Neocons score yet another own goal

Football violence isn’t a wholly alien phenomenon in Britain. But there is a salient difference between our homegrown scum and the Egyptian variety. These days ours have punch-ups outside the Coach & Horses. Theirs kill.

Both sets of football lovers are animalised brutes. But ours operate in a social environment that has been shaped over centuries by respect for the law in general and human life in particular. Theirs live in a country where, according to a recent Pew poll, 82% regard stoning adulterous women as just, 77% approve of chopping off thieves’ hands and 84% favour the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. Our society is rapidly frittering away the capital of institutionalised decency; theirs hasn’t yet begun to acquire it. We may be converging, but as the 74 people killed and hundred maimed in Port Said show, we haven’t converged yet.

In this context the article written a couple of months ago for Foreign Affairs magazine by Elliott Abrams, deputy national security advisor in the Bush administration, strikes me as particularly ill-advised. Mr Abrams, who is one of the flag bearers for neoconservatism, takes issue with those who find anything wrong with Arab Spring revolutions, largely inspired, if not directly abetted, by the US.

“The whole ‘experiment’ seems to some critics to be a foolish, if idealistic project that promises to do nothing but wreak havoc in the Middle East,” he sighs ruefully. As one of those diabolical critics, I agree wholeheartedly. This, however, is the only thing in the article with which I, or any other sane individual, can possibly agree. In fact, the issue wouldn’t even be worth arguing about if Abrams didn’t represent a political movement whose influence on US foreign policy is strong and, if a Republican wins in November, will become dominant.

Abrams begins by proving something that doesn’t need proof: the Middle Eastern regimes swept away by the revolutions were rather unsavoury, “kept in place solely by force”. Point conceded. And the conclusion? “Thus the neocons, democrats, and others who applauded the Arab uprisings were right, for what was the alternative? To applaud continued oppression?”

No, Mr Abrams. The alternative would be to remember the time when US foreign policy was guided by sage statesmen, not by ignorant demagogues. At that time President John Quincy Adams suggested a mindset that alone would be appropriate in the present situation: ‘[America] is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.’

Unlike Irving Kristol, the founder of the neoconservative movement, who was aware of the problematic nature of democracy even in America, never mind in countries with no historical predisposition for it, his ideological heirs have no capacity for nuanced thinking. Shrill sermonising is more up their street.

If it were otherwise, they’d know that the lofty standards of American democracy (which they don’t even understand properly) have questionable utility in most of the world. If, according to Freedom House (a largely neocon think tank), the world had not a single democracy as recently as in 1900 (an assertion that is in itself damning to neocon ideas), then which magic wand must we wave today to execute what George W. Bush described as ‘forward strategy to freedom in the Middle East’?

“The pessimists might yet be proved right,” concedes Abrams. “Any comparison of the Arab lands to Eastern Europe suggests that many positive elements are missing, not least the magnet and model of the European Union.” Yes, if only the Arab lands learned their lessons on democracy from the EU, that notorious champion of elective governments and national sovereignty, they’d be oases of political goodness.

As a result of the recent revolutions, Islamist parties (and ideologies) have become infinitely stronger in the region. In Egypt they won, in a perfectly democratic way, two thirds of the votes. That’s because, according to Abrams, such parties “do better on average in Arab than non-Arab lands.” Not being privy to the mathematical apparatus activated by Abrams to calculate the averages, I’d suggest he study the example of one non-Arab land, Iran.

In 1979 the unquestionably tyrannical rule of the Shah was overthrown with, to put it mildly, American acquiescence. Highlighting Pahlavi’s appalling record on human rights, the US press had been advocating his removal for years, and when the crunch came the Carter administration sat on its thumbs.

The assumption, one that’s clearly shared by today’s neocons, was that tyrants must be removed no matter what. Yet elementary historical knowledge should have suggested that, in some parts of the world, every tyrant is better than his successor. So it proved in Iran when the Americans, and in particular American neocons, got what they wished for.

The Shah may have been a tyrant and a thoroughly corrupt man, but one thing he wasn’t was a Muslim fundamentalist. Moreover, he was just about as pro-West as his environment allowed. What followed… well, you know what followed. What you don’t know, and neither does anyone else, is what’s going to happen next. Suffice it to say that nuclear war is one distinct possibility.

Would Iran be about average, according to Abrams’s learned calculations? Well, if the new Arab regimes are worse than average, then we know what to expect.

All this shows that “idealism”, which Abrams holds up as a virtue, is a wrong navigational tool to guide a country’s policy through the dire straits. Sober thinking, sage understanding and serious learning in history, geopolitics and cultural realities — as exemplified by John Quincy Adams — would fare much better. Abrams’s animadversions manifest none of those, and you won’t find many influential neocons who are any better.

While conservatives everywhere find it hard to wish for Obama’s victory, perhaps in this case we ought to suppress our visceral feelings. For should, say, Romney become President, the likes of Abrams won’t be writing articles about US foreign policy. They’ll be running it.





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