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Neocons and the Revolution

How the Arab revolt is rocking the neoconservative world.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jeane Kirkpatrick was angry.

In August 1997, I visited the retired diplomat at her spacious corner office at the American Enterprise Institute. "I guess they thought it was worth publishing," she spluttered. What had got her so steamed was my allusion to a recent philippic Robert Kagan had published in Commentary called "Democracies and Double Standards."

Jeane Kirkpatrick was angry.

In August 1997, I visited the retired diplomat at her spacious corner office at the American Enterprise Institute. "I guess they thought it was worth publishing," she spluttered. What had got her so steamed was my allusion to a recent philippic Robert Kagan had published in Commentary called "Democracies and Double Standards."

In his article, Kagan repudiated Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 essay "Dictatorships & Double Standards" in the same journal, which denounced U.S. President Jimmy Carter and caught the eye of his successor Ronald Reagan, who appointed her ambassador to the United Nations. As Kirkpatrick saw it, Carter had hustled the Shah of Iran and the leader of Nicaragua, both of them pro-American autocrats, out of office. The results were disastrous. Friendly authoritarians were gone; true totalitarians were taking over in both places. While authoritarian regimes of the right could mellow over time into democracies, totalitarians ones of the left would not. Anyway, it required "decades, if not centuries," she observed, for "people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits" to create a viable democracy.

Kagan was having none of it. He trumpeted a new neoconservative doctrine: Away with the cold, amoral realism of the Kirkpatrick school and in with a boisterous championing of what amounted to liberal interventionism, promoting democracy, the very "essence," as he put it, of American nationhood. Kagan bemoaned the fact, as he saw it, that both the right, out of despair at what it viewed as the cultural degeneration of America during the Clinton era, and the left, out of reflexive hostility to military intervention, had come to embrace the Kirkpatrick doctrine. He praised Bill Clinton’s readiness to send the Marines to Haiti and condemned a "mood of despair" that had overcome many foreign-policy experts. In Kagan’s view, America had to push Middle Eastern regimes to become more democratic, not settle for a cozy embrace with ruling elites. "We could and should be holding authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to higher standards of democracy, and encouraging democratic voices within those societies," he announced, "even if it means risking some instability in some places."

Sound familiar? The debate between the two "Ks," Kagan and Kirkpatrick, has once again flared up as the Middle East experiences a wave of uprisings. Already Egypt and Tunisia have seen their authoritarian leaders toppled. Who is next? Colonel Qaddafi? The king of Jordan? The House of Saud? And will their successors steer an anti-American and anti-Israel course?

For Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, a neoconservative thinker who leans toward realism, the answer is not so clear. Krauthammer has landed in the same camp as many in Israel, who fear instability in the region more than they welcome change. He noted in a Feb. 4 column, "Yes, the Egyptian revolution is broad-based. But so were the French and the Russian and the Iranian revolutions. Indeed in Iran, the revolution only succeeded — the shah was long opposed by the mullahs — when the merchants, the housewives, the students and the secularists joined to bring him down. And who ended up in control? The most disciplined, ruthless and ideologically committed — the radical Islamists. This is why our paramount moral and strategic interest in Egypt is real democracy in which power does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time." For good measure, he announced that having former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei in power would be a "disaster." (How would he know?) Meanwhile, neocon patron and former Vice President Dick Cheney declared that Hosni Mubarak was "a good man."

For fellow neocon travelers William Kristol, Elliott Abrams, and Paul Wolfowitz, by contrast, the Middle East tumult is cause for bliss and a new dawn, nothing less than the vindication of the Reagan (and George W. Bush) doctrines of spreading freedom whenever and wherever possible. Writing in the Weekly Standard in a Feb. 14 editorial titled "Stand for Freedom," Kristol thus denounced the conservative doomsayers who see an inevitable rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region. The ouster of Mubarak is not a replay of Iran in 1979, Kristol concluded: "The Egyptian people want to exercise their capacity for self-government. American conservatives, heirs to our own bold and far-sighted revolutionaries, should help them." In the Washington Post, Kristol decried Obama for his "passivity." And in the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page has advocated bombing Libyan airfields, Wolfowitz declared, "The U.S. should come down on the side of the Libyan people — and of our principles and values. The longer the current bloodshed continues, the worse the aftermath will be."

So is the neocon house about to crack up? Will the split between the movement’s realist and idealist wings sunder its unity over what’s best for Israel and America?

Probably not. Krauthammer is representative of an older neocon school that has largely been overridden by the democratizers. Indeed, the overwhelming sentiment among neocons has been that the events in Egypt are a good thing. Perhaps the most powerful case has been made by Abrams in the Washington Post, who tried to claim credit for George W. Bush. He drubbed President Barack Obama for being too slow to support the protesters. Far from being an exception to the democratic wave sweeping around the globe, Arabs are ready to embrace it, according to Abrams: "It turns out, as those demonstrators are telling us, that supporting freedom is the best policy of all."

But is it, at least where Israel is concerned? Already Hamas leaders are anticipating that they can develop new ties in Egypt that will strengthen their hand. Mahmoud Zahar told the Los Angeles Times, "Israel is the big loser in recent events … This is a new era. They should fear." Pressure may mount in Jordan as well to pursue a less-friendly policy toward Israel.

Freedom and human rights were terms that the earlier generation of neocons viewed with considerable skepticism. Neocon godfather Irving Kristol, in a lengthy article in the National Interest in 1987 (which is reprinted in a new collection of his essays called The Neoconservative Persuasion), dismissed the very idea of human rights, arguing that the term simply disguised a hidden agenda of trying to establish a "moral equivalence" between America and the Soviet Union. Irving Kristol, Kirkpatrick, and others looked askance at the idea of trying to create democracies abroad. They wanted to maintain close relations with stable — or seemingly stable — leaders abroad who were friendly to America, whether in Central America or the Philippines.

But Reagan crossed the divide when he assented to withdrawing American support from Ferdinand Marcos in March 1986. People power was on the march in Manila. Wolfowitz played a valuable part, as James Mann’s excellent Rise of the Vulcans shows, in helping to prod the administration to detach itself from Marcos. Similarly, Abrams correctly pushed the administration to force Chile’s dreadful Augusto Pinochet to a popular plebiscite. The fall of the Soviet empire a few years later seemed only to confirm the righteousness of America’s missionary impulse. Ever since, that impulse has been on the rise among a younger generation of conservatives who view America’s foreign policy as a prolonged crusade.

Kirkpatrick herself recognized that her view of the Soviet Union had been too static, but she moved toward espousing American self-restraint after the end of the Cold War, arguing that America could now become a "normal" country. The neocons are simply reviving an old debate about America’s purpose. The balance between national interests and idealism has always been a vexed one. But statements such as Abrams’s provide a reminder of how far neoconservatism has moved away from its realist origins and toward unabashed democracy promotion. Were Jeane Kirkpatrick alive to hear them, she might once more be aghast.

<p> Jacob Heilbrunn is senior editor at the National Interest. </p>

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