The Corner

A Realistic Democracy Project

John Bolton’s essay in Standpoint (flagged in the NRO web briefing) is terrific. Assessing the tumult in the Middle East, Egypt in particular, he argues for a careful, realistic promotion of democracy that is honest about how difficult it is to sow a true culture of democracy; clear-eyed about how premature introduction of democratic processes will only empower totalitarians; and insistent that — while we should always promote our principles — our overriding concern must be American national security. Such a framework would obviously tie the extent of material support we are willing to give to the likelihood of concrete advances of American national interests, not to pie in the sky.

For what it’s worth, I think that would invite a hard-headed inquiry into the question whether promoting Western liberty (assuming for argument’s sake that it would eventually take hold in the Muslim world) would actually (a) make us safer from jihadist terror, and (b) undermine the broader, stealthier “civilizational jihad” being waged against us by the Muslim Brotherhood and its partner Islamist organizations. It would also call for consideration of a question of national concern that the nation never got to debate: Under what conditions, if any, should we deploy our military for the principal purpose of democracy promotion in Islamic countries? And it would invite the long overdue examination of the question whether you can promote authentic democratic culture in countries that insist on establishing Islam as the state religion and installing sharia as a principal source of law. To be clear, these are considerations I believe would be on the table in the kind of democracy promotion framework Ambassador Bolton is describing. They are not points Bolton himself makes.

As for the points he does make, I think these are the most significant:

[T]oday’s pressing question for Egypt is what steps the new military rulers should take. First, there should not be a rush to elections. It was a fatal mistake for Palestinians when the Bush Administration, reading supposedly irrefutable polls that Hamas could not win, scheduled elections in 2006 that allowed Hamas to do just that. Democracy is a culture, a way of life, as [John Stuart] Mill and [Jeane] Kirkpatrick recognised, not simply the counting of votes. Any realistic assessment of Egypt’s “opposition” shows it to be weak, disorganised, and indifferently led. Moving to early elections, as the Muslim Brotherhood wants, will not bring the Age of Aquarius, but only benefit those factions with existing political infrastructures, which is a formula for domination by the Brotherhood. Far better to which is unambiguously the more pro-democratic course. 

Second, participation in the elections, whenever scheduled, should be limited to real political parties. From Mussolini to Putin, from Hamas to Hezbollah, terrorists, totalitarians and their ilk masquerading as political parties do not really believe in representative government. Banning such faux-democrats from participating in the legitimate political process until they become true political parties is entirely legitimate, and may well be critical to avert disaster.  America did so for decades by outlawing the Communist Party, as post-World War II Germany did with the National Socialists. Thus, for President Obama to say, as he did, that the transition “must bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table” is not only naive, but fundamentally dangerous.  

In order to join legitimate political parties in contesting elections, we asked in Lebanon and in Palestinian elections that terrorists had to renounce violence (and mean it), give up their weapons, and abjure the prospect of resorting to force if they didn’t like the outcome. Sadly, we did not insist on these standards, and the results in Lebanon and Gaza prove our mistake. We should not repeat these errors, although Obama seems well on the way to doing so.

Third, the West should provide material assistance to those truly committed to a free and open society. In days of yore, the United States supplied extensive clandestine assistance to prevent communist takeovers in post-World War II elections in France, Italy and elsewhere. Undoubtedly, the Obama Administration is too fastidious for such Cold War-style behaviour, but perhaps overt, democratic institution-building assistance is not too much to ask.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing.

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