02.01.11

Uprising in Egypt Splits U.S Conservatives

Glenn Beck blasts the uprising in Cairo as a threat to our way of life. Michelle Goldberg on how the rebellion is splitting U.S. conservatives—and the fallout for the 2012 presidential campaign.

Glenn Beck blasts the uprising in Cairo as a threat to our way of life. Michelle Goldberg on how the rebellion is splitting U.S. conservatives—and the fallout for the 2012 presidential campaign. Plus, full coverage of Egypt’s protests.

Store food and prepare for the coming global insurrection: That's the warning Glenn Beck issued Monday. The Muslim Brotherhood and American radicals, he informed us, are operating in tandem to bring about "the destruction of the Western world." On his Fox show, Beck presented a clip of Mohamed ElBaradei calling for a "New Egypt that is democratic, that is based on social justice." The phrase "social justice" flashed on the screen, because in Beck's world, it's a code word for a totalitarian leftist agenda, just as the Egyptian protesters' use of the phrase "day of rage" signals their kinship with Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground. "We've shown you tonight that Hamas, Code Pink"—the feminist anti-war group—"and the Muslim Brotherhood are all linked together." With the future bleak, Beck called on his viewers to pray for "our way of life" and for Israel.

Since the war in Iraq, it seems, Beck, like others on the right, has changed his mind about the desirability of Middle Eastern democracy.

It was only a few years ago, you'll remember, that conservatives were crowing about a new birth of freedom in the Muslim world. Gunning for war with Iraq, conservatives attacked earlier generations of foreign-policy realists for propping up Arab dictators, arguing that political oppression and corruption created stultifying societies were terrorism bred. George Bush made the rhetorical championing of Middle Eastern democracy a centerpiece of his presidency. In a 2003 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he promised that a "liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions."

It was never entirely clear how the right's support for political freedom in the Muslim world meshed with its overwhelming contempt for Muslim people. Still, Bush had the passionate backing of most conservatives. A March 2003 dispatch from The Dallas Morning News, for example, featured an up-and-coming right-wing radio host who was organizing pro-Bush rallies across the country: "From his studio in Philadelphia, syndicated radio talk-show host Glenn Beck urges Americans to support President Bush and what he characterizes as Mr. Bush's plan for seeding freedom in the Middle East with the invasion of U.S. troops."

Now, as Egyptians pour into the streets and demand control of their political destiny, an interesting divide is opening up on the right. On one side are those who actually took all that democracy stuff seriously. On the other are those who see the Muslim world only as an enemy to be crushed and controlled. With a Republican primary approaching, it remains to be seen which view of Middle Eastern policy will triumph among conservatives.

“The former Soviet Union, everybody, radical Islam, every—this is the story of everyone who has ever plotted to or wanted to fundamentally change or destroy the Western way of life,” Beck says.

Stephen L. Carter: Egypt Proves Bush Right

Full coverage of the Egypt revolt
Beck, hero of the Tea Party, has become the hysterical tribune of the anti-democracy forces, linking the uprising in Egypt to a bizarre alliance of all of his bête noirs. "This is Saul Alinsky. This is STORM from Van Jones," he warned on Monday, continuing, "The former Soviet Union, everybody, radical Islam, every—this is the story of everyone who has ever plotted to or wanted to fundamentally change or destroy the Western way of life. This isn't about Egypt. Everything is up on the table." It would all end, he warned, with the restoration of a "Muslim caliphate that controls the Mideast and parts of Europe," along with an expanded China and Russian control of the entire Soviet Union "plus maybe the Netherlands."

It sounds nuts, of course, but such fears are now rampant on the religious right, which has long seen American involvement in the Middle East in millennarian terms. In the apocalyptic view of politics that dominates the Christian right, Muslim nations are closely connected to the rise of the Antichrist, while the restoration of the Jews to the entire biblical land of Israel is key to the Second Coming. The end of days will be marked by the emergence of a one-world government and a great world war in the Middle East, culminating in a battle at Megiddo, or Armageddon, an actual place in Israel. (Beck is a Mormon, but he's always incorporated elements of American evangelicalism into his ideology.) To side with the protesters in Egypt, at the expense of Israeli security, is to back Satan's team in the coming biblical showdown. Thus John Hagee, the chiliastic preacher who founded Christians United for Israel, took to his website to praise Hosni Mubarak as "an American ally and closet friend to Israel," writing, "Israel will soon be surrounded by enemies screaming for their blood. Will America support them? Our president certainly has not been supportive of Israel to this point in his administration; why would he change now?"

Not surprisingly, the politicians closest to the religious right have been the quickest to side with Mubarak. On Turesday Mike Huckabee, who is in Israel, called into Fox & Friends to criticize the Obama administration for failing to back an ally. In Israel, he said, there's "real shock and surprise… at how quickly the Obama administration abandoned a 30-year ally and a longstanding friend to peace and stability President Mubarak." On Sean Hannity's radio show, Newt Gingrich warned that Egypt "could go the way of Iran."

At least some neoconservatives, meanwhile, have shown an admirable consistency, urging support for Egypt's demonstrators. Michael Rubin of the AEI, for example, wrote a piece for Forbes.com headlined "The U.S. Should Not Fear Regime Change." "I don't see many neoconservatives who love Mubarak and really want to protect him," Rubin told me, adding, "When it comes to support for dictatorships, you can only kick the can down the road for so long before the road ends."

This highlights an interesting difference of opinion between neoconservatives and conservative Israelis, who are often thought to move in lockstep. "Israelis aren't on board on the democracy game," says Rubin. "They'd much rather rely on aging dictators to keep things quiet. They're perfectly happy selling out Lebanon to Syria, and perfectly happy selling out the Egyptian people to Hosni Mubarak."

Some neoconservatives are even claiming credit for the revolution under way in Egypt's streets. "[T]he revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt, and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right—and that the Obama administration's abandonment of this mind-set is nothing short of a tragedy," Elliott Abrams, Bush's former deputy national security adviser, wrote in The Washington Post.

This is somewhat galling, since, as Julie Millican pointed out in Media Matters, Bush was always a Mubarak cheerleader. But at least it suggests that some on the right are willing to support the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people—and that they won't snipe at Obama for failing to prop up the Mubarak regime. It suggests that not all conservatives were being grossly hypocritical when they championed an end to Arab autocracies. Only some of them were.

Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.