The Duck of Minerva

Willow Witching Pt. 2: What Washington should do….

29 January 2011

The neocon blogoshere is lit up with more willow witching that the events in Egypt are vindication of the Bush’s “freedom agenda.” And, they are blasting Obama for his timid response — apparently, Washington controls the destiny of this protest movement:

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Jackson Deihl claimed that it’s not too late to influence events. He called on the administration to support unidentified “democracy groups.” But more curious was his criticism of the administration. He cited Hillary Clinton’s 2009 comments about her personal friendship with Mubarak as setting the stage: “Thus began what may be remembered as one of the most shortsighted and wrongheaded policies the United States has ever pursued in the Middle East.” Right — let’s just ignore the fact that the U.S. has been cozying up to Mubarak for the past three decades — including a dramatic expansion of security and intelligence ties by the Bush administration after 9/11. Snippy political attack = 1; foreign policy analysis = 0.

Max Boot argued that this is the moment for Obama to “redefine” the Middle East and stand with the aspirations of the people:

we need a president fully engaged in the moment — a president who will speak for the aspirations of the people of the Middle East (more than one line, please), while also working to provide a soft landing for longtime dictators and to ensure that radicals don’t seize power.

Yeah, well there’s a novel idea. I bet no one in the administration thought of that…

Jeffrey Goldberg urged Obama to live up to American values and cut Mubarak loose and let the chips fall where they may with the Muslim Brotherhood — I guess that’s kind of living up to American values….

We still don’t know how this will unfold and I’m somewhat skeptical about what the Obama administration can do today or tomorrow to influence events — though Marc Lynch gives us some thoughtful comments on this.

But, I am struck that in all of this commentary, there is almost nothing about what’s next. Despite all of their generic claims to support democracy, the neocons cling to a very naive notion of what democracy is and how it emerges. In Iraq, they assumed democracy and market capitalism were self-executing — simply remove a tyrannical regime and let the natural, universal aspirations of the Iraqis guide the way. They didn’t plan for Phase IV of the Iraq invasion because they didn’t believe it was necessary. They were wrong, their actions triggered a civil war with disastrous consequences — more than 100,000 Iraqi deaths and countless more wounded, more than 2 million refugees, at a cost of more than 4,000 U.S. service members and well over $2 trillion.

It’s simply not enough to say one is “for” democracy and demand support for the protesters. The hard part of democracy building comes in the weeks, months, and years after a regime collapses. Let’s assume Mubarak flees sometime in the next few days. What then? How can the U.S and the international community help manage a transitional process to accommodate the demands of a disparate group of protesters? They are unified in their desire to remove Mubarak, but that consensus will evaporate the instant Mubarak gets on a plane. How will their competing claims be adjudicated — what kinds of mechanisms or institutions will best serve these challenges? What kind of institutional arrangements will be necessary to ensure domestic security that is sufficient and legitimate enough to maintain some sense of order but not coercive — what kind of leverage does the United States have over various factions within the military and security services to help this? Many of the protesters are in their 20s — nearly 3/4 of all of those unemployed are in this age bracket. What capacity exists to put them to work or to give them hope for new employment opportunities in the near future?

The administration clearly faces challenges in the coming days, but the real challenges likely will come in the weeks ahead. And there is nothing in Bush’s vacuous “freedom agenda” or the Bush administration’s experiences in the war in Iraq, or in the self-congratulatory rhetoric from the neocons that can help with the hard work of developing democratic state norms and institutions.