Washington Babylon — November 29, 2007, 12:11 pm

Roger Cohen: Viva Mubarak, Fuera Chavez!

Hugo Chavez has done a lot of good things in Venezuela, like empowering the poor, redistributing wealth, and spending billions of dollars in oil revenues on health and education. Despite those impressive achievements, I hope he loses the referendum Sunday that would eliminate restrictions on presidential reelection and allow him to seek additional terms in office. It’s anti-democratic and it’s hard to understand why he would be the single person capable of leading Venezuela. Is there no one else in Chavez’s political movement able to run the country and implement anti-poverty policies?

That said, it’s amusing to watch American pundits and newspaper editorial boards hysterically denounce Chavez–who has thrice been elected with overwhelming popular support–even as they cheerfully accommodate pro-American dictators elsewhere. Take a look at Roger Cohen’s column today in the New York Times:

[M]ore than spreading socialist ideals, Chávez has spread a form of crony capitalism, dedicated to his greater glory, that has imbued the economy with all the resilience of a house of cards. Chávez’s grab for socialist-emperor status is grotesque and dangerous–as Fascism was–a terrible example for a region that has been consolidating democracy.

Chávez, Cohen continues, “has already used gushing oil revenue, a pliant judiciary, subservient institutions and the galvanizing appeal of vitriolic anti-Americanism to concoct a 21st-century, gulag-free authoritarianism.”

Now contrast that with a column Cohen wrote in November of 2006 about Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak has constructed a 20th century brand of authoritarianism, complete with gulag, enriched his family and friends, and impoverished just about everyone else. Furthermore, Mubarak has ruled since 1981, 17 years longer than Chavez, and has never won a remotely fair vote. Yet Cohen utters hardly a squeak of concern about Mubarak’s terrible rule. (I mentioned this column in passing once before, but it’s so ghastly that it’s worth examining in detail, especially given Cohen’s column today on Chavez.)

Here’s a credulous Cohen on the Egyptian strongman:

Mubarak, prodded by the United States, has dabbled in democratic change in the past couple of years, holding the first multicandidate presidential election last year that ushered him into his fifth term with a handy 88.5 percent of the vote, down several points from the more Orwellian scores he notched up in earlier plebiscites…More reforms are promised next year that would give the legislature greater oversight, adding checks and balances to a system that has long amounted to Mubarak rule by fiat.

Talk about seeing the glass half-full. Of course, the promised reforms never came to pass and Mubarak still rules by fiat. He currently is seeking to hand off power to his son.

In his column today, Cohen talks to no one who is even remotely sympathetic to Chavez, yet he devoted much of his 2006 article to a conversation with Mohamed Kamal, an American-educated crony of Mubarak’s. “We are moving in the right direction,” he quotes him as saying. “The president wants democratizing Egypt to be part of his legacy.”

It gets worse. Cohen effectively endorses Mubarak’s continued rule as long as makes a few meager, empty reforms:

Egypt is critical to the United States. It provides potential avenues to Syria and Iran at a time when engagement with those countries is under review. Its influence on the Palestinian Authority is considerable. Its assistance in fighting terrorism is important. Overall, it’s an element of stability. That’s the return America gets on more than $2 billion in annual aid. Democracy sounds good, but putting all the above at risk in its name looks right now like a perverse proposition, a shot in the foot in the name of a grand idea…. Prudence on democracy seems the only reasonable course. Mubarak’s Egypt is inching in a democratic direction. Overdrive could kill the enterprise, damage American interests, and create further regional turmoil.

Cohen is no democrat. Like so much of the pundit class, he favors democracy when convenient, but when authoritarianism protects “American interests,” dictator-coddling is perfectly fine.

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