Chaos in Libya and Egypt: What Jeane Kirkpatrick and Edmund Burke could have taught us

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In her classic Commentary magazine piece, entitled “Dictators and Double Standards,” former Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that pro-American authoritarian regimes are be preferable to totalitarian, anti-American regimes. Based on Tuesdays attacks on U.S. embassies in Libya and Egypt — including (the apparently planned) murder of Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans — one wonders if we should have heeded her advice.

In fairness, Kirkpatrick might well have supported the no-fly zones employed to halt Gaddafi’s attacks on his own people. Though in recent years, Gaddafi had renounced Tripopli’s WMD’s, he had long been a sponsor of terror. It would be hard to argue the “Mad Man of Tripoli” was a “pro-American” dictator whose stability outweighed the consequences of his ouster. Still, there are often unintended consequences to ousting a strongman.

The decision to stand by and watch the toppling of Hosni Mubarak always concerned me, and I suspect Kirkpatrick would have opposed it. This is partly because the maintained order and peace with Israel — but also because control of Egypt has always been the top priority of Islamists. As I wrote at the time of the revolution,

Mubarak became president only after the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar El Sadat (Sadat was hated for making peace with Israel). Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had worked to overthrow Sadat, and was arrested following the assassination.

Zawahiri’s ideological godfather was another Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb, who in many ways shaped the ideas that led to 9/11. Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood supported the unsuccessful coup attempt against Sadat’s secular predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The point here is that radical Islamist ideology began in Egypt, and this has informed Mubarak’s policies. As Zawahiri wrote in his memoir (according to Lawrence Wright’sThe Looming Tower”): “The River Nile runs in its narrow valley between two deserts that have no vegetation or water. Such a terrain made guerrilla warfare in Egypt impossible.” Egypt has resisted Sharia law — so far — primarily because the terrain allows secular leaders like Mubarak to fend off Islamist insurgents — unlike in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But make no mistake, Egypt was always the most desired goal for conquest.

Is anyone now surprised that the Muslim Brotherhood is now running the government?

If Kirkpatrick wasn’t President Obama’s cup of tea, he might have sought the words and wisdom of an even more revered conservative. David Brooks tells me (not really!)  the president admires Edmund Burke — the great British Parliamentarian, who supported the American cause (he hoped for conciliation with the colonies) — but also predicted the disaster of a blood-stained French Revolution.

Rather than taking a page from Burke, the president seems more inspired by Burke’s old foe, Thomas Paine, who supported the French Revolution.  As I noted a few years ago, President Obama alluded to Paine in Cairo, when he said, “You more than anyone have the ability to reimagine this world, to remake this world.”

President Obama may have reimagined the world, but sadly, the remaking of Egypt and Libya are starting to look more like the mobs of France than the freedom of America.