In this week of tumult and revolution throughout the Middle East, few spectacles have been more pathetic—more crudely and shamelessly vain—than the attempt by certain neocons to portray the rush of events as a vindication of their own long-discredited ideas.
I am not referring to the lunatic notion, spread by the likes of Frank Gaffney and Glenn Beck, that President Barack Obama is in league with the Muslim Brotherhood to take over America and the world. This is the stuff of Birchers, birthers, and the sort of UFO kooks who once populated the guest chairs on the Joe Pyne Show. That they’re provided prime airtime on prominent network news shows is, or should be, a scandal.
No, I’m talking about smart people who, for all their loose logic and misleading claims, at least live in the real world. I’m talking specifically about Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, who is going around claiming that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt prove that Bush’s “freedom agenda” was right on the money and that—as he put it in a recent Washington Post op-ed—”the Obama administration’s abandonment of this mind-set is nothing short of a tragedy.”
Abrams singled out a speech that Bush made in November 2003, noting that “stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty” and that as long as “the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.”
Bush would elaborate on the point in his second inaugural address, in January 2005, announcing that spreading democracy was now the main mission of U.S. foreign policy. Speaking to victims of tyranny everywhere, he pledged, “When you stand for liberty, we will stand with you.” And speaking to the tyrants, he said that good relations with America “will require the decent treatment of their own people.”
The next month, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s secretary of state, canceled a long-scheduled trip to Egypt, in protest of President Hosni Mubarak’s arrest of Ayman Nour, the leader of a fledgling opposition party. She rescheduled the trip that June, after Mubarak released Nour, and she used the occasion to deliver a rousing speech at the American University, demanding that Mubarak give his people liberty.
“For 60 years,” she proclaimed, “my country … pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region … and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” She went on, breaking into an almost gospel cadence, “The day is coming when the promises of a fully free and democratic world, once thought impossible, will … seem inevitable. … Ladies and gentlemen, across the Middle East today, millions of citizens are voicing their aspirations for liberty and for democracy. … To these courageous men and women, I say today: All free nations will stand with you as you secure the blessings of your own liberty.”
Not long before all this, the Cedar Revolution spread across Lebanon, the Orange Revolution erupted in Ukraine, and free elections took place in Iraq. “Freedom is on the march,” Bush said many times, and for a brief and thrilling spell, it seemed it might be true.
According to Abrams, it all went to hell when Barack Obama abandoned “this mind-set.”
In fact, though, it all went to hell just a few months after those dramatic speeches, and it did so for two reasons. First, the worldwide march to freedom was a bit of an illusion to begin with (as subsequent events in Lebanon, Iraq, and Ukraine have revealed). Second, and more to the point, Bush failed to follow through on his words, failed to support in any meaningful way the nascent democratic movements that he celebrated—and he failed to do this because he failed to understand what democracy is all about.
Bush’s views on freedom stemmed from sincerely held spiritual beliefs. He said many times, privately and publicly, that liberty is not America’s gift to the world but God’s gift to humanity—and he believed it. But this view implied that liberty was humanity’s default mode; that once a tyrant’s boot was lifted from a people, democracy would gush forth like an uncapped volcano.
But the annals of history show that democracy is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain; that it requires not just the expression of a human desires, but also the creation of political entities and social institutions—courts, legislatures, organized interest groups, and a free press—that can mediate conflicting desires with an aura of legitimacy and thus with minimal violence.
When the newly independent Lebanon started wobbling in the wake of the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, Bush spoke out in support of its prime minister, Fouad Siniora—but he did little more. He and Rice offered just $230 million to help repair the war’s extensive damage—a pittance compared with the more than $1 billion that Iran and Syria poured into the country via the political arm of Hezbollah, which distributed the money to damaged neighborhoods with great fanfare. It’s no wonder that Hezbollah is now Lebanon’s dominant party.
Similarly, Bush, Rice, and (let us not leave him out) Elliott Abrams insisted on holding parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories. They assumed that Fatah, which was favorably disposed to peace talks with Israel, would win—and that Hamas, which was calling for Israel’s destruction, would lose (and, in its disgrace, crumble as a political force). In fact, Hamas won—and gained a huge boost in its credibility as a result.
