Bush Was Right

The former president's Freedom Agenda correctly identified the Middle East's dictatorships as the incubators of extremism.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

When mass demonstrations began spreading across the Arab world early last year, conservative commentators lost no time in singing the praises of George W. Bush, the first U.S. president to aggressively push for democratization in the region.

Today, with Islamists dominating politics wherever tyrants have stumbled or fallen, many of those who waxed eloquent about Bush’s Freedom Agenda have either fallen silent or taken to arguing that Islamist ascendancy will prove to be a temporary setback on the road to liberal democracy. Those who were critical of it all along are having a field day.

In fact, even if the Arab Spring constitutes "an unshackling of Islam, not an outbreak of fervor for freedom in the Western sense," it is proof positive that the Bush administration correctly diagnosed the causes of Arab political dysfunction and made extraordinarily sound — if short-lived — policy changes to combat it.

In the wake of 9/11, the White House openly repudiated the longstanding conventional wisdom that U.S.-backed autocratic regimes in the Middle East served as bulwarks against the regional and international security threat posed by radical Islamism. Al Qaeda was then a largely Saudi and Egyptian network, its leadership drawn primarily from disgruntled subjects of the Arab world’s two most powerful pro-American governments. The Bush administration quickly recognized that authoritarianism had swelled the ranks of radical Islamist movements by traumatizing Arab citizens and eradicating alternate channels of political expression, while Washington’s longstanding support for this state of affairs infused them with hatred of America.

To make matters worse, Arab regimes typically sought to co-opt Islamists by introducing illiberal religious dogma into education, civil law, and media, allowing them to advance their long-term goal of Islamizing society in exchange for short-term political quietism. Those who persisted in subversive activity were typically imprisoned and tortured, then released into exile to seek other paths to martyrdom.

The Bush administration was not the first to recognize that the political survival strategies of friendly Arab regimes were fueling the growing threat of transnational Islamist terrorism, but it was the first to take bold action to address the problem. President Bill Clinton’s administration understood the malignant spillover effects of autocracy in the region, but believed that democratization in the Middle East was a pipe dream in the absence of a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Pushing for political reform before a resolution was in hand, the reasoning went, would only alienate Arab governments whose cooperation was needed to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough.

By the time Bush took office, however, prospects for a peace settlement were at a nadir. Given the multitude of septuagenarian and octogenarian heads of state in the Arab world and the growing impact of communications technology in weakening authoritarian controls, the assumption that political reform could wait for peace was dismissed as untenable.

Bush administration officials feared a repeat of Iran’s 1979 revolution, when the collapse of an oppressive, U.S.-backed government led to a power vacuum that violently anti-American Islamists were best positioned to exploit. Iraq aside, the Freedom Agenda was intended less to bring about full-blown transitions to democracy than to treat the pathologies of existing regimes, maximize the capacity of secular opposition groups to compete with Islamists, and dispel the widespread belief among Arabs that the United States, as Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abdelbari Atwan once put it, "wants us to have dictators and monarchical presidents."

Of course, this policy shift did not gain consensus in Washington purely on the basis of such pragmatic considerations. Bush’s soaring rhetoric about democracy gratified conservative perceptions of American exceptionalism, provided ideological cover for the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, and dovetailed neatly with efforts by Israel’s supporters to discredit the claim that Arabs hate the United States primarily because of its support for the Jewish state.

Whatever the motivations of its fair-weather advocates, however, the Bush administration’s commitment to effecting political liberalization in the region was genuine. It was uneven in practice, to be sure — countries heavily dependent on U.S. aid were pressured far more than the oil-rich monarchies, for example, where the United States had little leverage.

The administration’s flagship democracy promotion effort targeted Egypt — recipient of more than $1.5 billion in annual military and economic aid — and it was no joke. The Bush administration pressured Cairo to hold its freest parliamentary elections in decades, vastly increased U.S. aid to Egyptian NGOs working for political reform, and directed the U.S. Embassy to devote a large portion of its resources to civil society outreach. While his predecessor never dreamed of publicly pressuring a friendly Arab leader to release a political prisoner, Bush launched high-profile campaigns of diplomatic and economic pressure to win the release of liberal Egyptian dissidents Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Ayman Nour.

In the wake of Islamist electoral advances in Egypt and Gaza, deteriorating security conditions in Iraq, and the resurgence of Iranian regional influence, the Freedom Agenda encountered growing objections from in Washington. As a result, American pressure for reform in Egypt began to taper off in 2006 — but it was hardly abandoned. American aid to reformist NGOs continued apace, while the U.S. Embassy in Cairo remained active behind the scenes encouraging and defending pro-democracy activists, as revealed in State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.

The Bush administration succeeded in cultivating the perception among educated Arabs that America is sympathetic to — if not always willing to do much about — their political grievances. Even the deputy head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Habib, grudgingly admitted in 2005 that Mubarak’s introduction of reforms "could have been the result of pressure from the United States."

President Barack Obama came into office with grand, if unimaginative, ambitions of reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which placed a high premium on the cooperation of Arab governments. To accomplish this goal, he quickly strove to patch up American relations with Middle Eastern autocrats whose cooperation he needed to impose a top-down solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict — or at least a Rose Garden signing likely to endure through the 2012 U.S. election cycle. The Freedom Agenda had to go.

In Egypt, the new administration broadcast clear signals that dissidents should not expect American help in resisting a hereditary succession. During her March 2009 trip to Cairo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed a reporter’s inquiry about the Mubarak regime’s poor human rights record by saying "we all have room for improvement" and calling the Egyptian president and his wife "friends of my family." The Washington Post presciently accused her of obliviously offending "millions of Egyptians who loathe Mr. Mubarak’s oppressive government and blame the United States for propping it up." When an equally oblivious Obama paused in expectation of applause after proclaiming that democracy should not be "imposed" by outsiders in his landmark June 2009 speech in Cairo, he was greeted with silence.

Meanwhile, the White House cut aid to Egyptian reform NGOs by half and redirected the remainder away from NGOs not approved by the government. In 2009, Mubarak made his first visit to Washington in five years, while his son and heir apparent, Gamal, visited twice. This caused an uproar among democracy activists, and contributed to a decline in the percentage of Egyptians holding favorable views of the United States from 30 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2010.

The Obama administration did not go full circle in its toleration of Egyptian tyranny, but only because American democracy promotion efforts had become too institutionalized to completely jettison without drawing negative publicity. But there is no doubt that it gravely underestimated popular anger at the Mubarak regime and scaled back U.S. support for pro-democracy initiatives at precisely the moment when secular liberal opposition forces needed it most.

In the end, Washington’s support for Mubarak was sufficient to encourage his pursuit of a hereditary succession, but insufficient to actually enable it. It left secular liberal political forces powerful enough to crack the authoritarian edifice, but woefully unequipped to assert themselves when the levee broke. And what a flood it has been: Islamists won more than 70 percent of the seats in Egypt’s November 2011 parliamentary elections, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater is the apparent front-runner in next month’s presidential election.

This trend is not confined to Egypt.  In Tunisia and Morocco, Islamists won a plurality of seats in recent elections.  Whether it proves to be a fleeting aberration or blankets the region with a new generation of theocratic tyrannies, however, the Islamist surge  underscores that the Bush administration’s reading of the political dynamics at work in Egypt and the broader Arab world was essentially correct, with one minor exception — the day of reckoning came sooner than anyone expected.

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