In a better world, I'd be enthusiastically in favor of democracy promotion and even nation-building — more correctly called state-building. But we don't live in a better world.
The world in which we do live is increasingly dominated by authoritarians. Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey — all have become, effectively, presidents for life.
Ali Khamenei has been supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1989 and will cling to power till he meets his maker. The hopefully named Arab Spring brought increased freedom and democracy to Tunisia (fingers crossed that it lasts) but not to other members of the Arab League.
In Cuba, the Castro dictatorship moderated not a scintilla following President Obama's decision to establish diplomatic relations. Venezuela once was a prosperous democracy but certainly isn't now. North Korea is ruled by a third generation dynastic tyrant.
Candidly, I also worry about the resilience of American democracy. The 2016 election results — surprising to many, shocking to some — should have galvanized a loyal opposition. Instead, it gave rise to the "resistance," a term intended to evoke the maquis in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
Meanwhile, an accelerating movement seeks to restrict freedom of speech, to use both violence and political power to silence those who violate the dictates of "political correctness" as defined by self-declared "social justice warriors" of the left. That this movement is antithetical to the preservation of a liberal democratic society goes without saying.
All this raises an important question: Should support for freedom and democracy be a key American foreign policy goal? A column I wrote last week broached this topic, provoking some fierce criticism.
Writing from Egypt, which is holding presidential elections this week (with not a shadow of a doubt about who will win), I suggested that we consider separating, rather than conflating, efforts to promote freedom and efforts to promote democracy, with the emphasis on the former.
I would urge the Trump administration to press President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — and, by implication, other authoritarians aligned with the U.S. — to loosen the reins, to distinguish prudence from paranoia, to end persecution of dissidents and human rights advocates not seeking the overthrow of his government. He should be encouraged to establish and uphold the rule of law, to more vigorously defend freedom of religion or belief (the most basic of rights) and to tolerate freedom of expression.
It should be made clear to him that progress along these lines will be rewarded, and that a worsening human rights situation can only weaken the American-Egyptian relationship. One can imagine such efforts bringing positive results.
By contrast, no matter how much we might wish it, no matter how much aid we give or cut, Egypt will not, anytime soon, become a liberal democracy, with political parties waging battles only of ideas, leading to elections that result in winners who accept limits on their powers, and losers confident they will live to fight another day.
One response to my column came from Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt, scholars who have been sharply critical of President Sisi and U.S. policy toward him. My column, she tweeted, "presents a particularly unworthy and ill-timed argument."
I asked her to outline what she would consider a more worthy and better-timed argument, one that goes beyond condemning Mr. Sisi's oppression (justified though that is), and proposing further cuts in aid (even beyond the $195 million in military assistance already being withheld) at a time when Egypt is fighting Islamic State jihadists attempting to conquer the Sinai Peninsula. I'm eagerly awaiting her reply.
Robert Kagan, one of the Working Group's co-chairs and a scholar for whom I have enormous respect, last week told The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin: "Violence and terrorism have been on the rise ever since Sisi took office, mostly because of his harsh crackdown, which is radicalizing youth that was not previously violent."
I have two quarrels with that sentence. First: It elides the fact that there was significant violence and terrorism when Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi served as Egypt's elected president. To quote Egypt's Coptic Christian patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, that was "a bloody period."
Second: The word "mostly." Many young people who are not subject to crackdowns — including in Europe and the U.S. — become "radicalized." The most that can be said with confidence is that Mr. Sisi's harsh policies may be contributing to the appeal of fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic scripture that justify jihad against non-Muslims.
The latest Working Group letter on Egypt urges the U.S. government "to stand privately and publicly for the right of Egyptians to enjoy basic human rights as well as to choose their leaders in a free and fair electoral process."
I'm arguing that those missions are more likely to be accomplished if they are sequenced. Experience — for example in Gaza, the West Bank and Egypt itself — strongly suggests that democratic habits and institutions need to be established prior to elections; they don't appear as if by wizardry after the ballots are cast and counted.
More broadly, if the choice is between liberal authoritarianism and illiberal democracy, I have to opt for the former. Better to establish some rights guaranteed to all — the majority and minorities alike — rather than establish rights guaranteed only to the majority. Establish a foundation of freedoms first; further progress may then be possible.
I don't understand why anyone would deem that approach either "unworthy" or "ill-timed." But I'm open to serious arguments. Really, I am.