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Monday, April 9, 2012
George W Bush Was Right!
The former U.S. president's Freedom Agenda correctly identified
the Middle East's dictatorships as the incubators of extremism.
BY GARY C. GAMBILL
Former US President George W Bush
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 surgeunderscores 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.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 09/04/2012
-Gary Gambill, a Philadelphia-based political analyst, has published widely on
contemporary Arab politics