Wilsonian Idealism Is Not Ideal

In 1933, a neo-fascist "Young Egypt" movement, modeled on the Nazi Party, was founded. Among its supporters were two young nationalist officers, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

When, in 1942, Rommel’s Afrika Corps smashed into Egypt and was 100 miles from Alexandria, Sadat, colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood, planned an anti-British uprising. In a proposed treaty with Nazi Germany, Berlin was to recognize an independent Egypt, which was to be pro-Axis. In return, Sadat wrote, "No British soldier would leave Cairo alive."

In 1970, when the dictator Nasser died, he was replaced by his vice president, Sadat, who demanded return of the Sinai, lost in the Six-Day War. Ignored, Sadat launched the Yom Kippur War, crossed the Suez Canal in force, and, with his Syrian allies, threatened Israel itself.

President Nixon reacted immediately, sending massive aid to Israel and warning Moscow not to intervene, as Ariel Sharon led his brigade across the canal to cut off food and water to Egypt’s Third Army on the east bank. Nixon and Kissinger intervened with Israel to prevent the annihilation of the Third Army.

In 1974, Nixon made a triumphal visit to Egypt. Four years later, Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David accord between Menachem Begin, who had blown up the King David Hotel in 1946, and Sadat, the Nazi collaborator. Begin, Sadat and Carter would all win the Nobel Prize for Peace for Camp David.

 Nixon’s Middle East policy was designed to secure U.S. vital interests in the region, which required restoration of ties to an Egypt led by a military dictator and ex-Nazi sympathizer. Neither Nixon nor Carter insisted that Sadat hold elections before brokering the truce with Israel or the permanent peace. They did not let the best become the enemy of the good.

Nor did the Israelis make such a demand. Indeed, in Israel in June 1967 with Nixon, I heard David Ben-Gurion himself express the hope that Nasser would survive his humiliation in the Six-Day War because, said Ben-Gurion, Nasser alone could conclude a peace with Israel that Arabs might accept. Ben-Gurion did not believe you needed to democratize Egypt before you made peace with Egypt.

This is a slice of the U.S. record in the Mideast that Condi Rice dismissed as six decades of failure last summer in Cairo: "For 60 years, my country … pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region … and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

And how is the Rice-Bush democracy project coming in Cairo?

Not so good. In September, President Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded the assassinated Sadat in 1981, won yet another six-year term in an election marked by fraud. In the parliamentary elections just ended, the Tomorrow Party of Ayman Nour, leader of the secular democratic forces, looked like the Party of Yesterday. It won next to nothing, and Nour ended up in a jailhouse, courtesy of a Mubarak judge.

 By harassing opponents and excluding the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak fixed the outcome so his National Democratic Party won 314 of 454 seats, the two-thirds needed to make parliament a rubber stamp. But if the biggest loser was the democratic opposition of Nour, which got a pathetic smattering of votes, the winner was the Muslim Brotherhood.

Denied the right to participate as a party, the Brotherhood backed independent candidates who swept to victory in 60 percent of the races they contested. They would have done better, were it not for the thuggery of NDP mobs and Mubarak’s security police, which The Washington Post described in an editorial, "Egypt’s Ugly Election":

"The last days of Egypt’s month-long parliamentary election were shameful. Government security forces and gangs of thugs from the (NDP) blockaded access to dozens of polling sites where opposition candidates were strong. In several cases they opened fire on citizens who tried to vote; 10 people were reported killed. Inside the election stations, government supporters blatantly stuffed ballot boxes in full view of judicial monitors."

Where does that leave Egyptian democracy? The Mubarak regime, once the pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East, has been delegitimized by brutality and fraud, and has jeopardized its $1.8 billion in U.S. aid. The Muslim Brotherhood, target of the thuggery, has seen its credentials burnished and is now the alternative to Mubarak.

So it goes. We hail the fall of Czar Nicholas and get Lenin. We go to war to hang the Prussian Kaiser and get an Austrian corporal named Hitler. We cut off aid to the "corrupt" regime of Chiang Kai-shek and get Mao Zedong. We denounce Lon Nol and get Pol Pot. We destabilize the Shah and get the Ayatollah.

How many times must we relearn the lesson? The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the fruits of Wilsonian idealism are rarely ideal.