The fundamental error that they made was in framing a new war with Islamism in terms of the ideas that had been applied to the Third World when its countries were pawns in the Cold War. The issue was no longer whether a Muslim country would align with the United States or the USSR, but whether it would express the historical destiny embedded in its religion.
The first great failure to understand this came in Iran. The Carter Administration aided what it thought was a historical revival that might restrain Communism, without realizing the genie being let out of the bottle. The entire course of the Arab Spring could have been foreseen 31 years earlier. And while, during the Cold War, there might have been some excuse for choosing Islamists over Communists, during the Arab Spring that same choice no longer applied.
The argument that democracy had made the Muslim world dysfunctional was always chancy. The best counterargument to it was that second and third-generation Muslims in Europe were often more radical than their immigrant parents. If democracy were a cure for Islamism, it was working very poorly in London, Oslo and Paris.
The assumption of the argument was that the tyranny that a people were living under was unnatural while the outcome of a democratic election would be natural. And yet, if a people have been warped for a thousand years by not living under a democracy, how could they be expected to choose a form of government that would not be warped? Was there any reason to expect that such efforts at democracy would not lead to tyranny?
The dangerous question, closed off by generations of faith in democracy, was whether a country’s bad behavior was the fault of its government or its people. In a truly absolute tyranny, such as North Korea, where the people have absolutely no room to deviate from dogma and are forced to worship the state, it may be reasonable to assume that the state does not truly represent the people. Comparing South Korea to North Korea gives us ample reason to believe that the effect of freeing North Korea would lead to an outcome more like East Germany and less like Egypt.
But few tyrannies are truly absolute. The dictatorship where a Kim Jong Il or a Gaddafi operate in their own version of reality while imposing their insane whims on the rest of the population are not as typical as most people think.
The average dictatorship is not all that fundamentally different from what a democracy would be like in the same place. Some, like Putin’s Russia, blur the lines. Even when they don’t go to the trouble of holding elections, they do rely on public consensus. The dictatorship where 99 percent of the people hate the dictator is a very rare thing. Mubarak, for example, had an extensive base of loyalists, and it would not be impossible to rule out their return to power, considering that Ahmed Shafik won 48.3% of the vote in the Egyptian presidential election, losing to Morsi by barely 120,000 votes.
The Arab Spring has taught us to question the idea that democracy is an absolute good. Initially the outcome of the Palestinian Arab elections that rewarded Hamas was thought not to apply to the wider region. That assumption proved to be wrong. We now know that Hamas’ victory foreshadowed the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory. And we know that Islamists have the inside track in elections because they represent a familiar ideology that has not been discredited in the minds of a majority of Muslims.
We can no longer afford to be bound by a Cold War argument against Communism that has outlived its usefulness, especially once liberals turned left and defected from a national security consensus. Universal democracy has proven to be about as universal a panacea as international law or the United Nations. And relying on it undermines our ability to look after our own interests and defend ourselves.
Classifying ideologies as democratic or undemocratic has blinded us to their content and their appeal. And it gives these ideologies an easy way to discredit our only line of attack against them. Too many Republicans were flailing after the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt; unable to articulate a reason why the United States should not support a democratically elected government. And yet the reasons are obvious, once we ignore the election as largely irrelevant to the nature of the Brotherhood and to the threat it poses to our interests.