By Ed Hancox
Former Bush Administration official Elliott Abrams has taken to the pages of Foreign Policy to offer a defense of the Neoconservative policies that were a hallmark of the Bush-era world view, and to link them with the ongoing Arab Spring movement (note: author/pundit Niall Ferguson was also pushing this argument on Sunday's episode of “Fareed Zakaria GPS”). It is an odd defense on the part of Abrams, since he basically boils neoconservativism down to a couple of pro-democracy/anti-authoritarianist speeches Bush gave during his presidency, which Abrams credits with at least helping to promote the cause of democracy forwarded by the Arab Spring – this line of defense is especially puzzling since critics of President Barack Obama say that one of his weaknesses is his supposed belief that he can change the world merely by giving a speech...
Setting that aside, it is worth taking another look back at the G.W. Bush-era of neoconservatism. Abrams is right in one sense, at its heart neoconservativism was a rejection of the realpolitik that had dominated US foreign policy for decades, the world view that it was worth putting up with an oppressive dictator, even considering him a trusted ally, so long as he kept things quiet at home and didn't interfere with US strategic interests in his part of the world. The Neocons believed - or at least said they believed - that every human being had the right to self-determination and that the United States should more aggressively promote this idea abroad and stop coddling friendly dictators. So far, so good, there's not much to quibble with here. But the problem with Neoconservatism was its approach, which could be summed up by the old adage “you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” Change in government by force was accepted, even promoted by the Neocons, and if it led to a period of violent chaos for a nation and its people, that was just the cost of remaking the world.
The keystone of the Bushite Neoconservative movement was the invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who had become the poster child for oppressive dictators everywhere. But the problem with Iraq was that the Neoconservatives quickly lost faith in their own idea. Rather than trust the Iraqi people to find their own way to democracy, one was imposed upon them by the Coalition Provisional Authority, complete with a president-in-waiting: an Iraqi expat who had spent the previous three decades on the CIA payroll, conning them into believing that he was some sort of leader in exile, one Ahmed Chalabi. When the Iraqi people balked at having this London-based dilettante imposed upon them, it quickly became clear there was no Plan B and Iraq fell into the chaos of sectarian fighting. Nine years after the invasion, Iraq has the veneer of a democracy covering an ethnically-fractured society where the prime minister recently tried to have the vice-prime minister arrested on terrorism charges, the vice-PM promptly fled to the quasi-independent Kurdish north where he was put under the protection of Iraq's Kurdish president. A Jeffersonian democracy its not.
It is probably accurate to say that the Arab Spring happened despite Iraq and the Neoconservative movement – no people wanted to see their country go the way of Iraq, but were willing to risk it for the chance at freedom. Abrams is right when he says that authoritarian regimes are inherently unstable, but he is wrong to give Neoconservative-flavored speeches given by Bush, Condoleeza Rice or any other official from the time credit for the wave of protests that are still sweeping the Arab world and beyond – there was nothing particularly different about the content of these speeches, rather they were simply variations on speeches praising the virtues of democracy, the yearning for freedom and the gift of self-determination that American leaders have been giving for two centuries now. Rather, the true catalyst for the Arab Spring was the act of self-immolation by a frustrated Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi that went viral thanks to the Internet and became the motivating factor for a generation of Tunisians chafing under a lifetime of rule by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. And once people in the region saw that it was possible to stand up to your oppressors and succeed, the dominoes started to fall – Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and perhaps Syria as well.
So was Abrams essay just an attempt at revisionist history to repair the battered image of a largely discredited regime? In part yes, but it was also something else, an attempt to bolster the United States' fading clout as the prime mover of global affairs. Almost since our inception, and certainly since the dawn of the Cold War, Americans have relished our role as the arbiters of world democracy, as, to quote Ronald Reagan, “that shining city on the hill”, the place that inspired the democratic dreams of oppressed peoples around the world. In a very real sense, the Arab Spring threatens this special, self-endowed role since it is a wholly-indigenous democratic movement. When Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to rally against the Mubarak regime, they didn't wave American flags, but rather Tunisian ones (though they did hold aloft the US-made tear gas grenades fired at them by Egyptian police). They were inspired not by dreams of an American democracy, but of their own; and for some like Abrams, this is a hard realization to accept.
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