Posted by: Chris | February 1, 2011

Egypt and Democracy Promotion

In keeping with our discussion on the efficacy of having mid-level theoretical political commitments, Daniel Larison and James Atlee have praised the Obama Administration’s (initially) cautious  and humble approach to the Egyptian situation, resisting efforts by various commentators to convince the President and the State Department to vocally support the cause of the protesters and pull the rug out from under Mubarak.  They both make the similar argument that was made here, that one cannot predict the outcomes of institutional change from afar or even say with certainty what outcomes specific institutional arrangements will produce, and both cite Jeane Kirkpatrick’s essay on the Carter administration’s failed bid at democracy promotion from 1979.  Kirkpatrick’s thesis:

In each of these countries, the American effort to impose liberalization and democratization on a government confronted with violent internal opposition not only failed, but actually assisted the coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal security than under the previous autocracy–regimes, moreover, hostile to American interests and policies…

Violence spreads and American officials wonder aloud about the viability of a regime that “lacks the support of its own people.” The absence of an opposition party is deplored and civil-rights violations are reviewed. Liberal columnists question the morality of continuing aid to a “rightist dictatorship” and provide assurances concerning the essential moderation of some insurgent leaders who “hope” for some sign that the U.S. will remember its own revolutionary origins. Requests for help from the beleaguered autocrat go unheeded, and the argument is increasingly voiced that ties should be established with rebel leaders “before it is too late.” The President, delaying U.S. aid, appoints a special emissary who confirms the deterioration of the government position and its diminished capacity to control the situation and recommends various measures for “strengthening” and “liberalizing” the regime, all of which involve diluting its power…

As the situation worsens, the President assures the world that the U.S. desires only that the “people choose their own form of government”; he blocks delivery of all arms to the government and undertakes negotiations to establish a “broadly based” coalition headed by a “moderate” critic of the regime who, once elevated, will move quickly to seek a “political” settlement to the conflict…Only after the insurgents have refused the proffered political solution and anarchy has spread throughout the nation will it be noticed that the new head of government has no significant following, no experience at governing, and no talent for leadership. By then, military commanders, no longer bound by loyalty to the chief of state, will depose the faltering “moderate” in favor of a fanatic of their own choosing.

I also appreciated Atlee’s response to his critics, clarifying his position:

It’s true that U.S. support for autocratic regimes can, like other forms of intervention, inflame anti-American feelings in these countries. It’s equally true that there is a fair amount of anti-American and illiberal sentiment that already exists in these countries that will initially be empowered by elections. Again, we’ve seen Hamas, Hezbollah, and various other Islamist parties win free elections, perhaps soon to be joined by the Muslim Brotherhood.

But my point was never that the United States should either support the autocratic regimes or decline to criticize repression where it is found. I’m simply arguing that we should generally avoid picking winners and losers in other countries’ political disputes, especially in cases where our genuine knowledge is limited and the line of demarcation between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” isn’t clear. It isn’t always 1979, but it isn’t always 1938, 1989 or 1991 either. In some places, 1979 would be an improvement.

Finally, though he does meander around similar points as above, Glenn Beck’s paranoid lecture on Egypt (parts 1, 2, 3) is so jam-packed with jaw-dropping lunacy and disconnected ramblings, it really does need to be seen to be believed.  It only lends more credence to the notion floated earlier here that Beck simply finds reality insufficiently interesting.


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