Jack Ross, the American Conservative blogger, has an enlightening essay on Right Web about the neoconservative split over the current events unfolding in Egypt. Ross’s tack is somewhat different than the one offered here by Daniel Luban (see below).

Instead of highlighting the differences between some neocons and the Israeli right, Ross focuses on the way neoconservatives try to have it both ways: promoting democracy (taking credit for Egypt as a after-effect of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq) and staunchly opposing figures like Mohammed ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood. The contrast is between the “freedom crowd” and the “Islamophobes.”


What accounts for this divide in neoconservative discourse? Nuances abound to be sure. For instance, while the case of Leon Wieseltier seems to be a horrified response to the fear that the Egyptian revolution bodes ill for Israel, a deeper pathology seems to be at work with the doctrinaire neoconservatives clustered around Commentary magazine. In a curious legacy of neoconservatism’s roots in Trotskyism, the neocon core seems to be characterized by a pathological insistence upon its internationalism, which leads them to their insistence that they are in fact witnessing the birth of a global democratic revolution. This also, it should be noted, seems to supersede any petty scores to be settled in defense of the Bush administration. Dana Perino amply covered that ground on Fox News, even to the point of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the other hand, the Anti-Islamist Scare that has gained full steam since the election of Obama appears to be a completely distinct phenomenon from historic neoconservatism, notwithstanding how opportunistically it has been embraced by figures like Bill Kristol and the Liz Cheney-led Keep America Safe. It is a phenomenon straight from the pages of Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style In American Politics. Whereas Hofstadter famously pointed to projection in the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan who “donned priestly vestments and constructed an elaborate hierarchy and ritual,” the backlash against the so-called Ground Zero Mosque—with its frank talk of “sacred ground”—reflected the desire to construct an American holy of holies.

Examining this same divergence, Daniel Luban has a similar article up at IPS. He explores the evolution of neoconservatism on democracy promotion, which brings the current divide into focus and hints at some disingenuousness among the ‘pro-democracy’ crowd. (Elliott Abrams, Dan notes, supported undemocratic regimes in Latin America when the region was in his portfolio during the Reagan administration.)

Luban (with my links):

“The U.S. should make clear in an unambiguous way that a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt is a danger to American interests and could even lead to American intervention,” David Wurmser, former Vice President Dick Cheney‘s senior Middle East [adviser], told the “Forward”, the largest-circulation Jewish weekly, Thursday.

This ambivalence among neo-conservatives over Egypt may reflect a deeper ambivalence over democracy promotion. Both neo-conservatives and their critics often portray democracy promotion as the central tenet of the movement, but the historical record undercuts this portrayal.

The early tone of the movement regarding foreign policy was set by Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which argued for supporting “friendly” authoritarian governments against their left-wing enemies. Kirkpatrick’s vision helped guide neo-conservative foreign policy throughout the 1980s, when neo-conservatives – notably including Elliott Abrams – helped prop up or defend military dictatorships throughout Latin America, and even apartheid South Africa, as Cold War allies against the Soviet Union.

While the movement became more explicitly committed to democracy promotion in recent decades, its democratisation efforts have unsurprisingly been far more focused on hostile, rather than friendly, regimes – left-wing governments during the Cold War; more recently, governments that are seen as antagonistic to either the U.S. or Israel.

When elections have brought enemies rather than allies into power – as occurred in 2006 when Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections – neo-conservatives have been among the first to call for punitive actions.

Thus, when John Bolton, the hawkish former U.S. ambassador to the UN, cited Jeane Kirkpatrick in a Thursday interview with Politico to argue that the U.S. should support Mubarak, he could stake a claim to being as much the legitimate heir of neo-conservatism as the anti-Mubarak neo-conservatives themselves.

I’m still figuring this all out for myself, but these two commentaries are certainly helpful. (I’m traveling next week, but hopefully will have time to blog some of my developing ideas.)

But I will note that on the point of Dan’s original post — the split between Israel and the neocons — I do view with skepticism some commentaries (most of which come from neocons) that tout the narrative of: ‘Look! Neocons are not in the thrall of the Likud.’ (As a rule, because of his history of dissembling, I take anything Abrams writes with a grain of salt.)

This line, from the horse’s mouth, is attacking a straw man. We neocon-watchers at this site, at least, have never said that U.S. neoconservatives take marching orders from Likud, but rather that neocons are closely aligned with the rightist Israeli party.

Furthermore, if a Democrat criticizes something done by the Democratic Party (as happens quite regularly), it would be specious to say, ‘Look! She is not a Democrat at all!’

Likewise, I don’t think that neocons are a monolith, and this split between them reveals so much because it is public, whereas neocons, a politically adept group, have usually displayed great messaging discipline.

Nonetheless, the neoconservative disagreements on this issue (both among themselves and with Likud) seem to show that the upheaval in Egypt is coming home to the U.S. discourse on Middle East policy. Here’s hoping the shift is productive.