Commentary Magazine


Topic: democracy

History, Democracy, and Egypt’s Revolution

In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

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In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

On February 5, 2011, CNN featured the Egyptian-American leftist Mona Eltahawy and Alan Dershowitz arguing over Egypt’s future. Eltahawy was filled with righteous anger and a sense of her own superior perspective on the issue. She also turned out to be wrong on everything, and Dershowitz right. That in itself isn’t too surprising; Eltahawy flaunts her hostility to Western liberalism, which often leads her down the path of spite and illogic when she claims to know better. But it was Dershowitz’s caution that was notable: he understood from the outset that the worst outcome for Egypt would be a replica of Hamas’s rise next door in Gaza, when the Islamist terrorist group won an election and immediately rolled back any scrap of democracy to secure its tyrannical rule.

Dershowitz warned that the strongest party in the emerging Egyptian power vacuum was the Muslim Brotherhood, and that a Brotherhood election victory could actually be a setback for democracy in Egypt. Of course he was obviously correct even then, but Eltahawy angrily shot back that Dershowitz was a hypocrite, and the following discussion ensued:

ELTAHAWY: You know, it’s interesting to hear Alan used the word democracy because that’s exactly what Egypt is working on right now. These millions of Egyptians who have been on the streets for the past 12 days want to be democratic.

So it’s very hypocritical to describe Israel as a democracy and be alarmist about what’s happening in Egypt because surely you and everyone in Israel should be happy that your neighbor wants to be a democracy and democratic neighbors are happy.

DERSHOWITZ: If it’s a real democracy, not a Hamas-type democracy.

ELTAHAWY: You know, you can’t label democracy. Democracy is the people choosing the government they want and what you’re doing is being alarmist. This is not about Muslim Brotherhood. This is about Egyptians determining their future without anyone else’s interference.

MALVEAUX: David, you want to respond –

DERSHOWITZ: The people chose Adolf Hitler in 1932 by democratic means and the people would probably have chosen Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by democratic means. So democracy has to be both structural that is elections, but also functional. If you elect people who then take away all the rights and make women wear Burqas and deny people the right of –

ELTAHAWY: Wait, wait, wait. Who said — this is utter nonsense. This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood and burqas. You’re talking nonsense.

DERSHOWITZ: You’re just wrong. You’re just wrong. Of course, it has everything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

I remembered the debate at the time because it was so typical of the two sides of this argument: Eltahawy’s ignorance (“you can’t label democracy”; “This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood”) and Dershowitz’s historical awareness. It turned out that past was prologue, in Egypt as elsewhere.

The Egyptian army’s displacement of the Brotherhood government was indeed a military coup. But the Brotherhood government not only wasn’t a democracy; it actually went a long way toward discrediting democracy in the region precisely because of the principle McFaul espoused with regard to Russia. Westerners may be criticized for a bias toward democracy abroad, but in some cases–as with Egypt–they are more realistic about the nature of democracy than they are usually given credit for.

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Tony Blair’s Education Won’t End Terrorism

Writing this weekend in the British newspaper the Observer, former Prime Minister Tony Blair turned once again to address the ongoing threat from terrorism. Blair identifies religious extremism as being fundamentally at the root cause of terrorism–a far cry from the delusions of Secretary of State John Kerry who recently claimed terrorism is caused by poverty. Blair quite rightly observed that just as extreme political ideologies marred the twentieth century, so the terror that emerges from religious extremism threatens to plague the twenty-first. Yet, troublingly, much of Blair’s article is devoted to a rather superficial discussion about the prospects of confronting extremism through “education.” No doubt much of the war for the West’s values will be waged on the battlefield of the mind, but Blair is straying into territory almost as naïve as that inhabited by the likes of John Kerry if he thinks we can simply abandon the military option and reason the societies that support terrorism out of extremism.

Of course, nowhere does Blair directly advocate dropping the military option; this isn’t some latter day about-turn on the policies of military intervention that he himself once employed. Yet, there can be little doubt from his tone as to where Blair thinks the emphasis now needs to be placed: on promoting education and interfaith outreach. Indeed, to that effect Blair is sure to note that he does not consider this a uniquely Islamic problem. It seems that the former prime minister is genuinely under the impression that education and good intentions are going to essentially win the war on terror for us. Like Kerry’s ideas about poverty being at the root of terrorism, the notion that providing education will win over our enemies is a far more palatable strategy than the military option. And like the thought of defeating terror by defeating poverty, it is not only attractive, but also much too good to be true.

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Writing this weekend in the British newspaper the Observer, former Prime Minister Tony Blair turned once again to address the ongoing threat from terrorism. Blair identifies religious extremism as being fundamentally at the root cause of terrorism–a far cry from the delusions of Secretary of State John Kerry who recently claimed terrorism is caused by poverty. Blair quite rightly observed that just as extreme political ideologies marred the twentieth century, so the terror that emerges from religious extremism threatens to plague the twenty-first. Yet, troublingly, much of Blair’s article is devoted to a rather superficial discussion about the prospects of confronting extremism through “education.” No doubt much of the war for the West’s values will be waged on the battlefield of the mind, but Blair is straying into territory almost as naïve as that inhabited by the likes of John Kerry if he thinks we can simply abandon the military option and reason the societies that support terrorism out of extremism.

Of course, nowhere does Blair directly advocate dropping the military option; this isn’t some latter day about-turn on the policies of military intervention that he himself once employed. Yet, there can be little doubt from his tone as to where Blair thinks the emphasis now needs to be placed: on promoting education and interfaith outreach. Indeed, to that effect Blair is sure to note that he does not consider this a uniquely Islamic problem. It seems that the former prime minister is genuinely under the impression that education and good intentions are going to essentially win the war on terror for us. Like Kerry’s ideas about poverty being at the root of terrorism, the notion that providing education will win over our enemies is a far more palatable strategy than the military option. And like the thought of defeating terror by defeating poverty, it is not only attractive, but also much too good to be true.

That is not to say that there is no common sense to be found in this article. There is plenty, and that is what makes its mistaken conclusions all the more jarring. One of Blair’s most important points is that solving the growing crisis in the Middle East is not simply a matter of establishing new improved constitutional arrangements. As Blair writes, “Democracy is not only a way of voting. It is a way of thinking.” This is an important point, absent from many discussions about democracy and its meaning. Functioning democracy is not simply a question of a procedure for determining who administers government, it is an entire attitude with a whole corresponding system of values upon which that procedure depends.

Tony Blair speaks glowingly in his article of his efforts for interfaith outreach and education thus far. He tells his readers of the work of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, with its soon-to-be launched database on religion and conflict created in collaboration with Harvard Divinity School, interfaith programs and degree courses, first pioneered at Yale, now available in universities from China to Latin America. No doubt this is all good work, but are we really to believe that degree courses in religious toleration, taking place in China and Latin America, are going to heal such intractable conflicts as the fracture between Sunni and Shia that dates to Islam’s founding? Even if Blair’s foundation were to hit upon the magic formula for de-radicalization, they are hardly going to be setting the curriculum in Saudi or Iranian schools any time soon.

While religious toleration may be in short supply throughout many parts of the world, and particularly the Islamic Middle East, we should not forget that in our own countries it was the obsession with tolerance that caused many Western governments to turn a blind eye to this very religious extremism in the first place. It has been the continuing obsession with tolerance that is exploited by those who essentially wish to neuter the West’s capabilities and willingness to defend itself in the face of the threat from hardline Islam.

People in the Islamic world have noticed these weaknesses emerging in our sense of civilizational self-confidence. As Joshua Mitchell has observed from his interactions with young Muslims in the Gulf, one of their greatest fears, found even among highly educated people, is that their own societies might succumb to becoming like the West, which they see as being beset by a valueless individualism.  

We can hope for a change in the Islamic world, hope for an Islamic reformation that is liberalizing rather than radicalizing, although current trends should dissuade excessive optimism. But we need to be realistic about just how limited our ability to bring about drastic changes in that culture really is. In his book The Suicide of Reason Lee Harris puts forward the contention that one of the greatest conceits of Western strategy has been the belief that since our system is the natural and inevitable end point in which all societies are progressing, people from other traditions will only be too ready to adopt our values. The last decade of turmoil in the Middle East suggests they are far from ready.

Blair is quite mistaken if he thinks that the West can simply educate our enemies into abandoning the extremism that drives their terror war against us, and indeed one another. Changing “them” may not be feasible, changing “us” is far more within reach, however. Our efforts should be toward reaffirming our sense of commitment to our own values and way of life and doubling up on our readiness to proactively defend those basic principles that we most value.  

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Turkey: Between Deep State and Dictatorship

Turkey, at the beginning of 2014, looks remarkably different than Turkey just a year ago. Certainly, the luster has worn off Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, just a year ago, looked on course to pass a new constitution which would enable him to lead Turkey as president for another decade, at least. Western supporters and many Turkish liberals described Fethullah Gülen as an enlightened force for religious tolerance and a man committed to reform and democracy.

Today, Turkey is moving toward one-man rule. How ironic it is that as so many Arab regimes swept out strong-man dictatorships, Erdoğan seeks to have Turkey become one. Perhaps Fethullah Gülen pushed him to it: Gülen’s minions permeate the security force and, once Erdoğan threatened Gülen’s revenue stream by seeking to close down his lucrative exam prep school enterprise, the police launched corruption probes against Erdoğan’s supporters, including his own son.

How ironic it is that while Western academics and liberals once railed against the deep state in Turkey, a reference to the shadowy networks of generals and intelligence officials who seemed to pull the levers behind the curtains, the past month’s events show that Gülen himself leads the deep state.

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Turkey, at the beginning of 2014, looks remarkably different than Turkey just a year ago. Certainly, the luster has worn off Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, just a year ago, looked on course to pass a new constitution which would enable him to lead Turkey as president for another decade, at least. Western supporters and many Turkish liberals described Fethullah Gülen as an enlightened force for religious tolerance and a man committed to reform and democracy.

Today, Turkey is moving toward one-man rule. How ironic it is that as so many Arab regimes swept out strong-man dictatorships, Erdoğan seeks to have Turkey become one. Perhaps Fethullah Gülen pushed him to it: Gülen’s minions permeate the security force and, once Erdoğan threatened Gülen’s revenue stream by seeking to close down his lucrative exam prep school enterprise, the police launched corruption probes against Erdoğan’s supporters, including his own son.

How ironic it is that while Western academics and liberals once railed against the deep state in Turkey, a reference to the shadowy networks of generals and intelligence officials who seemed to pull the levers behind the curtains, the past month’s events show that Gülen himself leads the deep state.

