There have been some claims lately that the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen prove that neo-conservatism was ‘right all along’. Max Boot goes so far as to ask whether ‘we are all neo-conservatives now’.
Why were the neo-cons right? Because, as opposed to the gang currently running the White House, neo-cons (like George W. Bush – whom I never thought of as a neo-con) understood that the ‘basic human desires for freedom could not be repressed forever’. The events in Egypt and Tunisia show precisely that: people are clearly sick of autocratic rule and yearn for freedom, for democracy. So the neo-cons were right. That Obama is now, ‘belatedly’ expressing US solidarity with the Egyptian people, makes him a neo-con too. He’s literally jumping onto the bandwagon. Well not literally, but you get the point…
This argument irks me because it allows neo-conservatism to claim monopoly and sole ownership over democracy and all of its goodness. By that logic, all those protesters, and anyone celebrating (possibly prematurely) the demise of authoritarian rule in Tunisia and Egypt, are all buying into a uniquely neo-con idea of democracy-promotion. Taking the argument further, it would mean that every step, taken anywhere, toward greater democracy worldwide does something to validate neo-conservatism and its various proponents.
To be ‘proven right’ by current events, neo-conservatism would need to put forward a more specific proposition, one now validated by recent events. The idea that ‘greater democracy in the Middle East is a good thing’ can’t be it, because support for this proposition goes far beyond neo-conservatism. In fact, if it is typically neo-conservative to believe that ‘basic human desires for freedom [can’t] be repressed forever’, who isn’t a neo-con?
So is it that democracy in the Middle East was possible all along that so distinguishes neo-cons from mainstream? Again, I don’t think that anyone would have excluded the possibility of popular uprisings in the Middle East, or in any other autocratic state for that matter, and their mere occurrence today cannot possibly be used to ‘prove neo-cons right’.
So is it about the vigour with which Western capitals should promote democracy in the Middle East? Certainly one could have a good discussion about the degree to which democracy-promotion should be a foreign-policy priority. But this misses a broader point: what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt came from within, it was not the West’s doing, and it may not even have helped had the West gotten involved. It is therefore difficult to see how neo-conservatism can claim credit for what’s happening.
For the same reason, it would also be specious to use these events as counterfactual evidence for why another course of action would have been preferable. A more firebrand approach to democratisation might have precipiated this moment, but it might also have been wholly unhelpful – it is an unproved and unprovable assertion. Put simply, there is nothing in these uprisings that proves neo-conservatism right, because neo-conservatism had nothing to do with it.