Conservatives versus Freedom
When the Egyptian protests first broke out, most Americans celebrated. Though Mubarak's military must still be circumvented or overthrown, the revolt has spread, like a cleansing fire, to Bahrain, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Jordan, and beyond.
What is all this all about? Thanks to Western rule since WWI, this is a region of dictators and domination. Regardless of the spark, that is the issue. This might just be an old story and exactly what it appears to be: a struggle between the liberty of the people and the criminal power of the state.
Somehow, however, this is not obvious to many conservatives. Never mind that the people are denouncing the dictators, the jails, the political persecutions, the torturing and brutality, the disappearances and murders, and demanding the freedom to speak, publish, and live. Surely there must be some nefarious plot behind it all.
The liberty theme was clear enough in Egypt. Here we had multitudes of educated, young, tech-savvy, profreedom activists taking a brave stand against a national-socialist dictator of 30 years — and the bad guy lost, thereby giving hope to all peoples in the world who struggle against tyranny. The role of the military in the future of the country is still up in the air, and who doubts that another government will have to be overthrown again in the future? Still, victory is victory.
The parallels with 1989 and with 1776 were impossible to miss. Anyone who loves Jefferson, Bastiat, and Rothbard had to feel a mighty rush, a sense that the flame of freedom will never, ever be extinguished. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere, including in Washington, DC.
A Pew Research study confirmed intense American public interest in this Egyptian story. It was the biggest foreign-policy story in four years — bigger than any natural disaster or any US war. The story even overwhelmed domestic news. From an American popular perspective, there is nothing quite as thrilling as seeing a people stand up to a brutal dictator — and having it end (though there is much more to do) the right way.
This story is embedded deep within our own civic culture, with our own revolt against empire. The themes of the revolt — liberty, human rights, justice — are our themes, beautiful evidence of the way the American experience has been a light to the world, despite 20th-century deviations. And if you were watching the live coverage, especially Al Jazeera, it was clear that freedom, in exactly the way we understand that term, was the theme. The Declaration of Independence was quoted in placards. Speakers mentioned Patrick Henry. This was the memory of the American revolution revived in the old world.
Just as commentators and intellectuals have trouble understanding liberty as a theme in domestic politics, some people just can't get it in foreign policy. I noticed a strange lack of celebration on many conservative blogs and sites. There is far more handwringing about "instability" than cheers for the people.
If the Egyptian case is any indication, we can look forward to more fretting and puzzling and even opposition from the American Right. The angst-filled view on Egypt began with Glenn Beck, the most influential voice on the tea-party Right, a man who last year celebrated Hayek's Road to Serfdom and put it on the bestseller list.
In a YouTube video, he warned that these revolts were not what they seemed. They are really the working out of a conspiracy of Muslim fanatics insufficiently appreciative of the US-installed and maintained dictator. It was shockingly clear: he supported the regime over the people, the US empire over self-determination. From his account, one would think that a protest for liberty was terrorism. Which may give us some indication of what terrorism means to him and others like him.
Following Beck, there was a rising ethos on the American Right that looked down on the protests, regretting them and even hoping for a full-scale and murderous crackdown. At the CPAC convention on the very weekend that Mubarak fell, Ron Paul was the only major speaker to even address the subject, much less celebrate the freedom movement.
At the bottom of the heap was Ann Coulter at CPAC, who expressed no love for the Egyptian people. She was specifically asked about the reality that the Mubarak regime was jailing journalists. Her response: "I think there should be more jailed journalists." The audience cheered.
Michael Barone of National Review put it bluntly: "Most of us would probably prefer to have seen a victory of people power in Tehran or Pyongyang than in Cairo. Mubarak's Egypt was an ally of the United States."
In holding these opinions, the conservatives are echoing the same absence of joy found in the regimes of Algeria, Libya, and Morocco — other governments that are wholly owned by the CIA and worry about what a freedom uprising would mean for them.
For many people on the Right, Islam is the new communism — the bugaboo that we must fear above all else. They see its wickedness everywhere. It's gone so far that many people cannot recognize the just aspirations of an Islamic people to be free of dictatorship. The message of Beck, Coulter, and others seems to be that the best thing for these people is US-imposed totalitarianism.
It is true that freedom is not certain to bloom in the postprotest world. Sometimes freedom comes in stages. Sometimes a worse regime can replace a bad one. But it is always an occasion to celebrate when the tyrant is overthrown. It is always a blow for liberty — no matter that the brutal state in question is officially supported by the US government.
For some 60 years, there has been a deep fissure in what is called the American Right. There are those who believe in liberty. And there are those who believe in the American imperial state. They are not the same. Indeed, they are in opposition. These events underscore the serious difference, to the point that many spokesmen among the conservative movement can't even recognize the legitimate aspirations of a people not to be ruled by a dictator in power for decades. The reality highlights the lie that these people believe in liberty as versus government power.
The same fissure on a more philosophical level is summed up as the debate between liberty and order. The Right has gone back and forth on this subject for many decades. But the discussion becomes less abstract in a case where millions suffer under despotism. To favor order over liberty here meant to crack skulls and massacre people to keep an illegitimate regime in power for the Pentagon.
In a world in which the last superpower is losing control — and the sooner the better — American conservatives will have to make a choice. Do they favor freedom? Or do they favor the global military state? Fess up, fellows. You have to make the choice.