I spent the past week in Paris and Brussels meeting with Turkish parliamentarians. We were initially going to meet in Istanbul and Ankara, but they all believed they would be more free to speak candidly outside of Turkey, given how Gülen’s followers in the security forces now monitor the phone calls, tap the offices, and monitor the conversations in restaurants of parliamentarians, journalists, and foreigners. One parliamentarian made a good point: as critical as Turks are about Erdoğan, at least the prime minister was elected and, in theory, can be ousted in an election. No one, in contrast, ever elected Gülen, although the shadowy cult leader aspires to wield as much power as the prime minister.

The real danger now, however, has been Erdoğan’s reaction to the scandal. Whereas he once depicted himself and his party as anti-corruption crusaders, he now seeks to protect the corrupt and punish those questioning such corruption. In the last couple weeks, he has reassigned or displaced more than 2,500 police officers, and effectively frozen the corruption cases against his son, associates, and his friends. The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-controlled legislature passed an urgent bill to place the judiciary under executive control, enabling the minister of justice to appoint and remove both prosecutors and judges. The constitutional court will likely overturn that law, but the way Turkish law works, should the court strike down the law, it will have no retroactive effect: Any judge or prosecutor removed or reassigned in the past few weeks will remain in their new positions and will not win their old jobs back.

Now the AKP-dominated legislature is considering another bill that will allow the government to shut down any website immediately. Should that bill pass, the power of Internet censorship will shift from the courts to the government.

Turks say they will take to the streets on Saturday. If that demonstration moves forward, the reaction of the government will be perhaps the best indicator of what Turkey has become.

Perhaps it is time for some reflection in the White House and State Department, not to mention several think tanks and universities, about how it was that they got Erdoğan and Gülen so wrong. Too many American universities have taken money from Gülen-related institutions to organize conferences or publish books attesting to Gülen’s moderation and wisdom. Many think tanks—including some of those normally skeptical of Islamist movements—consciously moderated their assessments of the AKP in order to preserve access to the State Department. If think-tanks are to retain their value, however, intellectual integrity should trump the willingness to be yes-men. Most importantly, it’s time Congress or others lead an independent assessment of the past decade of State Department reporting to determine who got the AKP right, who got it wrong and, most importantly, why assessments about Erdoğan, his character, and the AKP were so inaccurate.

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A Complex Issue and a Simplistic Snowden

The Washington Post’s interview with Edward Snowden is bound to evoke complicated, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other responses–a complexity that contrasts sharply with Snowden’s own simplistic, shallow conception of the issues at play. And it is this contrast that leaves those skeptical of massive government programs ultimately still in search of an advocate worthy of the cause of transparency, for Edward Snowden is not that advocate.

On the one hand, those seeking to defend the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence collection point out that, as Michael Mukasey notes today, the members of the president’s intel review board “have not uncovered any official efforts to suppress dissent or any intent to intrude into people’s private lives without legal justification.” On the other hand, critics of big government are on plenty firm ground when they say they should not be required to await abuse to argue, on principle, against secretive programs ripe for such abuse. The prevention of abuse of power, not simply the correction of abuse of power, is a legitimate goal for a self-governing people.

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The Washington Post’s interview with Edward Snowden is bound to evoke complicated, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other responses–a complexity that contrasts sharply with Snowden’s own simplistic, shallow conception of the issues at play. And it is this contrast that leaves those skeptical of massive government programs ultimately still in search of an advocate worthy of the cause of transparency, for Edward Snowden is not that advocate.

On the one hand, those seeking to defend the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence collection point out that, as Michael Mukasey notes today, the members of the president’s intel review board “have not uncovered any official efforts to suppress dissent or any intent to intrude into people’s private lives without legal justification.” On the other hand, critics of big government are on plenty firm ground when they say they should not be required to await abuse to argue, on principle, against secretive programs ripe for such abuse. The prevention of abuse of power, not simply the correction of abuse of power, is a legitimate goal for a self-governing people.

But is that Edward Snowden’s goal? The overwhelming evidence would suggest it is manifestly not. In fact, Snowden’s interview, for those who could sit through the messianic self-aggrandizing delusions, was most revealing in Snowden’s clear distaste for the very concept of democracy. An argument can be made that the system of checks and balances surrounding the NSA program is insufficiently skeptical toward the means because of governmental deference to the ends. But it remains the case that the American people have elected representatives, to whom Snowden did not first go with this information, despite there being obviously sympathetic members of Congress (Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, etc.).

Additionally, the intel collection has legal oversight and its constitutionality has been challenged and upheld. Again, this doesn’t mean the process is flawless–conservatives consider some laws to be unconstitutional despite the high court’s acquiescence. But compare that with Snowden’s response when his interviewer, Barton Gellman–one of the journalists through whom Snowden has been leaking his information–asks him about his sense of authority and entitlement:

“That whole question — who elected you? — inverts the model,” he said. “They elected me. The overseers.”

He named the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees.

“Dianne Feinstein elected me when she asked softball questions” in committee hearings, he said. “Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden. . . . The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility.”

“It wasn’t that they put it on me as an individual — that I’m uniquely qualified, an angel descending from the heavens — as that they put it on someone, somewhere,” he said. “You have the capability, and you realize every other [person] sitting around the table has the same capability but they don’t do it. So somebody has to be the first.”

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from Snowden’s answer. Either he is a deeply unintelligent man with a tenuous grasp on reality, or he is a deeply dishonest man brimming with hostility toward Western democracy. That he accomplished what he did and now lives under the watchful gaze of the Russian security services suggests that the latter is far more likely. That’s not to say there isn’t also evidence for the former theory–witness his choice of historical analogy:

Snowden likened the NSA’s powers to those used by British authorities in Colonial America, when “general warrants” allowed for anyone to be searched. The FISA court, Snowden said, “is authorizing general warrants for the entire country’s metadata.”

“The last time that happened, we fought a war over it,” he said.

The comparison is historically illiterate and the conclusion asinine. Nonetheless, it fits with his pattern of dishonesty and self-promotion. He’s also a hypocrite: he claims to be for transparency, but has given his interview to a friendly and cooperative source, and even then he declines to answer certain questions about his own activity and the materials he possesses. He claims to be for the rule of law, but eschewed legal channels for his activity in favor of breaking the law and then evaded the legal consequences with the help of authoritarian, criminal regimes. He claims to want a discussion about domestic spying, but revealed damaging information about American spying abroad.

There is plenty, in other words, Edward Snowden is not telling us, and what he is telling us undermines his hollow attempts to claim the dignified posture of a whistleblower. There are troubling aspects to the NSA’s data collection, and an honest argument about transparency and security might keep that trouble at bay. But Snowden is not an honest messenger and he is not conducting an honest discussion. The American people, and the cause of transparency and limited government, deserve better than Edward Snowden.

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Globalization and Democracy Can Coexist

Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

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Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

Despite the fact that militaries could hardly be called agents of reform, middle classes in many developing nations, both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, often continued to support the armed forces as potential antidotes to popular democracy–democracy that might empower the poor, the religious, and the less educated. In this way, Egyptian liberals’ concerns about the fruits of democracy were not unique. Overall, in fact, an analysis of military coups in developing nations over the past twenty years, conducted by my research associate Daniel Silverman and myself, found that in nearly 50 percent of the cases, drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for the coup or, in polls or prominent media coverage after the coup, expressed their support for the army takeover.

Kurlantzick’s expression “the fruits of democracy” captures well the fear of being, not to put too fine a point on it, looted. Diehl, who uses the term “elite revolt” to characterize the latest round of uprisings, puts it similarly:

So why are they rebelling? Because globalization is not merely an economic story. It is accompanied by the spread of freer and more inclusive elections to dozens of countries where they were previously banned or rigged. That has enabled the rise of populists who cater to globalization’s losers and who promise to crush the old establishment and even out the rewards. In country after country, they’ve succeeded in monopolizing the political system. Hence, the elite revolt.

Diehl offers up Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as a cautionary tale. And while the original framing of the issue puts more onus on the well-to-do (with great power comes great responsibility, and all that), this seems to even things out a bit. It’s understandable that a new middle class would be opposed to empowering the next Hugo Chavez.

So all this seems to suggest that maybe states like China have it all figured out: maybe the combination of democratization and globalization is too powerful for the two events to take place simultaneously. But this argument is missing an ingredient, and it’s one Kurlantzick glances at but doesn’t dwell on: stability. That’s clearest when looking at Russia’s Putin-era backsliding on democracy. Nobody’s wealth is safe without political stability.

But this, to me, is ultimately an argument in favor of globalization and democratization–as long as the term “democratization” means more than just elections, and globalization means more than just money. In April 2012, I quoted the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer discussing the report that perhaps a majority of Chinese millionaires prefer to live in the United States to their home country, and it’s worth re-quoting here:

And yeah, it’s about quality of life. Yeah, it’s about the environment. Yeah, it’s about opportunities for their kids. It’s also about no rule of law in China and worrying about corruption and the sanctity of their assets over the long term. Your assets are okay tomorrow. The United States, we’re over-litigious. China doesn’t have that problem. You don’t have to worry about lawyers in China. You have to worry about someone ripping off your stuff or being forced out of the country or not being heard from again.

In some very real ways, it doesn’t matter how rich China gets if those with all the money will only park it in New York City. The same goes for Russia, though proximity to Europe seems to predispose that money toward London’s banks. But both New York and London are in the West, and both are in democracies (at least until the European Union gets its way). Because even the messiness of democracy–true democracy, with free institutions and the rule of law–provides more long-term stability than the arbitrary governance of autocracy.

Bremmer predicated his quote by saying we have to watch what people do with their money, not rely on what they say. And his point was that the elites in authoritarian countries are trying to protect their assets from their own country’s government–the very government that has enriched them and which speaks in their name. The “elite” can revolt all they want to protect themselves, but even when they successfully grab the reins of power, without the rule of law they still end up looking for a way out.

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House of Cards? Obama and Democracy

Nobody should blame President Obama for enjoying the Netflix political thriller House of Cards. Indeed, the show’s millions of fans (including me) probably sympathized with the commander in chief when he pleaded for access to advance copies of the series’ second season that is due out next year when high-tech execs (including the head of Netflix) came to the White House to discuss important issues, like how to build a functional website. But I wasn’t quite so amused by the president’s much-quoted remarks in which he purported to envy the ability of the show’s villain Frank Underwood to do what he likes.

 “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama joked at a meeting with tech CEOs on Tuesday, according to a White House pool report.

