Suddenly, some of the “neoconservatives” who support the cause of democracy in Egypt and the Middle East generally are suggesting that it might be better for the U.S. to support the Egyptian military, though it came to power through a coup and is suppressing pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests with brutality. What is going on? Have the neocons become “realists,” willing to forego human rights and democracy for stability?
Not exactly. What is happening, though, is that “the case for democracy,” as Natan Sharansky once put it in a book of the same name, is being carefully updated to prize substantive liberty over procedural democracy. Just as Sharansky argued that it was pointless to seek peace with a “fear society,” it may be dangerous to introduce democracy in a society that does not embrace widely the basic cultural values necessary to preserve freedom.
Some defenders of the Arab Spring, of course, have not yet registered the reality of what has happened. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) are now pushing for cuts in aid to Egypt, even though they previously defended that aid as essential to peace with Israel and security in the Sinai. Sen. Graham is still predicting the Muslim Brotherhood would lose a new election–after they defied him by winning the last one.
Whatever the case against the coup itself–and it is a principled one–there is no longer a case for restoring the Muslim Brotherhood to power or even allowing it to compete in elections, were any to be held. The fact that the Brotherhood has mounted a campaign of terror against Christian communities and churches is proof alone that they have no respect for human rights, and a sign of where their authoritarian government was heading.
Conservatives in general have struggled to find a coherent response to recent events in Egypt and to the Arab Spring in general. It is easy enough to criticize President Barack Obama’s foreign policy vacillations, which seem driven more by the desire to stay on top of the news cycle than by any principle or national interest. Obama has also foolishly supported the Muslim Brotherhood, hoping they would reconcile Islam with democracy.
But defining what the Arab Spring means for conservatives has remained difficult. Even Rand Paul, who has embraced some of his father’s crude isolationism, has stumbled into contradictions. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens pointed out Tuesday, Paul’s purported concern for the fate of Christians recommends withholding aid from Syrian rebels, but ought logically to encourage aid to the Egyptian military, which he opposes.
What is most difficult to grapple with is the question of whether the values in America’s founding documents are, in fact, universal values after all. After World War II, it became clear that there were security risks–atop the moral dilemmas–in ignoring totalitarianism abroad. But the recent troubles of the Middle East–across both the Bush and Obama administrations–have shown the limits and risks of evangelizing for democracy.
It may be that some freedoms–religious liberty, for one–are universal, but others–democratic elections–are not. And consistent with our image as a “shining city,” America’s role should be to exemplify the best of those freedoms, defending the most important rights without sacrificing our national interest for lesser ones. In Egypt, tragically, the cause of liberty may best be served by (brief) military rule. That is a refinement, not a reversal.