To his fellow Egyptians and to most observers across the world, Mohamed ElBaradei looks like a hero -- an international diplomat who might well have lived out his days in the comforts of Geneva and New York, but returned home to provide leadership despite serious personal peril. But to leading figures on the American right, ElBaradei is a figure to be mocked, scorned and dismissed as a stooge of darker forces in Egyptian politics and the Mideast.
Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his years of stewardship of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he is suddenly the target of insults and attacks from Republicans who deem themselves expert on the politics of the Middle East. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton calls ElBaradei a "dilettante," and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer goes further, calling him "a bad guy."
The opinions of these veterans of the Bush White House, perhaps the least successful government in American history since the Herbert Hoover years, are not worth much -- except as a reminder of the continuing ill wind blowing from that defunct administration and its policies. Their hostility to ElBaradei and to the mass civic movement in Egypt reveals the hollowness and uselessness of the neoconservative worldview at a moment of intense crisis for American diplomacy.
To everyone else, it is obvious that Hosni Mubarak cannot abide much longer as president of Egypt, despite the billions in aid that we have lavished on him these past three decades. And to everyone else, it is also obvious that whenever he goes, the most promising alternative is ElBaradei, a secular liberal with strong ties to the West.
But to the neoconservatives, the possibility that ElBaradei might help preserve his country's 80 million souls from bloody chaos matters much less than the fact that he disagreed with them about the invasion of Iraq and that he still disagrees with them about a pre-emptive strike against Iran. He committed the unforgivable sin of being right when they were wrong about Iraq's mythical nuclear weapons program, and he has insisted on pursuing a peaceful resolution of Iran's atomic ambitions as well.
With their peculiar belief that what we always need is more armed conflict in the Mideast, the neoconservatives despise ElBaradei -- although Americans would have saved thousands of lives and trillions of dollars if only we had listened to his truth rather than their lies.
Among those lies, of course, was the notion that "regime change" in Baghdad would spark a democratic renaissance across the Mideast beneficial to America and Israel as well as the people of the region. That didn't happen, but today a burgeoning movement of youth demanding democracy and human rights has appeared -- and the neoconservatives now warn us to fear and reject them.
Let us hope that the Obama administration is sufficiently sensible to ignore such awful advice. Balancing our national security interests against the complexities of places like Egypt and Jordan, with strong Islamic political movements, will be difficult to say the least. But there is no point in nostalgia for the friendly dictators of the past and the arrangements we once made with them. Hysteria over the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood should be assuaged by the example of Turkey, where the ruling Islamist party is seeking even now to restore ties with Israel and join the European Union.
Neglect, arrogance and cynicism have left us with little knowledge and few relationships that will be useful as we cope with momentous changes in the Mideast. If we face that fact, then the last thing we should do is undermine those, like ElBaradei, who might help us negotiate this challenging course.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com).
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