We’re supposed to chuckle at this comment and regard it as an understandable expression of frustration by the president at the inability of Congress to do its job. But I’m afraid this crack tells us more about Obama’s way of governing that it does about the fact that neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can teach Frank Underwood much about passing legislation. The fact is, for five years Obama has sat in the White House and acted as if he had as little interest in accommodating the positions of his political foes as Underwood does. The problem isn’t that the West Wing and its congressional allies aren’t as “ruthlessly efficient” as the wicked Underwood, it’s that he has as negative an attitude toward the normal business of democracy as the character played by actor Kevin Spacey.

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Nobody should blame President Obama for enjoying the Netflix political thriller House of Cards. Indeed, the show’s millions of fans (including me) probably sympathized with the commander in chief when he pleaded for access to advance copies of the series’ second season that is due out next year when high-tech execs (including the head of Netflix) came to the White House to discuss important issues, like how to build a functional website. But I wasn’t quite so amused by the president’s much-quoted remarks in which he purported to envy the ability of the show’s villain Frank Underwood to do what he likes.

 “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama joked at a meeting with tech CEOs on Tuesday, according to a White House pool report.

We’re supposed to chuckle at this comment and regard it as an understandable expression of frustration by the president at the inability of Congress to do its job. But I’m afraid this crack tells us more about Obama’s way of governing that it does about the fact that neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can teach Frank Underwood much about passing legislation. The fact is, for five years Obama has sat in the White House and acted as if he had as little interest in accommodating the positions of his political foes as Underwood does. The problem isn’t that the West Wing and its congressional allies aren’t as “ruthlessly efficient” as the wicked Underwood, it’s that he has as negative an attitude toward the normal business of democracy as the character played by actor Kevin Spacey.

That sounds a little harsh so let me specify that, as much as I disagree with most of his policies, I haven’t joined the tin-foil hat brigade. I am not accusing the president of enacting wicked conspiracies aimed at subverting every notion of decency in a cold-blooded putsch to achieve total power as Frank does. Nor do I think he got to the White House by cheating or sabotaging his opponents as did Francis Urquhart, the protagonist of the far wittier but less darkly thrilling original British version of House of Cards.

But I do think that throughout his presidency he has demonstrated a studied contempt for the business of democracy. Not since Jimmy Carter have we had a president who was as uncomfortable working with members of Congress of his own party, let alone those from the opposition. Even more to the point, this is as top-down an administration as any in recent memory. Foreign policy has been largely dictated from the White House, as have efforts to push priorities in other areas. Partly this reflects the president’s high opinion of himself and his distrust, if not disdain, for the opinions of others. As his cabinet choices have shown (especially in his second term), with a few prominent exceptions (Hillary Clinton being one), this is a president who prefers yes men and women to strong leaders running departments. The echo chamber in the West Wing that has made it insensible to the opinions of Congress or the pubic when it comes to the president’s pet projects is a reflection of this attitude.

It should be noted that in the show, Underwood has shown a dogged talent for negotiation that Obama lacks, even if, in the end, the character gets his way more by underhanded tactics than give and take. But he shares the president’s desire to have his own way at all costs. In the program’s fictional Washington where the anti-hero can do as he likes, “ruthless efficiency” can be achieved. But in the real Washington, Obama’s desire for acclimation of his every ideological whim is always bound to be frustrated by a constitutional system of checks and balances that allows the views of the minority to be heard and even at times to stop those of the president and the majority.

The genius of the American political system is that it is antithetical to “ruthless efficiency” because it was set up to thwart would-be presidential dictators, congressional majorities, and even the fleeting sentiments of public opinion as expressed in the House of Representatives (elected every two years) and not to let them run roughshod over their opponents.

The president may want us to think his talk about envying Underwood was entirely humorous but, contrary to his less comical public statements about Congress, the trouble with Washington in the age of Obama isn’t that too many voices are heard but that we have a president who listens to no one but himself and an inner circle that seems to be afraid to contradict him. While efficiency would be nice, what the country needs is a president more inclined to work with Congress in the normal, non-dramatic manner that gets the best results in the Capitol, not the ruthless fantasy Obama harbors.

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A Call for Freedom in South Africa

President Obama has not always embraced the notion that he is the leader of the free world. Far too often, he has preferred to pose as a figure of the post-American era. He has been quick to apologize for America’s flaws and too besotted with multilateralism and multiculturalism to assert that the model of American liberty is right for the rest of the world. Nor has he been a consistent or even a particularly assertive advocate for human rights. Indeed, his predecessor’s freedom agenda, a sometimes flawed but still deeply principled effort to expand the reach of democracy and to topple tyrants, was something he often consciously rejected. He stood largely mute when protesters took to the streets in Tehran and seemed only excited by the rise to power of Islamist movements during the Arab Spring, a development that was no victory for freedom.

But today during his eulogy in South Africa for the late Nelson Mandela, the president did seize this unique moment to draw the world’s attention to that same freedom agenda that he has often spurned. Mixed in with amorphous calls for peace and the need to deal with inequality, he said this:

There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

While Obama must be considered as someone who has largely stood on the sidelines in the manner that he described, it was important for someone at the funeral to call attention, even indirectly, to the fact that the vast majority of African countries fit his description.

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President Obama has not always embraced the notion that he is the leader of the free world. Far too often, he has preferred to pose as a figure of the post-American era. He has been quick to apologize for America’s flaws and too besotted with multilateralism and multiculturalism to assert that the model of American liberty is right for the rest of the world. Nor has he been a consistent or even a particularly assertive advocate for human rights. Indeed, his predecessor’s freedom agenda, a sometimes flawed but still deeply principled effort to expand the reach of democracy and to topple tyrants, was something he often consciously rejected. He stood largely mute when protesters took to the streets in Tehran and seemed only excited by the rise to power of Islamist movements during the Arab Spring, a development that was no victory for freedom.

But today during his eulogy in South Africa for the late Nelson Mandela, the president did seize this unique moment to draw the world’s attention to that same freedom agenda that he has often spurned. Mixed in with amorphous calls for peace and the need to deal with inequality, he said this:

There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

While Obama must be considered as someone who has largely stood on the sidelines in the manner that he described, it was important for someone at the funeral to call attention, even indirectly, to the fact that the vast majority of African countries fit his description.

Nelson Mandela was, as both Max Boot and I wrote last week, one of the pivotal historical figures of the last century. His embrace of racial reconciliation and peace was crucial to his country’s future and set an example for the world. But one of the flaws in this truly great man’s public persona was his inability to discard the alliances he made during his struggle for freedom with despotic regimes. Mandela’s alliances with the Soviet Union, Communist Cuba, and terrorists like Yasir Arafat were marriages of convenience forced on him due to the fact that the Cold War left him without significant Western friends. But as Seth Lipsky wrote yesterday in Haaretz, the Soviets were no friends of freedom even when they were backing Mandela and his African National Congress. Unfortunately, though Mandela embraced democracies in power and sought to make his own country free, he was unwilling to drop these unsavory friends once in power. Thus, despotic regimes, like that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, never lost South Africa’s support.

President Obama’s eloquent praise of Nelson Mandela largely did him and the United States credit. But he needs to take his own advice about speaking out against tyranny. If convention called for him to shake the hand of Cuban dictator Raul Castro at the funeral, he shouldn’t lose the opportunity to call for freedom in Cuba or to demand the release of Alan Gross, an American aid worker who remains imprisoned there. It is a shame that he did not do so. It should be remembered that while Mandela chose peace, he did not accept the continuation of tyranny; he ended it. When President Obama embraces détente with the tyrannical government of Iran and puts the issues of human rights and terrorism on the back burner, he gives the lie to his praise of Mandela. If, instead of seeking to empower rogue regimes, the president were to dedicate the foreign policy of his second term to a renewed freedom agenda, he would do much to burnish his own legacy as well as doing honor to the man he claims as his hero.

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Does the U.S.-Israel Alliance Have a Future?

Perhaps a week when the U.S. secretary of state told a Senate committee to “stop listening to the Israelis” and to ignore their concerns about the existential threat from the Iranian nuclear program wasn’t the best timing to write about the importance and the permanence of the U.S.-Israel alliance. But bad timing or not, my post about the rumblings from some in Israel about an alternative to their ties to the only true superpower in the world has provoked some interesting comments and led me to think a bit more about the topic as well. In fact, weeks such as the one we’re currently experiencing may be the best time for those who care about the relationship to explore how to shore it up and the stakes involved for both countries. Even as Kerry seems to be doing everything to downgrade the relationship, it’s important to point out that not only is there no rational alternative to it from Israel’s point of view but that it is of vital importance to the United States as well.

First, let me address the question of whether it is wise to inextricably link Israel’s wellbeing to America’s standing in the world. Martin Kramer wrote here that he agreed with me that it is dangerous for anyone in Israel to even consider trying to play China or Russia off the United States in a vain attempt to outmaneuver Washington when it comes to questions like the nuclear peril from Iran. But he disagreed with this passage from my post:

Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.

Kramer believes that American power, like all power, “waxes and wanes.” He goes on to write the following:

More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.

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Perhaps a week when the U.S. secretary of state told a Senate committee to “stop listening to the Israelis” and to ignore their concerns about the existential threat from the Iranian nuclear program wasn’t the best timing to write about the importance and the permanence of the U.S.-Israel alliance. But bad timing or not, my post about the rumblings from some in Israel about an alternative to their ties to the only true superpower in the world has provoked some interesting comments and led me to think a bit more about the topic as well. In fact, weeks such as the one we’re currently experiencing may be the best time for those who care about the relationship to explore how to shore it up and the stakes involved for both countries. Even as Kerry seems to be doing everything to downgrade the relationship, it’s important to point out that not only is there no rational alternative to it from Israel’s point of view but that it is of vital importance to the United States as well.

First, let me address the question of whether it is wise to inextricably link Israel’s wellbeing to America’s standing in the world. Martin Kramer wrote here that he agreed with me that it is dangerous for anyone in Israel to even consider trying to play China or Russia off the United States in a vain attempt to outmaneuver Washington when it comes to questions like the nuclear peril from Iran. But he disagreed with this passage from my post:

Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.

Kramer believes that American power, like all power, “waxes and wanes.” He goes on to write the following:

More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.

