At CPAC 2011, Ann Coulter made the following claim:
Democrats are all for meddling in other countries –- but only provided a change of regime will harm U.S. national security interests.
It probably wasn’t his intention, but this week the Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart has set out to prove her right. Beinart (who, recall, doesn’t think the War on Terror is a war and says conservatives only support profiling because we don’t believe people who look like us are capable of bad things) has chosen to lecture us about “the hypocrisy of the right’s shallow rhetoric on liberty and human freedom,” allegedly displayed by those of us who aren’t all that optimistic that a post-Mubarak Egypt will be any more free or humane:
[T]he people with the biggest megaphones on the American right—people like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich—are not preaching democratic idealism. They’re warning that Egypt and Bahrain are about to become Iranian- or Taliban-style theocracies. They’re comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter for not standing behind our favored strongmen. And they’re suggesting that, at the very least, America should demand that Islamist parties be banned. When it comes to Muslims and democracy, much of the supposedly idealistic American right turns out to be pretty pessimistic. It turns out that the people uninterested in the human rights of Muslims at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay aren’t all that concerned about them in Egypt or Bahrain either.
What human-rights disinterest are you referring to, Peter? The way I remember it, conservatives overwhelmingly condemned the actual abuse and the military punished those responsible all on its own, while waterboarding has saved American lives. And Beck, Palin and Gingrich’s doubts are far from groundless—the radical Muslim Brotherhood is among the factions vying for control of Egypt’s new government, and as David Horowitz sarcastically pointed out to Bill Kristol, recent history doesn’t suggest great odds for Egypt:
Perhaps the elections in Egypt will turn out better than those in Gaza where Hamas now rules a terrorist state; Iraq, which has instituted an Islamic Republic; Lebanon, where Hezbollah now rules a terrorist state; and Afghanistan, which is a kleptocracy wooing the terrorist theocracy in Iran.
We have been led astray by the term “neoconservative,” which the media generally defines as “democratic imperialists” (or perhaps “Jewish democratic imperialists”). In fact, the number of neoconservatives who were ever willing to risk anything in democracy’s name was minimal. A few influential “neoconservatives”—like Robert Kagan, William Kristol, and Paul Wolfowitz—did support the human-rights interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. But the bulk of 1990s’ conservative commentators and Republican politicians derided Bill Clinton’s humanitarian wars as a waste of blood and treasure, “foreign policy as social work.” After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration used the Taliban’s human-rights horrors to whip up support for war, but once the Taliban fell, it spurned the kind of nation building that would have been required to give Afghan democracy a chance. (To read Douglas Feith or Richard Haass’ memoirs is to grasp how dubious top Bush administration officials were about the prospects for Afghan democracy from the very beginning.) And while George W. Bush himself seems genuinely to have believed that the Iraq War would strike a blow for liberty across the Islamic world, there is little evidence that that rationale influenced his own war planners, who expected to begin withdrawing U.S. troops within weeks of Saddam’s fall, even though only a lunatic could have believed that such a rapid drawdown was consistent with Iraqi democracy.
If anyone has led Beinart and company astray about neocons, it’s not us. The term “neoconservative” means different things to different people—for some it means “defense hawk,” for others it means “pragmatic ex-leftist” (and for an especially odious subset it means “dirty Jew”). But while some on the Right embrace the label, it’s predominantly used and defined by people who dislike all brands of conservatism, neo or otherwise.
If one listens to Glenn Beck talk about Muslims today and reads James Burnham, William F. Buckley, Jeane Kirkpatrick, or Irving Kristol’s essays on Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans during the Cold War, one theme becomes strikingly clear: In their marrow, conservatives believe that culture matters, and many suspect that the only culture capable of sustaining liberal democracy is the Western kind. The conservatives who don’t believe that are an intriguing, and in some ways admirable, bunch, but they were, and are, the exception that proves the rule.
The truth is that there has been an ongoing debate on the Right about just how much potential free elections have on their own to transform societies. Some, like Bush and Kristol, seem to have been overly optimistic, while conservatives are leaning toward a more jaded view today. This too is rooted in experience, from Hamas’s ascendance to the narrowly-averted religious murder of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan.
More importantly, Beinart gets conservatism half-right: we do believe that culture matters. We do believe that Western Civilization is ultimately superior to its competitors. But there’s quite a bit of room between “best option” and “not an oppressive hellhole.” The problem with expecting too much out of democracy in most of the Middle East isn’t a matter of ethnocentrism. Despite what left-wing zealots would have you believe, nobody on the Right thinks that Arabs and Persians are intrinsically incapable of self-government, or that freedom is incompatible with cultures marked by different languages and rituals.
But liberal self-government shouldn’t be expected to flourish in nations where radical, pro-jihad organizations like Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood have enough popular support to be politically viable, or where the death penalty for leaving Islam is accepted law. These are the indicators of a fundamentally illiberal culture which may be fully capable of accepting the mechanics of democracy, but doesn’t accept its underlying rationale: the equal rights and dignity of everyone affected by the laws to be voted upon. And it should be obvious that if jihadists and theocrats come to power, even democratically, the result won’t be freedom. To quote Thomas Jefferson on despotism:
It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. 173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one. Let those who doubt it turn their eyes on the republic of Venice. As little will it avail us that they are chosen by ourselves. An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.
Peter Beinart put the word “realists” in scare quotes to mock conservatives wary of Islamist uprisings, but that’s actually the best word for us. If he had done so much as mention the reasons for our concern, his readers would understand why.