Which democrats should we support in the Mideast?
Niall Ferguson follows up on an earlier critique of President Obama's handling of the Middle East with his advice:
The correct strategy—which, incidentally, John McCain would have actively pursued had he been elected in 2008—was twofold. First, we should have tried to repeat the successes of the pre-1989 period, when we practiced what we preached in Central and Eastern Europe by actively supporting those individuals and movements who aspired to replace the communist puppet regimes with democracies.
Western support for the likes of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity in Poland was real. And it was one of the reasons that, when the crisis of the Soviet empire came in 1989, there were genuine democrats ready and waiting to step into the vacuums created by Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Sinatra Doctrine” (whereby each Warsaw Pact country was allowed to do things “its way”).
No such effort has been made in the Arab world. On the contrary, efforts in that direction have been scaled down. The result is that we have absolutely no idea who is going to fill today’s vacuums of power. Only the hopelessly naive imagine that 30-something Google executives will emerge as the new leaders of the Arab world, aided by their social network of Facebook friends. The far more likely outcome—as in past revolutions—is that power will pass to the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements in the revolution, which in this case means Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The basic question here is how we know who the right local proxies are. If the 30-something Google executives don't cut it, who, exactly, would John McCain court? The Egyptian Ahmed Chalabi? And as John McCain is honing this well oiled machine of pro-Western, pro-Israel liberal democrats waiting in the wings, are the region's intelligence services providing us with more or less covert assistance?
Many commentators seem to be infatuated with the Cold War example of American aid to dissidents in Eastern Europe. But this seems completely inappropriate. During the Cold War, it's true, the U.S. supported Eastern European dissidents - but not their oppressors. In the Mideast, the U.S. has a long and very well document history of supporting the oppressors and offering half-hearted, on-again, off-again support for reforms.
I'm pretty confident that had John McCain been elected, he would not have radically overhauled America's alliance structure in the Middle East. But that's what you would have to do to repeat the success of the "pre-1989" policy.
Update: Larison has more:
If “the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements” will be able to exploit the situation in Egypt now, they would have been able to do so even if the U.S. had followed all of the democracy promotion advocates’ advice. Nostalgia for Cold War successes is badly misleading. Western support for eastern European dissidents was all very well, but it wasn’t what made the revolutions in 1989 a success, and it wasn’t what led to the mostly peaceful transitions to democratic government in the years that followed. Westerners very much want to take credit for 1989 and afterwards (we “won” the Cold War, after all), but the reality is that this was something that the peoples of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union accomplished almost entirely on their own.