It was in 1888, under an earlier Conservative-Liberal coalition government, that Sir William Harcourt is supposed to have said: "We are all socialists now." Well, we are all neocons now, if one is to judge by the general euphoria at the prospect of democracy in Egypt. The arbiters of liberal opinion had hitherto treated the "Bush Doctrine", which promoted the spread of democracy in the Middle East, as the abomination of desolation. An unholy alliance of the "Realists", the Islamists and the Left had consigned neoconservatism to the dustbin of history. They had watched with indifference as the gains of the years immediately after 2001 were reversed across the Muslim world, symbolised by the failure to offer even moral support to the Green Movement that was brutally suppressed in Iran two years ago. Yet suddenly the bien pensants were all for the overthrow of Mubarak, regardless of the consequences — which in practice meant (at least temporarily) the Muslim world's usual fallback: military rule. Even before Mubarak had packed his bags, the Obama Administration was putting out feelers to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the BBC insists is now "moderate". Egypt may indeed evolve into a genuine democracy, rather than a greater Gaza. But if it does, the credit should belong not to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but to George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and the neoconservatives.
Democracy is not the same thing as "people power". A nation that demands to be welcomed into the democratic fold must expect to satisfy certain conditions besides simply holding elections. Before the West commits itself to support any new Egyptian regime, it should insist as a bare minimum on the following: Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims to be protected from persecution and propaganda; women to enjoy full legal equality in all spheres of public and private life; unqualified recognition of and permanent peace with Israel.
Neoconservatism is not reactionary. The late Irving Kristol wrote: "I had no patience with the old conservatism that confronted the tides of history by shouting ‘Stop!'" As George W. Bush might have said, David Cameron misunderestimated neoconservatism when he caricatured it thus: "We should accept that we cannot impose democracy at the barrel of a gun; that we cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet and we shouldn't try. Put crudely, that was what was wrong with the ‘neocon' approach and why I am a liberal Conservative, not a neoconservative." No neocon ever thought like that, much less acted as if they did. But neither do they shy away from what Kristol called "manliness" in foreign policy, as Europe — enfeebled by its safety-first social democratic mentality — invariably does. Before he snipes at neocons again, Mr Cameron should read The Neoconservative Persuasion, a new posthumous collection of Irving Kristol's essays from 1942 to 2009, edited by his widow Gertrude Himmelfarb.