. … And who knows? Helping the Arab Spring through to fruition might contribute to an American Spring, one of renewed pride in our country and confidence in the cause of liberty.
Writing in the Weekly Standard in September of that year, Robert Kagan was so confident of the march of democracy that he proposed to throw the Jordanian monarchy under the bus after Mubarak, despite Jordan’s longstanding alliance with the United States.
Even when Islamists trampled the democrats in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, the foreign-policy consensus held strong. The Obama Administration courted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, while Republican sages argued that Islamist rule, while suboptimal, nonetheless represented progress on the road to democracy. Joshua Muravchik pooh-poohed the risks of the Muslim Brotherhood role in a September 2011 essay: “[I]t seems unlikely that the Egyptians, aroused as they are and having lived through the Nasser experience, would succumb to a new despotism. The most likely force to impose it, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been having trouble keeping its own members in line, much less the rest of the country.” Muravchik wrote:
Perhaps the most important of the region’s hopeful signs is the rebellion in Syria. Who would have thought that Syrians, of all peoples, would have earned the world’s admiration? Yet it is hard to think of many cases in which nonviolent protestors have exposed themselves to shoot-to-kill security forces for months on end without being cowed into surrender. If these brave people persevere and drive the Assad dynasty from power, that itself would go far toward making the Arab Spring a net beneﬁt for the region and the world.
But the democracy enthusiasts missed a crucial feature of the Arab Spring: The toppling of Hosni Mubarak and the uprising against Syria’s Basher Assad occurred after the non-oil-producing Arab countries had lurched into a dangerous economic decline. Egypt, dependent on imports for half its caloric consumption, faced a sharp rise in food prices while the prices of cotton and other exports languished. Asia’s insatiable demand for feed grains had priced the Arab poor out of the market: Chinese pigs were fed before Egyptian peasants, whose labor was practically worthless. Almost half of Egyptians are functionally illiterate, and its university graduates are unqualified for the global market (unlike Tunisians, who staff the help desks of French software firms). Out of cash, Egypt faces chronic food and fuel shortages and presently is on life support through emergency loans from its neighbors. The insoluble economic crisis makes any form of political stabilization unlikely.
Egypt’s Exports, Imports and Trade Balance
(Source: Central Bank of Egypt)
Syria’s economic position is, if possible, even worse. Yemen is not only out of money, but nearly out of water. Large portions of the Arab world have languished so long in backwardness that they are beyond repair. After the dust of the popular revolts dissipated, we are left with banana republics, but without the bananas.
It is a salutary exercise to consider the views we hold with impassioned conviction and ask: “What would it imply if we are wrong?” Neoconservatives of all stripes believed with perfect faith that the desire for liberty is a universal human impulse, requiring only the right institutions to reinforce it. The Obama Administration believed that all cultures have equal validity and that—as Obama said early in his presidency—that he thinks of American exceptionalism the same way that the Greeks think about Greek exceptionalism. In both cases, Republicans and Democrats believe that there is nothing inherently unique about America—except that this country was the first to create the political framework that corresponds to the true nature of every human being.
Kristol’s 2011 assessment of the Arab Spring was erroneous, but he was right to link America’s state of being to events in the Middle East. We stumbled by national consensus into a strategic morass, from which there is no apparent exit, in the naïve belief that under every burka was a prospective American ready to emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis.
But if large parts of the Muslim world reject what seemed to be an historic opportunity to create democratic governments and instead dissolve into a chaotic regime of permanent warfare, we might conclude that there really is something different about America—that our democracy is the product of a unique set of precedents, the melding of the idea of covenant brought here by radical Protestants, the traditions of Anglo-Saxon democracy, and the far-reaching wisdom of our founders. To present-day Americans, that is an unnerving thought. We do not wish upon ourselves that sort of responsibility. We eschew our debts to deep traditions. We want to reinvent ourselves at will, to shop for new identities, to play at the cultural cutting-edge.
What these events might teach us, rather, is that America really is exceptional and that there is no contradiction in cultivating our democracy at home while acting elsewhere in tough-minded pursuit of our security interests.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Top Israeli military and intelligence analysts are divided over which side to back in Syria’s civil war