That’s a sobering thought and the possibility can’t be entirely discounted, especially with figures such as Senator Rand Paul rising to prominence in a Republican Party that has become a bulwark of the alliance in the last generation. Moreover, he’s right when he says that the history of Zionism teaches us that in order to survive, the movement has had to be flexible in its alliances with world powers. A century ago, many Zionists were looking to tie their future to that of the Ottoman Empire. A few years later, after the sick man of Europe collapsed, they cast their lot with a British Empire. But after a few short years when London seemed ready to make good on the promise made in the Balfour Declaration, they were abandoned. Gradually America became the focus of Zionist diplomacy, but until that alliance became a reality after the Six-Day War, Israel relied on a brief yet crucial period of Soviet friendship during the War of Independence and after that a fruitful friendship with France that lasted until 1967.

Israel’s leaders must, as Kramer says, be prepared for all eventualities and they should not, as I wrote, be blamed for seeking to foster ties with other countries. But the problem with planning for a theoretical period of American withdrawal from the world is that the answer to his question about a “Plan B” is that there isn’t one.

Though he is right to assert that the point of Zionism is, to the greatest extent possible, to make sure that Israel can defend itself, no “agility” or ability to “read the changing map of the world” can substitute for an alliance with America. Without a strong United States that is engaged in the world, Israel will not disappear. But it will be weaker and far more vulnerable. For Israel there is not and never will be—at least in the foreseeable future—a viable alternative to the alliance with the United States.

But the key question here is not so much whether Israel appreciates how important the U.S. is to its future—and there’s every indication that Israel’s leaders understand that—but whether Americans understand how important the Jewish state is to it.

The flip side to this discussion is that for all the talk from anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists like those who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” in which the Jewish state is supposed to be the tail that wags the American dog, we don’t talk enough about how Israel is a valued ally of the United States.

After the end of the Cold War, the value of having what many consider to be a regional superpower allied with the United States has been largely ignored. But the notion that the U.S. doesn’t need strong allies in an era in which it is challenged by Islamist terrorism as well as rogue states like Iran is farcical. Moreover, the traditional meme of critics of the alliance—that Arab states are hostile to the United States because of its friendship with Israel—has been exploded both by the Arab Spring and the regional concerns about Iran that have made it clear that they fear Tehran more than they do the Jewish state.

Israel’s intelligence capabilities have long been a boon to the U.S. But its technological resources—both in terms of military and commercial applications—are now just as if not more important. Israel, the “start-up nation,” is a vital partner for the U.S. economy.

But even if we ignore the utilitarian aspects of this friendship, it should be remembered that the core of American foreign policy has, contrary to the slanders of the left, always primarily been moral rather than a nation bent on conquest or empire. As such it needs nations that share its democratic values. That means Israel remains part of the select few countries that will always be natural allies. It is true that Israel cannot always count on the U.S. to do the right thing at the right time. Nor can the U.S. assume that Israel will disregard its interests in order to serve American convenience. But the relationship is both mutual and rooted in something stronger than Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum about permanent interests. Support for Israel is part of the political DNA of American culture. The same is true of Israel’s affinity with its fellow democracy.

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Turkish Columnists Eulogize Democracy

I and many others have written for quite some time about the erosion of democracy, liberalism, tolerance, and constitutionalism inside Turkey. Many liberals and reformers inside Turkey, however, had little patience for such hang-wringing about the dangerous dismantling of checks and balances or for concern about the intentions of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister.

No longer. In recent months—starting first with the crackdown on protestors in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, continuing to Erdoğan’s subsequent efforts to stir the hornet’s nest, and most recently his efforts to segregate the sexes—have led many Turkish intellectuals—liberals and moderate Islamists both—to realize they have been had. There is no more doubt inside Turkey Erdoğan cares an iota for democracy or for individual rights.

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I and many others have written for quite some time about the erosion of democracy, liberalism, tolerance, and constitutionalism inside Turkey. Many liberals and reformers inside Turkey, however, had little patience for such hang-wringing about the dangerous dismantling of checks and balances or for concern about the intentions of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister.

No longer. In recent months—starting first with the crackdown on protestors in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, continuing to Erdoğan’s subsequent efforts to stir the hornet’s nest, and most recently his efforts to segregate the sexes—have led many Turkish intellectuals—liberals and moderate Islamists both—to realize they have been had. There is no more doubt inside Turkey Erdoğan cares an iota for democracy or for individual rights.

In recent days, there have been two important columns eulogizing the end of democracy, or at least hopes for true democracy written by once-close aides and supporters. First, Ahmet Hakan, once very close to Erdoğan, has now published an important column declaring just how dangerous Erdoğan has become. Asking “Why is he [Erdoğan] doing this?” he answers with a list describing Erdoğan’s dictatorial mentality and his desire for a police state:

  • “Believes that his own idea of morality should be adopted by everyone;
  • Does not even regard it as possible that there may be other moral concepts…
  • Thinks he has the right to interfere in other people’s lives and thinks he is doing this for the happiness of the people;
  • Assumes that he can arrange Turkey as if it his own house;
  • Believes that he is obliged to prevent the committing of sin…
  • Divides the lives of his citizens into “legitimate” and “illegitimate” lives;
  • Sees no harm in openly expressing that “illegitimate” lives could be raided with the police;
  • Thinks that citizens who are not controlled by the state will pursue all kinds of malice in their private lives;
  • Believes there are parents who want police to monitor the lives of their children;
  • Is convinced that he could solve issues by assigning police to every household;
  • Has over-expanded the archaic mentality of “I am responsible for the decency of the neighborhood” to “the decency of Turkey is my responsibility;” 
  • Is not even aware of the difference between “crime” and “sin;” 
  • Is able to plan bans, crimes and punishments based on sin;
  • Embraces the opinion that even houses can be breached to prevent sin;
  • Does not consider such interference as an intervention into people’s private lives if it is done to prevent sin;
  • Is not even aware that what he is doing is simply social engineering; 
  • Sees social engineering as bad when it is Kemalists who do it; regards it as wonderful if he is doing it;
  • Has totally discarded the issue of individual rights and freedoms from his personal agenda.
  • Well, this prime minister has plunged into this matter with all his sincerity, without acting or pretending, without considering any strategy, without any doubt that what he is doing is right, without any tactics. And, this is the “worst” and the “most dangerous” side of the thing.
  • But even worse and more dangerous is that there is not a single person left around the prime minister who has the courage to say, “What you are doing is wrong; you can’t do it like this,” even though they do think that what the prime minister is doing is wrong. 

Likewise, in Today’s Zaman, the newspaper of Islamist cult leader Fethullah Gülen, columnist Bülent Keneş laments the end of democracy in Turkey:

The men of the nation have been involved in a strong, bitter struggle against the Kemalist/militarist state, dominated by a minority, for the sake of natural rights and freedoms. Of course, this was not a bloody or violent struggle. It was a struggle for democracy, the rule of law and rights and freedoms. It was a justified struggle and because it was just, the struggle was actually won for the most part… As these men of the nation had overcome every difficulty and obstacle as well as instances of victimization thanks to the support and prayers of the people, they had become stronger. They were both morally and legally right in this struggle and, as a result, they were winning. And as they have continued to win, they have become stronger. And as they have become stronger, they have changed. Imagine this vicious cycle: as they have changed, they have lost the ethical and moral ground they held as their major asset.

The irony is that even as Erdoğan’s aides come clean, President Obama, the State Department, and a succession of U.S. ambassadors to Turkey have refused to recognize Turkey’s dictatorship for what it is. There can be no democracy when the government refuses to recognize the importance of individual rights and liberty. Never again should an Islamist leader be blessed as a democrat by the State Department unless that leader subscribes to the notion that individuals have rights that transcend communal religious dictates.

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What China Fears

The battle between “idealism” and “Realpolitik” in the making of foreign policy is vividly on display now with regard to Egypt: “Idealists” (aka “neocons”) generally favor cutting off aid to the military regime which is slaughtering its own people in the streets; “Realpolitikers” generally advocate holding our noses and backing the generals as a better alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. My purpose here is not to engage in the debate about Egypt per se (I will do that separately), but simply to point out that, although the U.S. cannot afford to stick to its ideals in each and every foreign-policy crisis (compromises do sometimes have to be made in the real world), when we deviate too far from our principles we lose what is arguably the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.

Evidence of this proposition comes, in a back-handed tribute, from none other than the reigning Communist emperor of China, Xi Jinping. His minions have just issued a memo, known in proper Orwellian fashion as Document No. 9, that warns Communist apparatchiks about the biggest threat to their rule. No, it does not come from the US 7th Fleet, from the American nuclear arsenal, or any other manifestation of American hard power in which Realpolitikers typically repose all of their faith.

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The battle between “idealism” and “Realpolitik” in the making of foreign policy is vividly on display now with regard to Egypt: “Idealists” (aka “neocons”) generally favor cutting off aid to the military regime which is slaughtering its own people in the streets; “Realpolitikers” generally advocate holding our noses and backing the generals as a better alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. My purpose here is not to engage in the debate about Egypt per se (I will do that separately), but simply to point out that, although the U.S. cannot afford to stick to its ideals in each and every foreign-policy crisis (compromises do sometimes have to be made in the real world), when we deviate too far from our principles we lose what is arguably the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.

Evidence of this proposition comes, in a back-handed tribute, from none other than the reigning Communist emperor of China, Xi Jinping. His minions have just issued a memo, known in proper Orwellian fashion as Document No. 9, that warns Communist apparatchiks about the biggest threat to their rule. No, it does not come from the US 7th Fleet, from the American nuclear arsenal, or any other manifestation of American hard power in which Realpolitikers typically repose all of their faith.

Rather the peril that Xi warns about comes from seven subversive ideas starting with “Western constitutional democracy.” The others on the list include “promoting ‘universal values’ of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market ‘neo-liberalism,’ and ‘nihilist’ criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.”

The New York Times reporter Chris Buckley, who obtained a copy of the document, writes that it warns cadres, “Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere.” One Communist propagandist, implementing the document’s advice, told mining officials that “promotion of Western constitutional democracy is an attempt to negate the party’s leadership.”

The Communists are right—the Western ideals embodied, above all, in the Declaration of Independence are a big threat to the rule of anti-American dictators, whether in China or in other countries. Which is the best argument I have ever heard for why the U.S. should be doing more to promote those very ideals. Promoting democracy can be messy in the short-run and isn’t always possible in every circumstance but, in general, it is the best long-term bet for promoting American interests. In the case of China in particular, the U.S. should not be focusing simply on narrow economic or security concerns; instead it should be doing more to spread behind the Bamboo Curtain the subversive ideas which the Communist bosses fear so much.