Significantly, the leaders of Fatah and the Israeli government had tried to talk Rice and Abrams out of their plan, to no avail. A few State Department officials had advised Rice to nudge the Israelis to take some modest steps—for instance, to ease up on border crossings and let Fatah’s leader Mahmoud Abbas take credit for the action, in order to improve his popular image before the election. But she refused. It was as if democracy were a magic potion for curing political ills, and America, having delivered or blessed it, should sit back and let the historical forces flow. (See Chapters 4 and 5 of my 2008 book, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power.)
In his Washington Post op-ed last week, Abrams blamed Hamas’ victory on the fact that, in some first elections, the moderates are “so poorly organized that extreme groups can eke out a victory.” Well, whose fault was that?
Ultimately, Bush’s “freedom agenda” failed—not just as a practical matter, but as an image-enhancer for the United States—because nobody believed it. Bush talked about standing with the oppressed everywhere, and yet he walked hand in hand with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, merrily toasted the president of China, and held a state dinner for the president of Azerbaijan (who had recently ordered the beating of protesters after a phony election, then banned elections altogether).
The ultimate hypocrisy came in January 2007, when Rice journeyed once more to Cairo and this time, at a press conference, heaped praise on Mubarak “for receiving me and for spending so much time with me to talk about the issues of common interest here in the Middle East.” She went on, “Obviously, the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship—one that we value greatly.” She said all this, even though Ayman Nour was back in prison—and, by the way, she didn’t say a word about that.
So much for Rice’s earlier diatribe against those who’d sought stability at the expense of liberty. And so much for Elliott Abrams’ revisionist history about Bush’s sterling integrity and Obama’s disastrous betrayal.
Throughout American history, policymakers have recognized the tension—and, in some cases, grappled for some kind of balance—between our interests and our ideals. George Washington voiced support for the ideals of France even while issuing a Proclamation of Neutrality regarding France’s war with the rest of Europe. Through most of the Cold War, several presidents sought to counter and even undermine Soviet influence while at the same time seeking détente and arms treaties to prevent the outbreak of World War III.
One difference between Bush and Obama is that Bush tried to pretend there was no such tension. He purveyed, and perhaps convinced himself of, a clever syllogism: tyrannies breed discontent; discontent fosters hatred and terrorism, which threatens U.S. security; therefore, spreading democracy enhances U.S. security; therefore, our interests and our ideals are one.
By contrast, Obama is acutely aware that these tensions do exist, especially in a post-Cold War world where alliances and schisms are unclear and overlapping. (However premature his Nobel Peace Prize may have been, his address on the occasion expressed the dilemmas of modern diplomacy more clearly than any politician ever has.)
And so with the revolt in Egypt, it is primarily U.S. interests that have driven President Obama’s attitudes and actions—both his initial caution (before the stakes were clear and Mubarak’s own resistance turned violent) and, a few days later, his explicit pressure for Mubarak’s quick departure as the tide turned. In part, he admires and supports the Egyptian people’s brave protests for self-determination. However, the urgency comes from his awareness that Mubarak’s stubbornness—and the violence that it has unleashed—could hurl an entire, strategically important region over the brink.
What comes after Mubarak is hard to predict (though it’s a good bet that the Egyptian military will play a big part in shaping the country’s fate). One thing that’s obvious, though, is that the longer Mubarak stays in power, the more radicalized the various factions—in Egyptian society, politics, and perhaps the army—will become, and thus the harder it will be for any emerging leader or coalition to create a consensus for a new order.
Elliott Abrams knows all this. As a prominent neoconservative, he genuinely (if theoretically) favors the spreading of democracy. Yet as an ardent Zionist who values the preservation of Israel nearly above all else, he must harbor deep fears (probably deeper than justified) of an uncertain, fledgling democracy spreading to Arab lands on Israel’s border. He understands the tensions of “the freedom agenda” very well. But now that he’s out of power, it’s easier—more reckless, but more self-promoting—to sit back and score points.