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What Became of the 'Freedom Agenda'? Print E-mail
Monday, 22 February 2010 09:31

This is particularly true with regard to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, or what the Bush administration called the "Freedom Agenda." The consensus of foreign-policy experts on the left and right now deems this a naïve initiative that was rightly abandoned by the Bush administration itself shortly after the rise of Hamas in the Gaza elections of 2006.

While Mr. Obama paid lip service to the need for greater Middle East democracy in his June 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, he has done very little concretely to back this up in terms of quiet pressure for democratic change on the part of allies like Egypt, Jordan or Morocco. Indeed, the administration's ramping up of military support for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the wake of the attempted Christmas day airliner bombing suggests that we've gone back to the traditional U.S. policy of reliance on Arab strongmen.

This would be a big mistake. For the core premises of the Freedom Agenda remain essentially correct, even as its enunciation in the midst of the Iraq invasion undercut its credibility. Mr. Obama runs the risk of falling in bed with the same set of Middle Eastern authoritarians and alienating broad political populations in the region. He may even live to see them blow up in his face for lack of legitimacy, just as the Shah of Iran did in 1979.

 The Bush administration asserted a number of points under the rubric of the Freedom Agenda that remain valid to the present moment. Back in 2003, President Bush said that "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom . . . did nothing to make us safe. . . . 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."

In his second inaugural in January 2005, Mr. Bush went on to say that there was no cultural reason why the Arab world should remain the one part of the world resistant to the broad wave of democracy evident everywhere else.

As a report published last month by the U.S. Institute of Peace, "In Pursuit of Democracy and Security in the Greater Middle East," argues, there are good reasons for thinking that the lack of democracy in the Arab world is political rather than cultural. Arab authoritarians like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt have tolerated—and in some cases promoted—the participation of Islamist candidates in elections as part of a strategy to prove to Western backers that they are the only thing standing in the way of cataclysmic Islamic revolution.

They've also gotten good at a cynical game of state-managed liberalization, whereby they open up their political systems just enough to convince outsiders that they are "transitioning" to genuine democracy, only to clamp down again once their control is threatened.

All of this has led, in the view of the Institute of Peace report, to an increasingly dangerous political, social and ideological gap between rulers and their societies. And in this struggle between state and society, the U.S. is widely seen throughout the region as selfishly propping up an unjust and corrupt old order.

The problem with the Bush administration's Freedom Agenda wasn't its fundamental analysis, but the way that it was articulated in the midst of the highly unpopular Iraq war. Democracy promotion was used from the start to justify the invasion, and in the eyes of many Arabs became synonymous with American occupation.

The high-flown rhetoric of Bush's second inaugural, when he asserted that there could be no difference between U.S. security interests and our democratic ideals, was manifestly hyperbolic and led to inevitable charges of hypocrisy when the U.S. failed to endorse Hamas as the sole representatives of the Palestinians in Gaza. By making Middle East democracy promotion an instrument of the war on terror, the U.S. both tainted the cause of democracy itself and undermined the credibility of its own foreign policy.

Mr. Obama arrived in office with none of this baggage, and therefore had an opportunity to recommit the United States to peaceful democratic change. But the window is rapidly closing as the U.S. draws closer to the region's authoritarian rulers. In Jordan, for example, cooperation on the war on terrorism has been accompanied by the regime's curbing of political freedoms through the passing of nearly 100 temporary new laws. This has not prevented Mr. Obama from telling King Abdullah "Your Majesty, we need to clone you."

The most immediate danger lies in Yemen, which has become the focus of counterterrorism efforts since the abortive Christmas day attack. There is a genuine al Qaeda threat in Yemen, but President Saleh has made his own situation worse by clamping down on popular protest in the south of the country and picking a fight with the Houthis in the north.

Putting family members in key positions, his corrupt regime nonetheless received nearly $70 million from the U.S. in military assistance last year and is scheduled for even more in the future. Rather than aggressively pressing Mr. Saleh to negotiate with opposition groups and broaden his base of support, we are repeating the classic mistake of putting all of our eggs in one authoritarian basket and making cooperation on counterterrorism the primary criterion for economic and political support.

Taking a Middle Eastern democracy agenda seriously does not mean that we should return to the loud trumpeting of promises of support for regional democracy that we cannot keep. Nor does it mean playing the authoritarians' game of affirming fake liberalization as the real article of democracy.

It does mean working quietly behind the scenes to push friendly authoritarians towards a genuine broadening of political space in their countries through the repeal of countless exceptional laws, defamation codes, party registration statutes and the like that hinder the emergence of real democratic contestation.

The longstanding risk that true democratization will lead to takeover by radical Islamists remains real; our ideals do not require us to commit suicide in this manner. But the idea that radicalism is the only alternative to an illegitimate status quo is one we need not accept.

Mr. Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is author of "America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy" (Yale, 2006).

 

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