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Obama on Egypt: No Defense of American Interests or Values

President Obama resorted to one of his favorite rhetorical memes yesterday when he complained that both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military government in Egypt that toppled the Islamists from power last month are criticizing him. As he likes to do on domestic issues when criticizing his opponents and pretends to be the only adult in the room, the president is trying to carve out room in the center of the Egypt controversy by condemning the government’s actions against Brotherhood demonstrators and suspending joint military exercises but not cutting off U.S. aid.

Yet unlike those domestic disputes, in which most of the mainstream media buys into Obama’s conceit, it isn’t working this time. Indeed, not only is the president viewed with contempt and anger by both sides in what is rapidly assuming the look of a civil war inside Egypt, but he’s also getting backtalk from liberal outlets that normally echo administration talking points. Hence, the editorial page of the New York Times is pressuring the president to cut off aid and even publishing a screed from a Brotherhood supporter this morning. Even stronger was a piece in Politico that said bluntly that he had “chosen America’s interests over its values — and the pragmatists in his administration over the human-rights idealists.”

But the problem with U.S. policy toward Egypt isn’t that he has made such a choice. It’s that he’s never made a choice at all. In fact, by raising the heat on the military government and abusing it publicly at a time when it is locked in a death struggle with a totalitarian movement bent on power, he’s not defending U.S. interests or the country’s values.

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President Obama resorted to one of his favorite rhetorical memes yesterday when he complained that both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military government in Egypt that toppled the Islamists from power last month are criticizing him. As he likes to do on domestic issues when criticizing his opponents and pretends to be the only adult in the room, the president is trying to carve out room in the center of the Egypt controversy by condemning the government’s actions against Brotherhood demonstrators and suspending joint military exercises but not cutting off U.S. aid.

Yet unlike those domestic disputes, in which most of the mainstream media buys into Obama’s conceit, it isn’t working this time. Indeed, not only is the president viewed with contempt and anger by both sides in what is rapidly assuming the look of a civil war inside Egypt, but he’s also getting backtalk from liberal outlets that normally echo administration talking points. Hence, the editorial page of the New York Times is pressuring the president to cut off aid and even publishing a screed from a Brotherhood supporter this morning. Even stronger was a piece in Politico that said bluntly that he had “chosen America’s interests over its values — and the pragmatists in his administration over the human-rights idealists.”

But the problem with U.S. policy toward Egypt isn’t that he has made such a choice. It’s that he’s never made a choice at all. In fact, by raising the heat on the military government and abusing it publicly at a time when it is locked in a death struggle with a totalitarian movement bent on power, he’s not defending U.S. interests or the country’s values.

The pictures coming out of Cairo this week are shocking. With hundreds dead and more violence today as the Brotherhood took to the streets again for a “Day of Rage,” it’s difficult for a U.S. administration that spent a year embracing the Islamist party after it took power to remain silent about the casualties. Yet by adopting a tone of outrage about the attack on the Brotherhood camps in Egypt’s capital, he is squandering what little is left of America’s leverage over the situation.

It is true that the president doesn’t have any really good options. It would have been better had there been a genuine third force in Egyptian politics that would have promoted a liberal democratic alternative to the Islamists of the Brotherhood. Such a faction never had much of a chance to compete with the Brotherhood in elections, and it should be noted that unlike George W. Bush who actively sought to promote a democratic alternative in Egypt, Obama gave short shrift to that cause. But in the absence of genuine democrats in the fray, we are left with only two choices: the military or the Brotherhood.

As even the New York Times reports today, most Egyptians have little trouble picking sides in such a tangle: they believe the military was right to act to clear the capital of armed encampments of supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi. They understand that the Brotherhood is not without blame for this confrontation or the violence and even point out, as we did on Wednesday, that Islamists are retaliating for the coup by burning churches.

While the attacks on the president for his failure to cut off aid from both liberal outlets and Republicans like Senators John McCain and Rand Paul (Egypt appears to be the one issue these two antagonists agree on at the moment) are rooted in a belief that he is trashing American values by not distancing Washington further from the Egyptian military, this is based on a profound misunderstanding of how we should define both U.S. interests and moral values in this case.

If there was any period during which American values were being put on hold in Egypt it was the year during which the president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to endorse Morsi and his Brotherhood government. This was interpreted by many Egyptians, who rightly feared the consequences of Morsi’s drive for total power, as abandoning them to the clutches of an Islamist movement that would never peacefully relinquish power. They also knew that the administration had pressured the military to allow the Brotherhood to take power after it won elections by threatening an aid cutoff.

Once we understand that democracy isn’t an option in an Egypt divided between Brotherhood and those who understand the military is their only shield against the threat of an Islamist state, it’s clear that America’s interests lie in supporting the military and hoping they will eventually construct a new government that can avoid the excesses of the Mubarak era, rebuild the economy, and keep the peace with Israel.

But our values are also at stake in such a policy. If the U.S. went on backing Morsi or were to use our aid as a lever by which we would seek to get the Brotherhood back in power, we would be trashing any hope for any sort of freedom in Egypt. As Michael Rubin wrote earlier today, democracy, if it is ever to triumph in Egypt, can only be established once the Brotherhood is conclusively defeated. As much as Americans may be shocked by the violence in Cairo, our interests and our values will be advanced once that happens. But so long as President Obama continues in a futile attempt to play both ends against the middle in Egypt, that transition will be impeded.

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Iraqi Kurdistan’s Choice: Emirate or Democracy

Every so often, an article or report will come out that repeats a common theme: Iraq itself may be a disaster, but Iraqi Kurdistan is secure, developing, and democratic. Here’s one from CBS News, another from the Washington Post, a third from National Review Online and, most recently, a piece from the Weekly Standard, in which the author ironically does not realize that he relies on a man accused by the U.S. army of corruption.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is slick and does not hesitate to pay visitors’ ways, shower them with hospitality, or hold out the possibility of a slice of the Kurdish oil pie. As with the Mujhaedin al-Khalq, which essentially was able to bribe former officials to get it de-listed as a terrorist group, too many former officials—both Republicans and Democrats—are willing to let greed trump principle when it comes to the Kurds. Yes, Kurds have made tremendous success (as has southern Iraq) since their removal from the yoke of Saddam’s dictatorship, but democratic they are not.

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Every so often, an article or report will come out that repeats a common theme: Iraq itself may be a disaster, but Iraqi Kurdistan is secure, developing, and democratic. Here’s one from CBS News, another from the Washington Post, a third from National Review Online and, most recently, a piece from the Weekly Standard, in which the author ironically does not realize that he relies on a man accused by the U.S. army of corruption.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is slick and does not hesitate to pay visitors’ ways, shower them with hospitality, or hold out the possibility of a slice of the Kurdish oil pie. As with the Mujhaedin al-Khalq, which essentially was able to bribe former officials to get it de-listed as a terrorist group, too many former officials—both Republicans and Democrats—are willing to let greed trump principle when it comes to the Kurds. Yes, Kurds have made tremendous success (as has southern Iraq) since their removal from the yoke of Saddam’s dictatorship, but democratic they are not.

The West should learn from its past love affair with Saddam. Handshakes and feasts do not a democrat make. Journalists who question the region’s corruption or why its leading families operate above the law often wind up hurt or dead (another prominent journalist disappeared in Iraqi Kurdistan yesterday). And while much of Iraq prepares for 2013 provincial elections this month, Iraqi Kurdistan has yet to hold the 2009 round. Prime Minister Maliki and the administration in Baghdad may have serious flaws, but the true autocrat has always been in Erbil. Maliki’s picture doesn’t grace walls, shops, and schools. Barzani can’t say the same.

Too often, journalists distracted with the glitter of Kurdish hospitality and politicians hoping for a golden parachute have been willing to turn a blind eye, but regional leader Masud Barzani’s latest stunt may be a bridge too far. By law, Barzani is limited to two terms as president. His second term is soon to end. He had his proxies ask opposition parties to acquiesce to a third term, and appears shocked that opposition leaders refused. The law is clear, they said, and Barzani should stand down.

Barzani, who came to Kurdistan penniless after the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and subsequent Kurdish uprising, has transformed himself into one of the world’s richest men. A few years ago, his son used a shell company to purchase a veritable chateau in one of Washington D.C.’s ritziest suburbs. Masud appears unwilling to let democracy intrude on transforming Iraqi Kurdistan into his personal fief and gravy train, and Kurds speak openly of how his vision for Iraqi Kurdistan is less as a democracy and more as an emirate or sheikhdom like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, or Qatar.

Kurds deserve better, and so do Americans. Masud Barzani does not personify Kurds; he personifies only Masud Barzani. The opposition—Noshirwan Mustafa in the Gorran, Kosrat Rasul for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Mohammad Faraj in the Kurdistan Islamic Union are all honorable men, as are a host of retired figures who might seek a shot at the top spot. U.S. interests are not at issue and, indeed, by supporting the system over the man, the United States could even increase its influence. Washington has no obligation to bestow legitimacy on a power grab nor should it be the White House’s place to bless dictatorship. All of those who sang Kurdistan’s praises as a democracy emerging from war should also speak up if they are true to their principle. Masud has the choice between becoming a Mandela and becoming an Assad. Unfortunately, he appears to be choosing the latter.

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What Would Montesquieu Make of Modern New York?

In the wake of the latest New York City corruption scandal, the New York Times convened a panel to answer an interesting question: Mayor Michael Bloomberg remains, to our knowledge, above and disconnected from the sea of corruption around him; it is because rich politicians have less need for the money of others, and are therefore less corruptible?

Leave aside the low expectations–Bloomberg may be many things, but at least he’s no crook–and the liberal goggles through which the Times views the issue–Mitt Romney’s honest wealth makes him cold and out of touch; Bloomberg’s honest wealth makes him honest–and there is actually a very old question here about politics and the ideal nature of republican governance.

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In the wake of the latest New York City corruption scandal, the New York Times convened a panel to answer an interesting question: Mayor Michael Bloomberg remains, to our knowledge, above and disconnected from the sea of corruption around him; it is because rich politicians have less need for the money of others, and are therefore less corruptible?

Leave aside the low expectations–Bloomberg may be many things, but at least he’s no crook–and the liberal goggles through which the Times views the issue–Mitt Romney’s honest wealth makes him cold and out of touch; Bloomberg’s honest wealth makes him honest–and there is actually a very old question here about politics and the ideal nature of republican governance.

Montesquieu believed that because bad laws and their consequences are so difficult to undo or unravel in a democracy, representative government required that its elected practitioners possess virtue. This may sound obvious, but he wasn’t arguing the benefit of virtuous leaders; he was arguing the necessity of them for the system to survive. Virtue, to a monarch, was highly preferable to the alternative but its absence, in his mind, did not fatally undermine the functionality of the government. He also made the seemingly counterintuitive point that men who make laws to which they are not obligated have less need for virtue. (This is highly debatable, and something on which I think he was mistaken. But his underlying point is sound: self-interest begets temptation.)

