Posted by: Jeff | February 1, 2011

Conservatives and Egypt: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I don’t have much of use to say on the uprisings in Egypt, as my knowledge of the country and the broader ripple effects political upheaval there may have is close to nil. That said, watching American conservatives process the events has been interesting.

As Conor Friedersdorf has noted, there seems to be a bit of a split forming on the Right. The more populist, conspiratorial, and Tea-Party-associated areas of the Right — including Rush Limbuagh, Glenn Beck and regrettably Mike Huckabee — appear to have concluded that President Mubarak is their guy, and that any allowance of democracy is an implicit endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Radicalism, Marxism/Progressivism/Nazism/etc. I find this reaction woefully depressing, as I suspect it is more and represents the feelings of most “everyday” Americans on the Right. Last summer’s outpouring of anti-Muslim hate over the construction of mosques — both in New York City and throughout the rest of the country — now looks to me like some sort of tipping point in the psychology of the conservative grassroots. Whatever support they may have had for George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” has now been decisively swamped by raw animal fear of any person or group bearing the “Muslim” label. The moral collapse of about a fourth of the American population into xenophobic paranoia continues apace.

In the other corner is William Kristol and the other ongoing defenders — located mainly in the neo-conservative and intellectual circles — of that same Freedom Agenda. Though not as depressing as the Tea Party racism-mongering, their insistence that unequivocal democracy promotion is always and everywhere in the interests of the United States has by now grown quite stale. The outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the geopolitical mess that resulted from Hamas’ win in the Palestinian elections, should have made it obvious to everyone that there is quite often a tragic and unbridgeable divide between America’s moral interests in democracy and its strategic interests in international stability. Navigating that chasm requires prudence, care, stealth, and a constant awareness that things can always go to hell — all characteristics that neo-conservatism has abhorred in its idealistic zeal to remake the Middle East.

Now, I must confess I would have expected the above to be the end of the matter. While the divide between these positions represents a significant fault line in the worldview of the American Right, both positions also offer the happy opportunity to relentlessly bash Obama — either for a failure to appreciate the dangers of democracy in Egypt, or for a failure to insufficiently promote the same. And though they appear opposites, both positions also agree that it remains the role of the United States to call the shots throughout the rest of the world, and to determine the value framework by which outcomes in other countries’ political processes will be judged. I would assume that nationalistic hubris and the drive to bash Obama will be more than enough to keep the conservative movement unified at least until election season kicks into high gear in 2012.

However, I may have been mistaken. While certainly not overwhelming, I’ve noticed a solid group of conservatives, mainly at National Review Online of all places, who seem to be avoiding both traps. They’ve even managed, remarkably enough, to say some nice things about Obama’s decision to keep his cards close to the vest in dealing with Egypt’s upheaval. Daniel Foster has been characteristically thoughtful on the matter. Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg, quite uncharacteristically, have been thoughtful as well. And Duncan Currie published an excellent exchange with Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA official and Middle East expert. The gist of that piece was that, while the adoption of democracy will ultimately be necessary for the Muslim world to purge the jihadi poison from its system, the process will be long, slow and brutal, with a good amount of temporary victories for radical Islamist factions along the way. And there’s nothing much America can do about it except lower its head, grit its teeth, and soldier on through.

Now, National Review is just one magazine, mind you. But it enjoys an impressive position in American conservatism’s ecology, making it a worthwhile bellwether. Let’s hope this latest trend continues. (Also, for my money, the best take so far — in high-level philosophic terms — on how to approach the situation in Egypt has been laid down by Michael Tomasky over where I work at The Guardian. You should read the whole thing.)


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