The Right's Real Problem With ElBaradei

It's no surprise that the growing movement for democratic change in Egypt is prompting some mixed feelings on the American right. On the one hand, the conservative movement has gotten deeply invested in rhetorical tropes about "freedom" and "democracy." On the other hand, the conservative movement is deeply hypocritical and mostly likes this rhetoric because it can be used as a club to wield against regimes that stand in the way of our geopolitical aspirations.

Hosni Mubarak's Egypt is, on this score, not an anti-American rogue state. It's a client, a lackey, an ideologically and economically exhausted regime eager to do Washington's bidding. Its largest opposition party is the Muslim Brotherhood, one of many religiously inspired, populist, and nationalist movements in the Islamic world with similarities to the religiously inspired, populist, and nationalist movement of the American right. But those similarities are visible only to the American left.

Something a bit funny happened on the road to revolution, however. An educated, Westernized, and liberal former international diplomat and civil servant named Mohamed ElBaradei has risen to prominence as a leading figure in the opposition protests. It's something close to a best-case scenario, right?

Not according to John Bolton, the former United Nations ambassador who denounced ElBaradei as "a dilettante." Or to Newt Gingrich who said ElBaradei is "a disaster" who will lead directly to a Brotherhood takeover. Fox News warns that ElBaradei has "no shortage of critics who say his sudden ascension could prove troubling for U.S.-Egyptian relations." Glenn Beck warned that "Islamacists," the "über-left," and "global elites" are working together to divvy up the world. "You can call it a new world order or a caliphate," Beck observed, and ElBaradei will be right in the middle.

Strangely -- or perhaps not so strangely -- none of ElBaradai's critics seem willing to articulate the precise origin of their beef with the former international atomic energy chief. Perhaps that's because articulating their opposition would discredit it. Many on the right can't stand ElBaradei because he committed a cardinal sin: He was right about Iraq.

In particular, he was one of the central players in an episode of American history that's been all but wiped out of the consciousness of the American elite -- the fatal final weeks before the invasion of Iraq began.

When the Bush administration and a complicit press began pressing for an invasion of Iraq in the winter of 2001-2002, it really was the general consensus of intelligence agencies around the world that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear-weapons program. Bush's presentation of the evidence was at times tendentious, often misleading, and almost always alarmist, but the basic claim was well grounded in what people thought was known. Among other things, Saddam's extreme reluctance to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors was taken as strong circumstantial evidence that he had something to hide. What we now know to be the truth -- that he was largely trying to hide his own regime's weakness -- was a hypothesis accepted by few, even among those with grave doubts about the wisdom of an invasion.

By early 2003, however, things had changed. Faced with the threat of invasion and a united front on the U.N. Security Council, Saddam had admitted two teams of weapons inspectors. One, from the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission led by Hans Blix, was in charge of chemical and biological weapons. The other, from the International Atomic Energy Agency headed up by ElBaradei, was in charge of the more important search for a nuclear-weapons program. And in February 2003, ElBaradei reported that "we have to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq." Specific allegations provided to the IAEA by the United States were being investigated, and so far everything had checked out. ElBaradei confirmed "that it is possible, particularly with an intrusive verification system, to assess the presence or absence of a nuclear-weapons program in a state even without the full co-operation of the inspected state." He called for continued pressure on Iraq to cooperate and continued intelligence sharing from foreign governments suspicious of Iraq's activities. On March 7, he followed up and concluded that "after three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear-weapons program in Iraq."

Shockingly, these findings had almost no impact on the American debate. Those who were already committed to opposing an invasion, of course, paid attention and made note of these claims to bolster their case. But politicians and media figures who had spent the previous six months agitating for war to disarm Iraq seemed completely uninterested in the finding that Iraq had already disarmed. On March 20, 2003, the invasion unfolded, and a tragic and continuing waste of life began.

This all has, strictly speaking, little to do with contemporary events in Egypt. But it's the root of the ill will between ElBaradei and the hawkish American right, a history that reflects so poorly on them that, to this day, they won't say precisely what it is they don't like about the guy.

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