The instinct of the average American upon seeing the upheaval in Egypt, or of really any unrest in autocratic regimes not its own, is to project American history upon the revolutionaries, and conclude that the revolutionaries must be fomenting for freedom and democracy. Americans consider that democracy is the natural state of political organization, with all other forms an aberration. They seem to think it some sort of panacea, believing that once democratic rule is established, good necessarily follows. It was for democracy that George W Bush rallied Americans to embark on his killing and destroying spree in Iraq. He knew that Americans cherished the ideal of democracy as the only hope for equity and justice in governance. But hope can only get one so far, and the history of democratic movements outside of the American experience suggests it is no panacea.
Mob rule in ancient Athens, the original democracy, forced its most enlightened son, Socrates, to drink the hemlock. Plato would later design his Utopia as the most un-democratic of polities in direct response to the excesses of Athenian democracy he’d witnessed, particularly the death sentence it had bestowed upon his beloved teacher. When the Enlightenment tore at the fabric of Continental feudalism, French nobility resisted until it was swept away in a democratic fever so dangerous and terrible that it became known simply as the Reign of Terror, and only a few years of democratic rule later, quickly gave up and replaced the democrats with Napoleon, who was ultimately crowned as Emperor. Two hundred years later, Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power was a product of German democracy, his National Socialists having polled a plurality of seats in the 1933 Reichstag. Hitler achieved the Chancellorship on the popularity of his party; it was only a few democratic turns later that he became Fuehrer for life. The Chinese Communist Party led a what could be generously characterized as a democratic revolution of the people in the mid-twentieth century whose victory eventually, by stages, forced millions into starvation. Democracy may be, as Churchill said, a better means of organizing government than all the rest, but it is hardly a cure for all the ills besetting a society.
When they aren’t congratulating themselves nowadays that their creations, Twitter and Facebook, really are something more important than a vulgar waste of time, pointing to the occasional use of the networks by revolutionists as proof, Americans believe in the power of democracy to improve the lot of the people. But if democracy is what the Egyptian opposition seeks, would it improve the lot of the average Egyptian? Would it make a difference to him whether his bread subsidy is doled out by a dictator or a parliament? Would changing the government change the wretched conditions in which he lives? Would a democratic Egypt enhance his freedom to secure the resources he needs for survival? The answer, likely, is no. Egypt is not America.
Americans can’t project their experiences with democracy on the rest of the world because democracy is the one arena in which Americans can lay a legitimate claim to exceptionalism. Democracy has worked in America for a number of reasons unique to America. The American revolution was hardly a mass movement of the people for greater freedom. It was a movement of the elites to escape the vicissitudes of the English monarchy so that they could more fully enjoy and benefit from America’s economic bounty. America did not have to sweep away the existing order, as was necessary, e.g., with the French Revolution, in order for a true republican democracy to take hold. It had only to wrest itself from English dominance; the existing order and its governmental infrastructure, the precipitate of all the best ideas of government that the Enlightenment had to offer, was a fully-formed and capable government in each of the colonies before revolution. And the colonies didn’t disintegrate into anarchy when England was pushed out. Things went on much as before until a centralized power-sharing agreement could arise. Democracy survived these two plus centuries in America in large measure because it was the best form of government to facilitate the rapid expansion of empire such that the ones pushing the expansion could enjoy the fruits thereby generated. Settling the frontier necessitated decentralized decision-making and control. America may seem good because of its fealty to democratic ideals, but it was only good because it became great. Democracy happened to be the best fit for the enterprise of maximizing empire and wealth. Now that the empire is more or less built out, it remains to be seen how long democracy in America will endure. History is replete with empires that start as republican democracies but end up as imperial dictatorships.
