The Magazine

Stand for Freedom

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Our friend Charles Krauthammer began his column last week by asking, “Who doesn’t love a democratic revolution? Who is not moved by the renunciation of fear and the reclamation of dignity in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria?”

Stand for Freedom

Egyptian antigovernment protesters gather at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on February 4, 2011, during “Departure Day.”

Newscom

Some on the right, that’s who.

It’s understandable that conservatives should be wary of people taking to the streets—even when they are entitled to do so. It’s also reasonable for conservatives to warn of the unanticipated consequences of ostensibly hopeful developments.

As Krauthammer puts it, “All revolutions are blissful in the first days. The romance could be forgiven if this were Paris 1789. But it is not. In the intervening 222 years, we have learned how these things can end.”

True enough. And Krauthammer goes on to make an argument for an American policy more focused on the Egyptian Army, less supportive of the Egyptian people, more fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood taking over this broad-based uprising, more cautious and muted in terms of the pressure that the American government can put on the regime, than we at The Weekly Standard have been recommending.

Reasonable people will differ in their analyses of rapidly changing circumstances half a world away—a fact that should make us somewhat tolerant of the Obama administration’s own stumbles. But Krauthammer does hasten to add, “The Egyptian awakening carries promise and hope and of course merits our support.” And, he writes later on, “our paramount moral and strategic interest in Egypt is real democracy in which power does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time.”

So, whatever our differences in historical interpretation or foreign policy tactics, we agree with our skeptical comrade that the United States must support the Egyptian awakening, and has a paramount moral and strategic interest in real democracy in Egypt and freedom for the Egyptian people. The question is how the U.S. government can do its best to help the awakening turn out well.

In his column, Krauthammer refers to the French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions. They all turned out badly. But before 1789 was 1776. After 1917, there was 1989. And after 1979, there was also 2009, when the Obama administration shamefully and foolishly did nothing to help topple the most dangerous regime in the Middle East.

Furthermore, in the last quarter century, there have been transitions from allied dictatorships to allied democracies in Chile, South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia, to name only a few. The United States has played a role in helping those transitions turn out (reasonably) well. America needn’t be passive or fretful or defensive. We can help foster one outcome over another. As Krauthammer puts it, “Elections will be held. The primary U.S. objective is to guide a transition period that gives secular democrats a chance.”

Now, people are more than entitled to their own opinions of how best to accomplish that democratic end. And it’s a sign of health that a political and intellectual movement does not respond to a complicated set of developments with one voice.

But hysteria is not a sign of health. When Glenn Beck rants about the caliphate taking over the Middle East from Morocco to the Philippines, and lists (invents?) the connections between caliphate-promoters and the American left, he brings to mind no one so much as Robert Welch and the John Birch Society. He’s marginalizing himself, just as his predecessors did back in the early 1960s.

Nor is it a sign of health when other American conservatives are so fearful of a popular awakening that they side with the dictator against the democrats. Rather, it’s a sign of fearfulness unworthy of Americans, of short-sightedness uncharacteristic of conservatives, of excuse-making for thuggery unworthy of the American conservative tradition.

It was not so long ago, after all, when conservatives understood that Middle Eastern dictatorships such as Mubarak’s help spawn global terrorism. We needn’t remind our readers that the most famous of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, was an Egyptian, as is al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri. The idea that democracy produces radical Islam is false: Whether in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, or Egypt, it is the dictatorships that have promoted and abetted Islamic radicalism. (Hamas, lest we forget, established its tyranny in Gaza through nondemocratic means.) Nor is it in any way “realist” to suggest that backing Mubarak during this crisis would promote “stability.” To the contrary: The situation is growing more unstable because of Mubarak’s unwillingness to abdicate. Helping him cling to power now would only pour fuel on the revolutionary fire, and push the Egyptian people in a more anti-American direction.

Let’s hope that as talk radio hosts find time for reflection, and commentators step back to take a deep breath, they will recall that one of the most hopeful aspects of the current conservative revival is its reclamation of the American constitutionalist tradition. That tradition is anchored even beyond the Constitution, of course, in the Declaration of Independence. And that document, let’s not forget, proclaims that, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”

An American conservatism that looks back to 1776 cannot turn its back on the Egyptian people. We should wish them well—and we should work to help them achieve as good an outcome as possible.

Conservatives are used to focusing on the downsides of situations. And there are potential downsides ahead, to be sure. But there is also a huge upside to a sound and admirable outcome in Egypt. American conservatives should remember our commitment, in the words of Federalist 39, to “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”

Egypt turns out to have its votaries of freedom. The Egyptian people want to exercise their capacity for self-government. American conservatives, heirs to our own bold and far-sighted revolutionaries, should help them.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers