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No vindication for neocons

People power is more potent than "shock and awe".

“Are we all neocons now?" That was the question posed by the US writer and historian Max Boot on the website of the leading neoconservative magazine Commentary on 28 January. Surveying the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, he concluded: "President Bush was right in pushing his 'freedom agenda' for the Middle East."

As dictators fall like dominoes across the region, the rehabilitation of George W Bush and his once discredited foreign policy is gathering pace. "Were the neocons right?" asked Chris Matthews on his MSNBC programme. "Egypt protests show George W Bush was right about freedom in the Arab world," proclaimed a headline in the Washington Post.

The argument goes like this: after 11 September 2001, Bush and his neocon gang - Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and the rest - reversed a 60-year trend of accommodating Middle Eastern despots. The neocons understood that poverty and terror were the product of a "lack of freedom" (to quote Bush).

By this reading, the invasion of Iraq, therefore, "liberated" 25 million Iraqis and planted the seeds of liberal democracy in an autocratic region. In 2005 and 2006, as elections were held in Palestine and Lebanon, neoconservative commentators celebrated a "new Arab spring" as Condoleezza Rice, the then US secretary of state, spoke about the "birth pangs of the new Middle East". Fast-forward five years and the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt show that Bush's approach to "democracy promotion" was the correct one.

Such a thesis is deeply flawed. First, it is a crude rewriting of recent history. The war against Iraq was fought ostensibly for reasons of national security, not to promote democracy. Remember the words of the Bush administration's chief spokesman, Tony Blair, a month before the invasion, in February 2003? "I detest [Saddam Hussein's] regime. But, even now, he can save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully." Freedom for the Iraqis became the primary justification for the war only after weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a figment of the neoconservative imagination.

Second, it is bizarre and offensive to claim that those of us who opposed the war did so because we did not believe the people of Iraq were deserving of democracy or yearning for liberty. It wasn't that we were opposed to a "freedom agenda" in the Middle East but that we rejected the neocon formula that said democracy could be delivered through the barrel of a gun. We objected to the means, not the ends.

Third, it is necessary, therefore, to point out that, far from retrospectively vindicating the unilateral, aggressive and militarised approach to democratic reform favoured by the Bush administration in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt vividly illustrate the way in which democratic change can come from within, from "people power". The US approach - "bomb, invade, occupy" - has been made irrelevant. The Tunisian and Egyptian protesters were supported by Facebook, Twitter and al-Jazeera, not tanks, planes and "shock and awe".

Fourth, there is scant evidence that the self-professed neoconservative commitment to liberty in the Muslim world goes beyond rhetoric. While some neocons have belatedly backed the Egyptian revolution, some haven't. Take John Bolton, the moustachioed hawk who served as Bush's ambassador to the UN. "The real alternative is not Jefferson democracy v the Mubarak regime," he said in a radio interview on 28 January. "It's the Muslim Brotherhood v the Mubarak regime and that has enormous implications for the US, for Israel and our other friends in the region."

How about Elliott Abrams? This deputy national security adviser to Bush was one of a handful of neoconservatives to come out enthusiastically on the side of the Egyptian protesters and against Mubarak's government. But in government, Abrams was a prime mover behind a US plan, aided and abetted by Mubarak, to try to undo the results of the January 2006 Palestinian elections in which Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature.

The reality is that neoconservatives tend to back democracies only when those democracies back the west - specifically, the US and Israel. Theirs is a strategic and self-interested, rather than principled, support for "freedom".

Fifth, the idea that Bush fought for democracy in the Middle East in general and Egypt, in particular, is risible. Is this the same Bush who handed over $1.3bn in US military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo during each of his eight years in office? Is this the same Bush who said, in April 2004: "I'm pleased to welcome my friend Hosni Mubarak to my home," adding, "I look forward to hearing his wise counsel . . ."

Yes, Dubbya peppered his speeches with repeated references to freedom and democracy but the lofty rhetoric was not matched by actions on the ground in the Middle East - or elsewhere. In a 2007 report, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that the Bush administration had friendly relations with more than half of the 45 "non-free" countries in the world.

These included Egypt and Tunisia - the latter is now free from the grip of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the former, at the time of writing, is on the brink of liberation from Mubarak's police. Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia could be next. And the neocons, smug and sanctimonious, can't take credit for any of these events. Are we all neocons now? Of course not.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the NS

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt