First, I want to stipulate that I do not really believe the surface level argument of the neo-conservatives that they stand for democratic reforms throughout the Islamic world. It’s a complicated issue and I don’t mean to suggest that all neo-conservatives are disingenuous. But I come down on the side of those that see their rhetoric as, in the main, dishonest. I honestly think that they are most interested in ‘creative destruction’ and the money that a ‘war on terror’ creates for the national security industry. Having said that, I don’t deny that there is a basic appeal to their rhetoric. Robert Kagan has a classic piece of the genre in today’s Washington Post. Kagen appeals to all the liberal heartstrings and hits all the right notes. Here’s an example:

Today, Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf is playing the old game, as is Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and it appears to be working. Substitute radical Islamists for communists, and the pitch is the same: Apres moi, le deluge. If you force me out, the radical Islamists will win. And Musharraf is busily trying to ensure that this is the only option. He cracks down on moderates with good democratic credentials, and with far greater zeal than he has cracked down on al-Qaeda. If he can hold on long enough, he may so radicalize the opposition that no reasonably moderate alternative will be available.

This is one of the many flaws of “liberal autocracy.” Dictators are not good shepherds, leading their flock Moses-like to the promised land of democracy. When the choice is between the good of the country and continued rule, the autocrat almost always chooses himself. To prove that he is irreplaceable, he must destroy the opportunity to replace him, which means destroying or hobbling independent institutions, undermining the rule of law, pushing the population toward extremism — in short, doing the opposite of what the mythical “liberal autocrat” is supposed to do.

There is so much to agree with. Haven’t progressives made a living criticizing the foreign policy of the Establishment as a cynical game where lip service is paid to human rights while we cuddle up to brutal dicatators?

Unfortunately, this is a false dichotomy. While the left-wing critique of U.S. foreign policy remains valid, it does not follow that the answer to every foreign policy challenge is a free and fair election. Egypt, for example, would not elect a government favorable to U.S. or Israeli interests. Neither would Saudi Arabia. And we have already learned in the Bush years that Lebanaon, Palestine, and Iraq would not do so either. In fact, our foreign policies are deeply unpopular and sustaining support for them requires that Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia not allow free and fair elections.

My personal opinion is that our policies are flawed, not the concept of democracy. But the neo-conservatives have this strange idea that they espouse, that the Muslim world would embrace our policies if only they were free to vote on them. Frankly, that idea is insane.

We can’t change our policies overnight. And, therefore, we can’t promote democracy everywhere and think it will advance our interests. Things are more complicated. Pakistan is the perfect example.

I favor democracy and human rights everywhere, but as an ideal, not as some magic tonic that makes U.S. imperialism suddenly palatable to the people that oppose our policies.

This isn’t cynicism. It’s realism. The Republicans used to stand for that. No more.

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