ANDREW SULLIVAN THINKS IT’S ODD that many on the right don’t share his enthusiasm for the revolutions in the mideast, but rather worry that they will turn out like Iran in 1979. Well, as I’ve said before, I think the United States squandered its momentum in 2005, and that now we look like the weak horse, and the Islamists look stronger. Of course, we can hope that the forces of bourgeois moderation win out, and I do, but is that how to bet?
Here's what he means by losing momentum in 2005:
Had we pushed the overthrow of tyrannical Arab regimes post-Iraq (as some unsuccessfully urged) there might have been a wave of truly democratic revolutions, with Iraq explicitly the model, leading to Egypt as the “prize.” We are now seeing, at least potentially, such a wave, but the U.S. has been propping up Mubarak thanks, Joe! the Saudis, and other despots since we lost our pro-democracy mojo in 2005 after the Cedar Revolution, for reasons that are still not entirely clear. That means the risk that power will coalesce around the only organized groups on the ground the Islamists is much greater now than it would have been then, and we are likely to be less favorably perceived. It’s possible, of course, that things will still go well don’t write off people’s enthusiasm for freedom but circumstances aren’t as congenial as they might have been.
It's hard to know what "for reasons that are still not entirely clear" and "pushed the overthrow of tyrannical Arab regimes" mean. Reynolds cites Saudi Arabia as a place where we could have pushed regime change in a way that would least likely create an Islamist "strong horse". Ooookaaay. And - call me crazy - but maybe the momentum for democracy was stalled by a total sectarian meltdown and civil war in Iraq, the model for democracy in Bush's dreams? Nonetheless, here's Condi Rice in Cairo calling for democracy in Egypt in 2005. Doing what Rice did in 2005 was pretty ballsy, especially given the cautionary tale of Iraq at the time. Maybe we should have cut off aid to Egypt long, long ago. On that, I agree with Reynolds. But that deal is inextricably wrapped with aid to Israel, since the 1979 peace agreement. And we know how untouchable that is. Complicated, isn't it?
But check out Bush's pivotal speech in Whitehall in November 2003 and think of the last few weeks Money quote:
The United States and Great Britain share a mission in the world beyond the balance of power or the simple pursuit of interest. We seek the advance of freedom and the peace that freedom brings...
By advancing freedom in the greater Middle East, we help end a cycle of dictatorship and radicalism that brings millions of people to misery and brings danger to our own people.
The stakes in that region could not be higher. If the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation and anger and violence for export. And as we saw in the ruins of two towers, no distance on the map will protect our lives and way of life. If the greater Middle East joins the democratic revolution that has reached much of the world, the lives of millions in that region will be bettered, and a trend of conflict and fear will be ended at its source...
We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.
I still think that basic analysis is correct. Could it possibly be that it depends on which party holds the White House that determines Reynolds' position on any particular issue? Surely not.
But, look, I am not in any way sanguine about the future of Arab world in the wake of what appears to be its 1848. Anything can happen. But we know that the tyrannical stability we long pursued came back to haunt us. As I put it in my paywalled column this Sunday:
With the benefit of hindsight, the Bush administration's response [to 9/11] was 80 percent right and 100 percent wrong.
They were right when they immediately grasped that al Qaeda and its copycats were a product in part of repressive, secular Arab regimes who forbade legitimate outlets for dissent, and thereby made a huge young generation more susceptible to the extremes.
Democratization was the only ultimate answer - where politicians actually had an incentive to respond to real complaints (about public services, police, infrastructure, and the rest), rather than rant about Allah or the evil of the Jews and Americans. Give the Muslim world that air to breathe, Bush argued most famously in his London speech, and change would come. But tragically, he decided he couldn't wait and tried to impose democracy by force of American arms and with almost no planning in Iraq and Afghanistan. You know the rest of the story. Rousseau was wrong. You cannot force people to be free.
And so the last remarkable month has been, in some ways, a vindication of neoconservatism's core insight about the Arab world's yearning for democracy; and a refutation of neoconservatism's hubristic notion that another country, especially the US, could impose it.
Which is really a vindication for Obama, whose own speech in Cairo echoed many of Rice's themes. Iraq? Notice how the experience in Iraq was used by the Arab world's tyrants - by Seif Qaddafi as recently as last night - as an example of what happens when Western democracy is installed: chaos, mass murder, and civil war. Tunisia and Egypt managed to cancel out Iraq.
(Photo: Tim Pennington/Getty.)