As part of the ongoing — and futile — effort to rehabilitate the reputation of former President George W. Bush, Elliott Abrams, one of Bush’s foreign policy advisers, wrote an essay in yesterday’s Washington Post claiming that “Bush was right” to push democracy in the Middle East.
Commenting on the protests currently roiling Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, Abrams said:
All these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush’s “freedom agenda” as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush’s support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force. Consider what Bush said in that 2003 speech, which marked the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, an institution established by President Ronald Reagan precisely to support the expansion of freedom.
“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” Bush said. “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.”
This spirit did not always animate U.S. diplomacy in the Bush administration; plenty of officials found it unrealistic and had to be prodded or overruled to follow the president’s lead. But the revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right – and that the Obama administration’s abandonment of this mind-set is nothing short of a tragedy.
In that account, Abrams showed the same creativity, recklessness and freedom from fact that so often characterized the Bush administration’s foreign policy adventures. In other words, that account is so divorced from reality — in what it says as well as what it does not say — that it can only be called a lie.
For one thing, Abrams ignores these lines from Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, delivered, not at some U.S. think tank, but (figuratively) right in the face of Hosni Mabarek:
The fourth issue that I will address is democracy.
I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere. (emphasis added)
There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.
This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
Abrams also engages in gross duplicity about the Bush’s administration’s response to elections in Palestine. Bush and Condi Rice were excited about the prospects of free and fair elections — but surprised and appalled by the result: Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, won. There were even reports that Bush considering a plot to overthrow that democratically elected government:
The Bush administration, caught out by the rise of Hamas, embarked on a secret project for the armed overthrow of the Islamist government in Gaza, it emerged yesterday.
Vanity Fair reports in its April edition that President George Bush and the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, signed off on a plan for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to remove the Hamas authorities in Gaza. The plan called for Washington’s allies in the region to funnel arms and salaries to Fatah fighters who would lead a rising against Hamas.
But the project was controversial even within the administration, the magazine reports. “There were severe fissures among neoconservatives over this,” David Wurmser, a former Middle East adviser to the vice-president, Dick Cheney, told the magazine. “We were ripping each other to pieces.”
The protests roiling the Middle East have exposed the difficulties of realpolitik and the limits of U.S. power. That’s the reason that GOP leaders in Congress have praised the Obama administration’s cautious approach. It’s also the reason that prospective GOP presidential candidates have said so little about it: They don’t know position to stake out. Should they endorse more ‘regime change’? Praise Obama? Keep their mouths shut?
— Cynthia Tucker