The past few weeks have been clarifying. Ever since he took office, the press has been calling Barack Obama a ruthless realist who lacks the passion for democracy and liberty of his predecessor, George W. Bush. The fact that Bush’s war on terror provided a pretext for all manner of tyrants to crack down on their political opponents or that the Bush administration itself tortured terror suspects rarely intruded on the narrative. Bush was an idealist because he invaded Iraq, despite the fact that democracy became the war’s primary public rationale only after America failed to find weapons of mass destruction. And Bush was an idealist because he spoke loudly and eloquently about human freedom, even though the U.S. didn’t cut ties to a single important pro-American dictator during his eight years in office.
Now, in less than a month, the idiocy of that narrative has been exposed. In his hour of decision, Obama helped push Hosni Mubarak from office. He’s urging fundamental political reform, and opposing violent crackdowns, in pro-American regimes like Yemen and Bahrain. And while some conservative intellectuals are pleased, or wish he were even more aggressive, the people with the biggest megaphones on the American right—people like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich—are not preaching democratic idealism. They’re warning that Egypt and Bahrain are about to become Iranian- or Taliban-style theocracies. They’re comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter for not standing behind our favored strongmen. And they’re suggesting that, at the very least, America should demand that Islamist parties be banned. When it comes to Muslims and democracy, much of the supposedly idealistic American right turns out to be pretty pessimistic. It turns out that the people uninterested in the human rights of Muslims at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay aren’t all that concerned about them in Egypt or Bahrain either.
We have been led astray by the term “neoconservative,” which the media generally defines as “democratic imperialists” (or perhaps “Jewish democratic imperialists”). In fact, the number of neoconservatives who were ever willing to risk anything in democracy’s name was minimal. A few influential “neoconservatives”—like Robert Kagan, William Kristol, and Paul Wolfowitz—did support the human-rights interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. But the bulk of 1990s' conservative commentators and Republican politicians derided Bill Clinton’s humanitarian wars as a waste of blood and treasure, “foreign policy as social work.” After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration used the Taliban’s human-rights horrors to whip up support for war, but once the Taliban fell, it spurned the kind of nation building that would have been required to give Afghan democracy a chance. (To read Douglas Feith or Richard Haass’ memoirs is to grasp how dubious top Bush administration officials were about the prospects for Afghan democracy from the very beginning.) And while George W. Bush himself seems genuinely to have believed that the Iraq War would strike a blow for liberty across the Islamic world, there is little evidence that that rationale influenced his own war planners, who expected to begin withdrawing U.S. troops within weeks of Saddam’s fall, even though only a lunatic could have believed that such a rapid drawdown was consistent with Iraqi democracy.
The people with the biggest megaphones on the American right are not preaching democratic idealism. They’re warning that Egypt and Bahrain are about to become Iranian-style theocracies.
The whole conservatives-as-democratizers trope, in retrospect, has been a case of the media falling in love with a story of man bites dog. Yes, there were conservative intellectuals who came to believe after 9/11 that American power could usher in an Islamic 1989. And yes, George W. Bush himself seems to have cottoned to the idea. But this democratic idealism didn’t feature very much in his actual foreign policy—not in Venezuela, where the Bush administration encouraged a coup against Hugo Chavez, not in the Gaza Strip, where it encouraged a coup against the democratically elected (if odious) Hamas government, not in China, not in Russia, not in Saudi Arabia, not in Egypt, and not even consistently in Iraq, where Paul Bremer wanted a complex, quasi-democratic caucus system to choose that nation’s constituent assembly and allowed direct elections only after Ayatollah Ali Sistani brought thousands of Shiites into the streets.
Now that George W. Bush is back in Texas, the long-term trajectory of conservative foreign policy is even clearer. With a few exceptions (like Ronald Reagan’s turn against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines), Cold War conservatives have proved highly pessimistic about Third World democracy. Far more than liberals, they backed colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s on the grounds that independence would bring communists to power. And from Chile to South Africa to Zaire, they preached the same message in the 1970s and 1980s, supporting a gaggle of pro-American tyrants as preferable to the leftists who might replace them. Today, it is conservatives—far more than liberals—who back war with Iran, despite clear evidence that it would devastate the Iranian democracy movement. And it is conservatives—far more than liberals—who invoke the new boogeyman of Islamist rule to explain why we can’t support truly a free election in Egypt.
If one listens to Glenn Beck talk about Muslims today and reads James Burnham, William F. Buckley, Jeane Kirkpatrick, or Irving Kristol’s essays on Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans during the Cold War, one theme becomes strikingly clear: In their marrow, conservatives believe that culture matters, and many suspect that the only culture capable of sustaining liberal democracy is the Western kind. The conservatives who don’t believe that are an intriguing, and in some ways admirable, bunch, but they were, and are, the exception that proves the rule. In this epic moment in the Middle East, America’s true “realists” are standing up. It’s time the media noticed.
Correction: Ferdinand Marcos, the former Philippine president, was referred to incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.