Do the Egyptian protests prove George W. Bush right?

Military analysis.
Feb. 3 2011 6:46 PM

Does Egypt Prove Bush Right?

No, his "freedom agenda" failed long before he left office.

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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).

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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.

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