He restates this explicitly in his collection My Thoughts: “What usually makes a man wicked is that he finds himself in circumstances in which he is more influenced by the utility of committing crimes than by the shame or danger in committing them.” Virtue–offering shame in this case–is a form of rationality. Earlier in that passage Montesquieu also makes an eloquent case for the kind of Western democracy that would later emerge and prove him prescient in the cauldron of the 20th century:

The laws make good and bad citizens. The same spirit of timidity that makes a man exacting in his duties in one republic will make a man cunning in another. The same spirit of boldness that makes a man love his Country and sacrifice himself for it in one State will make a highway robber in another.

The system matters. So, as Montesquieu might say were he to visit modern-day America: What’s the deal with New York? The city, like the state and many others, is high on democracy but seemingly low on virtue. Bloomberg, who governs much like a classic British aristocrat buoyed by his wealth and noblesse oblige, appears to possess the virtue his colleagues lack but is somewhat mystified by the self-rule they practice. What gives?

As one might imagine, the answer is complex. In part, the corruption around the mayor is encouraged, but by no means justified of course, by the distortions to the democratic process; the city might gain from more freedom, not less. State Senator Malcolm Smith, at the center of the current corruption scandal, wanted to bribe his way onto the mayoral ballot which, thanks to campaign finance law, was the destination, not the journey, as Bob McManus explains in the New York Post today:

But the ballot, not the office, was where Smith’s real opportunity lay. Running for office brings access to the city’s six-dollars-for-one, taxpayer-funded campaign-contribution-matching system.

Clearly Smith was in a position to deliver state money to others — see above, Bharara’s complaint — so why not use that influence to attract “contributions” from corrupt favor-seekers? Multiplied by the match, that would create a pot of cash that an imaginative fellow like Malcolm Smith would have no trouble putting to beneficial use.

There is also the question of defining corruption. It’s true that Bloomberg hasn’t been caught doing anything that would land him in prison, but is that where we draw the moral line too? Bloomberg’s vast riches enabled him to skirt the normal party process and shape-shift politically to ease his path to office in the way citizens of more modest means could never hope to. Once in power, he used his private wealth to essentially buy the acquiescence and silence of those who might otherwise be tempted to criticize or challenge him, as Sol Stern and Fred Siegel explained in COMMENTARY in 2011:

The difference is that Bloomberg was able to channel his private philanthropic giving each year to hundreds of the city’s arts and social-service groups with the reasonable expectation that the gratitude these groups felt to their patron would extend to their patron’s political causes. At the very least, it would make the groups and their influential boards of trustees think twice before criticizing the mayor’s policies.

The vehicle for Bloomberg’s gifts was the Carnegie Corporation. During the 2005 election year alone, Bloomberg donated $20 million to Carnegie, which in turn distributed the mayor’s largesse to 400 arts and social-service groups in gifts of $10,000 to $100,000. Officially, the donor to Carnegie was listed as “anonymous,” but as New York Times reporter Sam Roberts pointed out, all the groups were aware that the generous benefactor also had a day job at City Hall. “That Mr. Bloomberg is the source of the Carnegie contributions has long been an open secret and cannot help but benefit the mayor politically,” Roberts wrote.

His political shape-shifting also meant Bloomberg was less constrained by principle and less accountable for his actions in office. He also was prevented by law from serving a third term, so he simply had the law changed so he could stay in power. That may make him more ethical than Malcolm Smith, but that’s a low bar–and it’s far less clear that Montesquieu would approve.

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Don’t Insult the King of Palestine

Last week President Obama used his speech in Jerusalem to Israeli students to once again prop up the idea that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a reliable partner for peace. Despite his refusal to negotiate and his unwillingness to grab an Israeli offer of statehood in 2008, Abbas is still widely viewed in the West as a moderate and a good alternative to the extremists of Hamas. But, as was the case with his predecessor Yasir Arafat, the need to believe in the myth of Palestinian moderation tends to overshadow the truth about Abbas and his rule over the West Bank.

A little more light was shed on Abbas today as the New York Times—whose pages have been filled with cheerleading for the Palestinian Authority—published on its website last night a story about what happens to Palestinians who criticize the PA’s supremo. As Robert Mackey notes on the paper’s news blog The Lede:

A Palestinian court on Thursday upheld a one-year jail sentence for a journalist convicted of insulting President Mahmoud Abbas with a pastiche image posted on Facebook. Another Palestinian was given the same sentence last month for posting a humorous caption beneath an image of Mr. Abbas kicking a soccer ball on the social network.

The journalist, Mamdouh Hamamreh, said that he did not create or publish the composite image that compared Mr. Abbas to a character from a Syrian historical drama who collaborated with French colonialists. The court, applying part of the old Jordanian legal code that criminalizes insulting the king to an Internet jibe against the Palestinian president, was not swayed by Mr.Hamamreh’s s argument that he had played no part in the decision by the person who did upload the image to Facebook to draw it to his attention by adding his name as a tag to the text that accompanied it.

These incidents are just one more reminder that since its inception 20 years ago, the PA has been a corrupt tyranny that tramples on the rights of those people under its control. But the truth is, as was also the case with Arafat, the desire of many in the West as well as in Israel to have a Palestinian interlocutor causes them to ignore the PA’s sins or to whitewash them. Since we need Abbas to be the moderate alternative to Hamas, we cling to the idea that he really wants peace and even imagine that Israel will be better off if he and his cronies are put in charge of an independent state and tell ourselves it doesn’t matter if he is a petty tyrant or even a criminal. Indeed, that is what a lot of hardheaded Israelis have been telling us for years. But are they right?

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Last week President Obama used his speech in Jerusalem to Israeli students to once again prop up the idea that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a reliable partner for peace. Despite his refusal to negotiate and his unwillingness to grab an Israeli offer of statehood in 2008, Abbas is still widely viewed in the West as a moderate and a good alternative to the extremists of Hamas. But, as was the case with his predecessor Yasir Arafat, the need to believe in the myth of Palestinian moderation tends to overshadow the truth about Abbas and his rule over the West Bank.

A little more light was shed on Abbas today as the New York Times—whose pages have been filled with cheerleading for the Palestinian Authority—published on its website last night a story about what happens to Palestinians who criticize the PA’s supremo. As Robert Mackey notes on the paper’s news blog The Lede:

A Palestinian court on Thursday upheld a one-year jail sentence for a journalist convicted of insulting President Mahmoud Abbas with a pastiche image posted on Facebook. Another Palestinian was given the same sentence last month for posting a humorous caption beneath an image of Mr. Abbas kicking a soccer ball on the social network.

The journalist, Mamdouh Hamamreh, said that he did not create or publish the composite image that compared Mr. Abbas to a character from a Syrian historical drama who collaborated with French colonialists. The court, applying part of the old Jordanian legal code that criminalizes insulting the king to an Internet jibe against the Palestinian president, was not swayed by Mr.Hamamreh’s s argument that he had played no part in the decision by the person who did upload the image to Facebook to draw it to his attention by adding his name as a tag to the text that accompanied it.

These incidents are just one more reminder that since its inception 20 years ago, the PA has been a corrupt tyranny that tramples on the rights of those people under its control. But the truth is, as was also the case with Arafat, the desire of many in the West as well as in Israel to have a Palestinian interlocutor causes them to ignore the PA’s sins or to whitewash them. Since we need Abbas to be the moderate alternative to Hamas, we cling to the idea that he really wants peace and even imagine that Israel will be better off if he and his cronies are put in charge of an independent state and tell ourselves it doesn’t matter if he is a petty tyrant or even a criminal. Indeed, that is what a lot of hardheaded Israelis have been telling us for years. But are they right?

The consensus in Israel dating back to Yitzhak Rabin has always been that it didn’t matter how beastly the Palestinian Authority was so long as it kept terrorists in line. Rabin famously defended the wisdom of putting Arafat in power by saying that he could fight terror “without a Supreme Court, without B’Tselem, and without bleeding heart liberals.” But unfortunately, Rabin’s prediction that the lack of Palestinian democracy would enhance Israel’s security was a colossal miscalculation. If anything, the lack of transparency only made it easier for Arafat to quietly subsidize terror by factions of his own Fatah Party even if he was also hoping to suppress his Hamas rivals.

Ariel Sharon also had little interest in the behavior of the Palestinian Authority toward its own people. He mocked Natan Sharansky for insisting that Israel’s security depended on the creation of a stable, democratic partner and that true peace would never happen until the PA stopped being a kleptocracy run by unaccountable tyrants.

As it turned out, Rabin and Sharon were both wrong and Sharansky’s predictions were proven prophetic; not only has the PA been a source of terror but its lack of legitimacy has undermined any hope that it could be a bulwark against the Islamists of Hamas.

It is true that Israel relies on the PA to keep the West Bank from being the terror base that Gaza has become under Hamas rule. But so long as it is looked upon by the Palestinian people with contempt and fear it will not have the ability to keep a peace agreement with Israel even if its leaders had the courage or the wisdom to sign one.

Highlighting the tyrannical nature of the PA—something once again made clear by Abbas’s unwillingness to allow even the mildest criticism of his rule—isn’t merely a matter of showing the contrast between democratic Israel and its antagonists. So long as Abbas—who is currently serving the ninth year of a four-year term as president of the PA—presides over a government of this nature any hope that he can be trusted to keep the peace is science fiction. Peace with such a king of Palestine would not be worth the paper it was printed on even were he willing to sign on the dotted line.

When Palestinians are ready to treat each other with dignity and respect, it will be possible to imagine that they will do the same to their Jewish neighbors. Until then, more talk about the PA being a partner for peace is pious hogwash.

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Have Patience with the Arab Spring

Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.

She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.

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Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.

She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.

France, after all, transitioned from absolute monarchy by way of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. This was followed by numerous further upheavals that Berman does not mention, including the Bourbon restoration from 1815 to 1830, the July Revolution of 1830, the Revolution of 1848, the proclamation of the Second Empire in 1851, the creation of the Third Republic in 1870, the Vichy regime from 1940 to 1944, and, finally, in 1958 the overthrow of the Fourth Republic and the birth of the Fifth Republic which has lasted to this day.