While democracy might seem the greatest hope and promise for all mankind to the average American, that same view is hardly shared by American foreign policy elites as regards other countries. America has time and again supported oppressive dictators and contrived monarchies, so long as they were capable of keeping the peace well enough that American investment bankers and international businessmen could put capital to work with some expectation that the political risk was manageable. This latest episode of unrest in Egypt, with events spiraling far beyond the control of American diplomats, illustrates at once the hypocrisy of American diplomatic genuflections towards democracy, while also revealing the truth that all nations come to diplomacy red in tooth and claw. Values matter little in international affairs, except the abiding value that power trumps all. It seems in this matter that America has settled on a course of encouraging a peaceful transition of power, apparently in an attempt to appease the Egyptian opposition, but without upsetting the apple cart of stability that Egyptian governments, at least since Nasser, have steadily pulled. The fact America’s diplomats are reduced to pleading with an unruly mob of angry Egyptians for peace suggests the limits of American power, great as they are, still don’t reach to infinity.
But America’s fetishistic interest in Middle Eastern affairs is confounding. It seems to arise from its relationship with Israel, which is itself an enigma. While Israel seemed worthy of American support during the Cold War as a counterbalance to Soviet support of her surrounding Arab nations, the justification today is problematic. Support for Israel does nothing for furthering America’s main interest in the region–the uninterrupted flow of oil–and likely impairs it. Why spend so much political, economic and military capital on maintaining the politico-geographical integrity of what amounts to America’s rogue 51st state when doing so impairs broader American interests? The lifeblood of America’s economy is oil. Israel has none and her antagonists have plenty.
Justifying support for Israel because it claims to be the only liberal democracy in the region won’t do. America supports a great many others that aren’t.
There are otherwise reasonable voices that claim American foreign policy operates to serve Israel’s interests because of the oversized influence and representation Jews have in culture and business in America, i.e., that there still exists an identifiable Jewish nation in the American Diaspora that actually believes the myth of its ancestors that Jews have been chosen by God for special favor (a myth shared by a great many cultures in relationship to their gods), expressing their beliefs through support of the tiny Jewish outpost in Palestine, and that these Jewish nationalists have infiltrated the highest echelons of American business and politics. It is undeniably true that Jews are significantly overrepresented in the elite of virtually every endeavor (excepting athletics) in America. Could this be the reason America seems willing to risk so much life and treasure in supporting Israel to the detriment of its overall interest in stability in the region?
Fundamentalist American Christians may be partly responsible for America’s outsized support of Israel. Fundamentalist theology teaches that the Jewish nation must be resurrected in the Holy Land before Christ returns, so supporting a Jewish Theocracy in Palestine perhaps appears to them an article of faith.
Much of the turmoil and trouble America has faced in the Middle East can be directly traced to its support of Israel. Applying Occam’s razor to the potential reasons behind its costly support leaves the inescapable conclusion that American foreign policy in the Middle East has to some extent been co-opted by American Jews and their supporters. Israel quakes when the Arab street rumbles, and America rushes in to quell disturbances as quickly as they arise.
But what does the Arab street want in this affair? Revolutions are typically power struggles amongst societal elites. Mass movements are like snakes. They must have heads or they slither about aimlessly thrashing until they die. Where is the head of the Egyptian opposition? It must be among the Egyptian elite, yet the only organization powerful enough to consider upending the settled structure is the Egyptian military. Perhaps the Egyptian military is fomenting the revolutionary brew. But for what purpose? Has Mubarak’s reign run the limits of its usefulness to the military?
Nothing is yet clear, but whatever comes of this Egyptian unrest, it already provides ample lessons for the average American: 1) Democracy might be an ideal form of government, but only when it has the supporting infrastructure to support it. Democracy can be as tyrannical as all the rest when it slouches towards anarchy and mob rule; 2) Social networks may facilitate in some small manner revolutionary movements, but the movements, if they are to last, must have an impetus beyond the ability for a social network to create a flash mob; 3) Israel has an outsized influence over American foreign policy in the Middle East for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but probably involve the outsized (relative to population) influence of Jews in America, and 4) Sustainable revolts against the settled order require powerful leaders and facilitators. If the leadership of a revolt is not overtly evident, look to powerful institutions, either within or without the stricken society, that may be fomenting revolution covertly.