Realism, Neoconservatism, Stupidity

by Daniel Foster

I’ve been mum on Egypt because they don’t pay me to offer my foreign policy opinions around here. But in a previous life I may or may not have written a 120-page thesis defending the then-recent invasion of Iraq on largely neoconservative grounds (before largely recanting), and I may or may not have then spent three months doing comparative study of the Iraqi and Afghani post-war constitutions for a “liberal interventionist” policy journal (a job’s a job). 

The overwhelming lesson I learned from both those endeavors is that a democracy is only as good as its democrats, that liberal institutions matter more than democratic ones, and that there is a heck of a lot more to good governance than “free and fair elections.” That’s because all the touching images of purple-fingered women in hijabs won’t do much good in a country with an atrophied civil society, zero economic stability, no free press, no tradition of the rule of law, and rampant graft and corruption — not to mention half a dozen murderous Islamist factions. (For the wonkcore out there, the most impressive attempt to quantify which dimensions matter most to good governance is probably Kaufmann, Kray, & Mastruzzi’s “Governance Matters” series for the World Bank, now in its 8th year).

Wilsonians and neoconservatives alike have fetishized “democracy promotion” as a key goal of American foreign policy under the impression that it would lead to all those other good things, when in fact we probably had the cart before the horse. 

So I’m not nearly as optimistic as some others are about the fate of a country that, given its druthers, would freely and fairly elect the Muslim Brotherhood in overwhelming numbers. And I’m highly sympathetic to the strategy of the Obama administration which — though it may look clumsy and wishy-washy from the outside — seems pretty clearly driven by a desire to save the Egyptian regime even as it shows Mubarak the door. 

I agree with Duncan, in conversation with Gerecht, that as a matter of fact it will probably shake out that Egypt gets its Martin Luthers before its Thomas Jeffersons (though, as no great fan of Jefferson, I probably would have gone with Madison, Hamilton, or Adams), but that doesn’t mean our national interest lies with that progression, or that our policy shouldn’t be to find that “Arab Ataturk” who will make Egypt liberal enough to be safe for democracy.