Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Egypt and the End of History

Some may have noticed, even in my own writings perhaps, but there's substantial debate over the meaning of events in Egypt for the Bush administration's freedom agenda, and especially for the neoconservative vision of democracy promotion.

Progressives are loathe to admit it, but what's happening in Egypt is indeed a vindication, in broad outline, of George W. Bush's foreign policy, "
a balance of power that favors freedom." The administration was of course criticized from both left and right, from Democrat anti-interventionists and Republican neo-isolationists, especially on the use of force. But the fact remains that the larger vision of universal freedom and justice in the world is playing out in Egypt today. (And again, I'm partially bracketing the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists may come to power, but it will be a detour on the road to natural right.) This has created some divisions among democracy-promoters, as Jeffrey Goldberg points out, "The Neocons Split with Israel Over Egypt" (at Memeorandum). And also Jonah Goldberg, "Wait, the Neocons Actually Believe that Stuff?", and "More on the Neocons vs. Israel." And while it's true that the Iraq war tempered the administration's fervor for spreading democratic values, the statements and values of George W. Bush are finding resonance today on the Nile. (Jeff Jacoby notes the twists and turns, at Boston Globe, "The Vindication of the ‘Freedom Agenda’.")

Most of the differences here deal with the speed and scope of democratic change, and with the need to uphold traditional security concerns while advancing a liberal agenda. But freedom is freedom, at least when defined as universal aspirations for individual rights and human dignity. We see this in Egypt's revolt most powerfully in
the viral video posted by Asmaa Mahfouz on January 25th. And it's this broader sense that must cause progressives fits of apoplexy. Checking over at the far-left Crooked Timber, it turns out that John Quiggin's waxing about how the Egyptian revolution is vindicating Francis Fukuyama's thesis on the end of history (the end of Hegelian ideological struggle in history, and the triumph of democracy), "Fukuyama, F*** Yeah":
Supposing that Tunisia and Egypt manage a transition to some kind of democracy, it seems inevitable that quasi-constitutional monarchies like Jordan and Morocco will respond with further liberalisation and democratisation, for fear of sharing the fate of Ben Ali and Mubarak. Add in Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, all of which have elections of some kind, and the dominant mode in the Middle East/North Africa will have been transformed from dictatorship to (admittedly highly imperfect) democracy. The remaining autocracies (Libya, Mauritania Sudan, Syria) and the feudal monarchies of the Arabian peninsula will be seen as the barbaric relics they are, with days that are clearly numbered. Even if things go wrong for one or both of the current revolutions, the idea that these autocratic/monarchical regimes have some kind of durable basis of support is gone for good.

So, how is Fukuyama’s view of the end of history looking?
Quiggin, for all his pro-democracy harrumphing, is a radical progressive, and thus it's impossible for him to admit the idea that Fukuyama's end of history thesis is largely synonymous with the Bush administration's freedom agenda. Seriously. Look at that roster of states cited by Quiggan: From Tunisia and Egypt to Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, the promotion of freedom in those nations was inherent to President Bush announcement, in 2002:
The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance ...

When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations. The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation. And their governments should listen to their hopes.
There it is, plain as day. But progressives can't cite the freedom agenda without admitting that they've been on the wrong side of history. Quiggan's an academic, so he can reach back into more rarefied intellectual history to make his case, and citing Fukuyama provides plausible deniability, at any rate. Folks might recall that Fukuyama quite famously renounced the Bush administration's Iraq policy in a 2006 essay at the New York Times, "After Neoconservatism":
More than any other group, it was the neoconservatives both inside and outside the Bush administration who pushed for democratizing Iraq and the broader Middle East. They are widely credited (or blamed) for being the decisive voices promoting regime change in Iraq, and yet it is their idealistic agenda that in the coming months and years will be the most directly threatened.
Fukuyama's attack on regime change in Iraq was widely cited at the time. But a careful analysis of Fukuyama's writings reveals it's not so much the vision of universal freedom that he rejects, but the efforts of the United States to promote it with force of arms. In 2004, at National Interest, Fukuyama prefaced his later comments at New York Times. Renouncing democracy promotion at the point of a gun, he concludes nevertheless with an endorsement of American power in promoting world freedom, "The Neoconservative Moment":
The United States should understand the need to exercise power in pursuit of both its interests and values, but also to be more prudent and subtle in that exercise. The world's sole superpower needs to remember that its margin of power is viewed with great suspicion around the world and will set off countervailing reactions if that power is not exercised judiciously ....

The promotion of democracy through all of the available tools at our disposal should remain high on the agenda, particularly with regard to the Middle East. But the United States needs to be more realistic about its nation-building abilities, and cautious in taking on large social-engineering projects in parts of the world it does not understand very well.
I doubt this is an argument that the fevered hordes at Crooked Timber will find very satisfying, but the facts are self evident. And some over there don't even like the idea that Egypt confirms the end of history thesis itself. For example, communist Freddie deBoer takes exception, "This perspective — this triumphalism — is one of the most rigidly enforced orthodoxies on the Internet." Yes, triumphalism, Western triumphalism to be exact. We're still moving in that direction, and the debate over Israel's fears of a democratic Egypt shows how fragile the grip of Western triumphalism is. But there's no doubt that human freedom is scoring a victory in the land of the pharaohs. And that's why, despite the caveats, I still don't say "Let Egypt Go to Sh*t."