Germany, for its part, was forcibly created by Bismarck out of numerous smaller states in the decades leading up to 1871 and democracy did not emerge until after World War I—only to be snuffed out starting in 1933 by Adolf Hitler. Out of the post-war rubble emerged a West Germany that was democratic and an East Germany that was not. A unified, democratic Germany was not created until 1990.

As for Italy, it, too, did not emerge as a unified state until relatively late (1870). And it, too, saw its nascent democracy usurped by a fascist (Benito Mussolini), and it did not become a true liberal democracy until after World War II.

Nor was the process of democratization painless in the United States: It took two outright wars (the War of Independence and the Civil War) to establish self-government and another period of violent upheaval (the Civil Rights era of the 1950s-60s) to realize the potential of the Constitution.

Considering the tribulations suffered by the U.S. and Europe on the road to democracy, it is hardly surprising that the process of political reform is proving painful in the Middle East. As Berman reminds us: “Stable liberal democracy requires more than just a shift in political forms; it also involves eliminating the antidemocratic social, cultural, and economic legacies of the old regime. Such a process takes lots of time and effort, over multiple tries.”

She is right. Anyone who reads her article, “The Promise of the Arab Spring,” should gain a measure of patience and understanding for what it is currently happening in the Middle East. We cannot expect overnight miracles, but that does not mean that it is possible to cling to the rule of discredited strongmen—any more than Europe today could possibly return to the rule of absolute monarchs.

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Europe, Israel and the Nation-State

In what is becoming a standard trope for Israeli leftists, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit today decries the “savagery” of Israel’s “rising political forces,” who are “alien to the new West’s values.” To which my response is, “thank God”–because the “new West’s values” are antithetical to the very existence of a Jewish state. And if that sounds far-fetched, just consider European Commission President Manuel Barroso’s speech last week when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on the European Union’s behalf.

Quoting the commission’s first president, Walter Hallstein, Barroso declared that 20th-century history showed “The system of sovereign nation-states has failed,” because “through two world wars it has proved itself unable to preserve peace.” Therefore, Barroso said, “nations needed to think beyond the nation-state” and create “supranational institutions.” Later, he reiterated this point by quoting one of the EU’s founding fathers, Jean Monnet: “The sovereign nations of the past can no longer solve the problems of the present,” Monnet said, and even the EU itself “is only a stage on the way to the organized world of the future.”

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In what is becoming a standard trope for Israeli leftists, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit today decries the “savagery” of Israel’s “rising political forces,” who are “alien to the new West’s values.” To which my response is, “thank God”–because the “new West’s values” are antithetical to the very existence of a Jewish state. And if that sounds far-fetched, just consider European Commission President Manuel Barroso’s speech last week when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on the European Union’s behalf.

Quoting the commission’s first president, Walter Hallstein, Barroso declared that 20th-century history showed “The system of sovereign nation-states has failed,” because “through two world wars it has proved itself unable to preserve peace.” Therefore, Barroso said, “nations needed to think beyond the nation-state” and create “supranational institutions.” Later, he reiterated this point by quoting one of the EU’s founding fathers, Jean Monnet: “The sovereign nations of the past can no longer solve the problems of the present,” Monnet said, and even the EU itself “is only a stage on the way to the organized world of the future.”

Nor is Barroso alone. Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland echoed this idea in his presentation speech. “After the two world wars in the last century, the world had to turn away from nationalism,” he declared. And though Europe is currently experiencing a crisis, “the solution now as then is not for the countries to act on their own at the expense of others.”

Barroso and Jagland obviously don’t speak for every European, but they do represent the dominant worldview of the European elite. And a worldview that believes “The system of sovereign nation-states has failed” clearly has no use for a country that defiantly proclaims itself a Jewish nation-state and insists on pursuing vital interests–like protecting its citizens from rocket fire–even “at the expense of” the Palestinians who are launching the rockets. Nor, incidentally, does this worldview have much use for an America that similarly insists on preserving its sovereignty and refuses to sacrifices its interests to the global collective’s whims. The Barroso-Jagland worldview thus goes a long way toward explaining European hostility to both Israel and America.

Nor does the growing popularity of European separatist movements contradict this worldview. Even in Scotland and Catalonia, where pro-independence parties recently won clear majorities, most voters’ support for “independence” is conditional on their new country receiving automatic EU membership. In other words, they want “independence” only on condition that they not actually have to exist for even a day as a fully independent country. The unavoidable conclusion is that even among ordinary Europeans, this worldview remains alive and well.

Hence for the foreseeable future, understanding it will remain vital for understanding Europe. To that end, I recommend two important essays published by Yoram Hazony in 2010. The first, drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, explains the paradigm shift that created this worldview and its implications for Israel. The second uses Immanuel Kant’s philosophy to explain why this view doesn’t contradict Europe’s ardent support for, say, a Palestinian nation-state (here’s the two-sentence, vastly dumbed-down version: European post-nationalists view the nation-state as a stage primitive peoples must go through en route to enlightened supra-nationalism, so for tribal Arab societies, becoming nation-states would be a step forward. But it’s unconscionable for Israel, having achieved this stage, to want to stay there instead of moving on to the next).

The bottom line, however, is clear: Israel’s survival as a Jewish state depends on its very willingness to reject “the new West’s values.” And European antipathy is the unavoidable price it will have to pay for that choice.

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Do Islamists Want “American Freedom?”

I missed this very smart article when it first came out, but it’s well worth reading. Apropos of Alana Goodman’s comments yesterday and using Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an example, Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey’s most talented columnists, examines how so many Islamists talk about their desire to embrace “American freedom” when it suits them but ignore such freedoms when they contradict Islamist precepts. A few excerpts:

…At his party’s historic congress, the prime minister lamented once again that his daughters had to study in the U.S. because they had not been admitted to a Turkish university due to the now defunct headscarf ban on campuses. Similarly, a small Chinese-army-size army of his cheerleaders in the media have invariably hailed American democratic culture and civil liberties in the hope that these freedoms would one day blossom in Turkey too. They have glorified American freedoms and exemplified American secularism over French laicite. In short, “we wanted American freedoms in Turkey!”

Did we? Really? Why, then, was Mr. Erdogan “saddened by President Barack Obama’s remarks” that a ban on the unworthy film mocking Prophet Mohammed would violate free speech? Simple. Because the prime minister and his chorus of willing devotees adore American freedoms when American freedoms do not ban the headscarf, but hate American freedoms when American freedoms do not ban an anti-Islamic blasphemous video either.

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I missed this very smart article when it first came out, but it’s well worth reading. Apropos of Alana Goodman’s comments yesterday and using Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an example, Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey’s most talented columnists, examines how so many Islamists talk about their desire to embrace “American freedom” when it suits them but ignore such freedoms when they contradict Islamist precepts. A few excerpts:

…At his party’s historic congress, the prime minister lamented once again that his daughters had to study in the U.S. because they had not been admitted to a Turkish university due to the now defunct headscarf ban on campuses. Similarly, a small Chinese-army-size army of his cheerleaders in the media have invariably hailed American democratic culture and civil liberties in the hope that these freedoms would one day blossom in Turkey too. They have glorified American freedoms and exemplified American secularism over French laicite. In short, “we wanted American freedoms in Turkey!”

Did we? Really? Why, then, was Mr. Erdogan “saddened by President Barack Obama’s remarks” that a ban on the unworthy film mocking Prophet Mohammed would violate free speech? Simple. Because the prime minister and his chorus of willing devotees adore American freedoms when American freedoms do not ban the headscarf, but hate American freedoms when American freedoms do not ban an anti-Islamic blasphemous video either.

He continues:

It is not a secret that Islamists always defend pluralism and minority rights in lands where Muslims are a minority and strictly practice majoritarianism where they constitute the majority. Looks like a smart strategy, but fails to impress. A decade ago, the same strategy, if put in a nice gift wrap, could have found buyers among the West’s “useful idiots,” but these days there are only a few enthusiasts and many who shrug it off, thinking it is too obviously childish and selfish.

Alas, while those facing the imposition of Islamist mores by intolerant rulers now believe that the West’s “useful idiots” have fallen by the wayside and  “only a few enthusiasts” ignore the hypocrisy inherent in Islamist complaints, they are wrong: Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati donations to universities like Georgetown, Columbia, and Harvard ensure that new generations of useful idiots accept the “childish and selfish” as smart and sophisticated.

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The EU’s Pursuit of Stability Über Alles

At City Journal, the invaluable Theodore Dalrymple reviews the equally invaluable Dan Hannan’s A Doomed Marriage: Britain and Europe, and predicts pessimistically that it will change few minds about the EU, since “in the Eurocrats’ world, ignoring arguments is the highest form of refutation.” By way of explaining why the EU has a stranglehold on elite opinion, Dalrymple argues that the EU is good at corrupting business with the promise of controlled markets, politicians with perks far beyond their merits, and civil society with bribes.

All that is true, but not true enough. In Britain, the EU appeals to the elite in part because of the myth of leadership, i.e. the belief that, if only it rolls up its sleeves, Britain will be able to lead the EU in a direction that suits its desires. This is the myth that lies behind the so-called lost opportunity of Britain’s failure to sign the original Treaty of Rome, and it has inspired politicians as diverse as Harold Macmillan and Tony Blair to toss their chips in with Brussels. In reality, the reason why Britain did not sign on was because its interests and ideals led it to prefer different arrangements, and the past 50 years have proven comprehensively that the EU imposes far more on Britain than Britain is able to impose on the EU. Yet the myth lingers.

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At City Journal, the invaluable Theodore Dalrymple reviews the equally invaluable Dan Hannan’s A Doomed Marriage: Britain and Europe, and predicts pessimistically that it will change few minds about the EU, since “in the Eurocrats’ world, ignoring arguments is the highest form of refutation.” By way of explaining why the EU has a stranglehold on elite opinion, Dalrymple argues that the EU is good at corrupting business with the promise of controlled markets, politicians with perks far beyond their merits, and civil society with bribes.

All that is true, but not true enough. In Britain, the EU appeals to the elite in part because of the myth of leadership, i.e. the belief that, if only it rolls up its sleeves, Britain will be able to lead the EU in a direction that suits its desires. This is the myth that lies behind the so-called lost opportunity of Britain’s failure to sign the original Treaty of Rome, and it has inspired politicians as diverse as Harold Macmillan and Tony Blair to toss their chips in with Brussels. In reality, the reason why Britain did not sign on was because its interests and ideals led it to prefer different arrangements, and the past 50 years have proven comprehensively that the EU imposes far more on Britain than Britain is able to impose on the EU. Yet the myth lingers.

But the larger reason why the European elite like the EU is simple. From their point of view, Europe tried democracy in the first half of the twentieth century. The result was two world wars, the near-collapse of European civilization, and the rise to superpower status of the U.S.S.R. and (even worse, for many of them) the U.S.

Blaming democracy for the Kaiser and Hitler is poor history, but–as Ben pointed out last week–European voters, unlike British and American ones, do have a predilection for political extremism when times get rough. That’s what comes of not having conservative movements in the Anglo-American tradition of individual liberty. It’s also why Europeans always expect fascism to dawn in the U.S.: they’re looking in the mirror.

The idea behind the EEC, from its start, was to prevent wars, reassert European power, and promote economic growth by removing decisions about portions of the economy from the exclusive control of the nation-state, i.e., from the control of the voters. It was an explicitly elite approach. Add to that the fact that the EU has allowed the image if not the reality of national parliaments to survive–with most laws now made in Brussels, Gladstone would not recognize the House of Commons, even if it still sits in Westminster–and the appeal the EU has long had to France as a way to assert its political superiority over an economically potent Germany, and one does not need to appeal to corruption to explain the EU’s appeal to the powers that be.

But the EU turned from an instrument for restoring a degree of stability to one dedicated to the preservation of the status quo. That approach–and Dalrymple is absolutely right about this–is bound to fail. It means the EU, which still talks a lot about increasing Europe’s power in the world, is more interested in pursuing policies which guarantee Europe’s continued relative decline. It also means that the reality of German dominance of the EU–politics win in the short run, but economics win in the long haul–is becoming ever more obvious to most Europeans, which is one reason why the EU is less popular now than ever. When the Germans take full account of how rapidly they are sinking into the same debt morass that afflicts their profligate neighbors in and out of the euro, they too may well decide that their elites (and their Constitutional Court) have made a hash of it.

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Libya and Liberty

The Wall Street Journal has published a story, an editorial, and an op-ed on Libya’s first multi-party elections since the early 1950s. And while complex election rules make it difficult to know the precise outcome, the Journal reports that “Libya’s vote is expected to curb the sway of Islamic groups.”

“Ideology is dead,” according to Mahmoud Jibril, the U.S.-educated former Qaddafu-era economic official who defected to become the face of Libya’s revolution last year. “We stand for inclusiveness,” he said of the coalition he leads. According to Ann Marlowe of the Hudson Institute, “this coalition is not liberal or secular in the Western sense, but it supports a civil state and is opposed to the values of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party.”

“This is the day that we fix the past,” Maryem El-Barouni, a 23-year-old medical student told the Journal’s Margaret Coker. “We’ve come through a very bad period. This is our chance to feel freedom.”

About these developments, several things can be said. The first is that some critics of the Libyan intervention can still find dark linings in what has occurred. The second is that the Obama administration deserves praise for having intervened. The president’s actions, in concert with our European allies, toppled a brutal dictator and prevented slaughter at minimal human and financial cost to America and the West. Third, Libya’s transition to self-government has a very long way to go and much can go wrong. Still, at this early juncture, the intervention can be fairly judged to have been a success.

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The Wall Street Journal has published a story, an editorial, and an op-ed on Libya’s first multi-party elections since the early 1950s. And while complex election rules make it difficult to know the precise outcome, the Journal reports that “Libya’s vote is expected to curb the sway of Islamic groups.”

“Ideology is dead,” according to Mahmoud Jibril, the U.S.-educated former Qaddafu-era economic official who defected to become the face of Libya’s revolution last year. “We stand for inclusiveness,” he said of the coalition he leads. According to Ann Marlowe of the Hudson Institute, “this coalition is not liberal or secular in the Western sense, but it supports a civil state and is opposed to the values of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party.”

“This is the day that we fix the past,” Maryem El-Barouni, a 23-year-old medical student told the Journal’s Margaret Coker. “We’ve come through a very bad period. This is our chance to feel freedom.”

About these developments, several things can be said. The first is that some critics of the Libyan intervention can still find dark linings in what has occurred. The second is that the Obama administration deserves praise for having intervened. The president’s actions, in concert with our European allies, toppled a brutal dictator and prevented slaughter at minimal human and financial cost to America and the West. Third, Libya’s transition to self-government has a very long way to go and much can go wrong. Still, at this early juncture, the intervention can be fairly judged to have been a success.

But there are some additional points worth considering, and I’ll do so in the context of Peter Collier’s superbly written biography Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick. In it, Collier points out that during the Reagan years, Kirkpatrick was “slightly agnostic” about democracy promotion, that she was skeptical of America’s power “to democratize the world,” and that she was fearful we would be drawn into “expansive, expensive” global projects. She was critical of the Iraq war in part because Iraq lacked “the requirements for a democratic government: rule of law, an elite with a shared commitment to democratic procedures, a sense of citizenship and habits of trust and cooperation.”

On Iraq, Jeane might (or might not) have been correct. It’s too early to tell, just as it is in Egypt, where right now the path to freedom appears to be rockier than what we’re seeing in Libya. It’s certainly true that not every nation on earth is ready for self-government. There are prerequisites, and often outside assistance, that are necessary. But it’s also the case that many nations that have moved successfully toward self-government over the decades didn’t start out with all the “requirements for a democratic government” firmly in place. Even successful journeys can be slow and characterized by setbacks (for more, see America and its Civil War). In addition, as Robert Kagan pointed out in his 1997 essay in COMMENTARY, Kirkpatrick’s brand of realism represented a “strong repudiation of the policy followed by the Reagan administration, which made a very high priority out of promoting democracy in such places as El Salvador, Chile, the Philippines, and South Korea.”

So if elections are not an elixir, it’s also the case that any prudent American strategy needs to accommodate itself to the fact that people in other lands do not want to live in chains. They aren’t keen to live in a police state. The Egyptians overthrew Hosni Mubarak without us lifting a finger. It was an organic uprising, one Mubarak might have averted if years earlier he had put in place reforms.

One final observation: most of us come to these debates with a predisposition for or against democracy promotion (my tropism is toward it while Jeane’s was away from it). It shapes the way we interpret things. But what we tend to learn is that human societies are enormously complicated, and no theory or ideology has perfect predictive powers. There are unintended consequences – some good, some bad – to almost every large undertaking. And human beings, let alone tribes and entire nations, often act in ways we can’t anticipate. Which means that in some places, Kirkpatrick’s skepticism about democracy was misplaced, just as in some places my advocacy for democracy may well hit the rocks.

Conservatism properly understood is skeptical about elevating creeds above human experience. It takes into account habits and customs, what Burke referred to (not unfavorably, by the way) as “prejudices” and “superstitions.” That doesn’t mean conservatism should ever be agnostic about human freedom, as freedom is (I would argue) based on the teleology and design of human nature. It simply means that in anticipating unfolding events, some degree of humility – on all sides – is in order.

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The State of Post-American Freedom

The New York Times reports CIA operatives are playing at least an indirect role in getting arms to the Syrian opposition. It has become customary among the thoughtful American opposition to pat President Barack Obama on the back for doing the right thing half-heartedly and very late. So, congratulations Mr. President. (See how fair-minded we are!)

Is this the first step in an American effort to get rid of the bloodthirsty dictator—and Iran’s ally—Bashar al-Assad?  Let’s hope so, because it’s become all too clear how thoroughly miserable homegrown liberation efforts are without American involvement. Indeed, one of the most pressing geopolitical questions of our time has become: what do we do about destabilizing freedom movements in the age of American indifference?

The results of Obama’s hands-off doctrine are inarguable.

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The New York Times reports CIA operatives are playing at least an indirect role in getting arms to the Syrian opposition. It has become customary among the thoughtful American opposition to pat President Barack Obama on the back for doing the right thing half-heartedly and very late. So, congratulations Mr. President. (See how fair-minded we are!)

Is this the first step in an American effort to get rid of the bloodthirsty dictator—and Iran’s ally—Bashar al-Assad?  Let’s hope so, because it’s become all too clear how thoroughly miserable homegrown liberation efforts are without American involvement. Indeed, one of the most pressing geopolitical questions of our time has become: what do we do about destabilizing freedom movements in the age of American indifference?

The results of Obama’s hands-off doctrine are inarguable.

Iran’s Green Movement? Stopped in its tracks by the theocratic thugs Washington’s been courting for three-plus years. Torture, arrest, assassination—Iranian democrats faced the full arsenal of fear while the United States pursued an impossible accommodation with Tehran.

In Tunisia, revolt paved the way for Islamist rule. And that’s the success story of the Arab Spring.

Egypt’s Tahrir Square protest turned out to be a military coup d’état in liberal disguise. The only thing threatening the Egyptian army now is the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Without American involvement Egypt has become a war of the horribles, and the public square is a no-man’s land for liberals.

Muammar Qaddafi was poised to slaughter tens of thousands of unorganized rebels and still America resisted involvement. It took Nicolas Sarkozy to lead the free world into halting a mass atrocity. And after reluctant American air power stopped Qaddafi, American reticence saw Libya unravel into a lawless revenge state, while the fighting and weapons reconstituted as a terrorist war in northern Mali.

In Syria, Bashar Assad has gone ahead with the kind of killing the Obama administration congratulated itself on stopping in Libya. The United States has elected illiberal Russia—whose own protesters we’ve ignored—to liberate the Syrian people through diplomacy. It was a move akin to throwing water on a grease fire. Vladimir Putin wasted no time in arming Assad for an escalated civil war.

Let’s put this kaleidoscope of evil up against the conventional wisdom of today’s foreign policy elite. Peter Beinart looked upon the early fruits of the Arab Spring and declared, “The lesson is that even in a post-American world, democracy has legs.” Thomas Friedman looked upon the same and offered a droll warning of his own: “Let’s root for it, without being in the middle of it.” And Fareed Zakaria, the real-time historian of the post-American world, saw that “for the first time in perhaps a millennium, the Arab people are taking charge of their own affairs,” and praised the Libya operation as “a new model in that it involved an America that insisted on legitimacy and burden sharing, that allowed the locals to own their revolution.”

All these claims were very fashionable in their anti-Bush sentiment, but time has exposed them as weak and unsuited to reality. A post-American world is taking shape, but it’s a much nastier place than the American world that birthed it. Locals are indeed owning their own revolutions—revolutions that flail and die out while America “roots” for democracy on the sidelines.

There is a debate to be had about both the moral and strategic consequences of American intervention. There is a much stickier debate to be had about the shape and extent of such intervention. But let us not flatter ourselves that America has been doing the right and good thing by ignoring this tectonic upheaval and showing indifference to the few liberal friends we have in the lands of autocracy and fanaticism.

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