The Freedom Agenda Spin

No, George W. Bush doesn’t have anything to do with today’s popular uprisings in the Middle East.

President George W. Bush speaks at a memorial ceremony, September 11, 2008
President George W. Bush speaks at a memorial ceremony, September 11, 2008 (US Navy)

The Washington Post is one of my favorite mainstream newspapers here in the United States. Whenever I get up, I try to jump on its website and take a few minutes to catch up on what’s going on in the world. The Post may often be criticized for having a conservative ideological bent on its editorial team but it’s a good quick reference.

Occasionally, there is an opinion piece in the newspaper that I cannot stomach however.

A month ago when the revolution in Egypt was in full swing, the Post ran an op-ed criticizing President Barack Obama’s response to the crisis, arguing that his team should stop kowtowing to Hosni Mubarak and start giving the democratic protesters some rhetorical support.

The argument in itself wasn’t a bad one for the president eventually did pull the rug from under Mubarak’s feet once he recognized that the Egyptian autocrat was way over his head. The aspect of the article that was questionable was its tone, which came very close to questioning Obama’s humanistic side. Attacking policy is one thing, but attacking someone’s character without corroborating evidence is certainly quite another.

This month, the “cannot stomach award” goes to a column by the famous Charles Krauthammer, a top man in America’s conservative ranks and a frequent pundit on various news channels across the country. Again, the article, entitled “From Baghdad to Benghazi,” is not necessarily that bad. Krauthammer attempts to portray how the Obama Administration has gravitated toward a more optimistic and ideological outlook toward the very concept of democracy, similar to that of his predecessor George W. Bush.

Fair enough. Many conservatives, and those Republicans who have not shied away from Bush, argue the same exact thing. Yet again, a seemingly decent opinion gets twisted to the point of being laughable. And here is the money quote: “Now that revolutions are sweeping the Middle East […] everyone is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda.”

At first, the statement seems innocent enough. After all, the people of the Arab world do in fact have an agenda and they are in fact campaigning for freedom and economic opportunity. Yet the inspiration can hardly be traced back to Bush’s policy for the Middle East.

Time to clear the air, for there are a number of differences that contrast Bush’s approach to Arab democratization and the techniques that are being used by the Arab people today.

For one thing, the Bush Administration was willing to use military force in order to impose “freedom” (Western style) into a country (Iraq) with a drastically different set of mores, laws and cultural sensitivities.

After the initial invasion, American forces were in an occupying role on Muslim soil for a long seven years, getting shot at, bombed and in the most horrifying cases killed by small arms fire, improvised explosive devices, car bombs and suicide attacks. It took a shift in strategy, otherwise known as the now popular counterinsurgency doctrine, and the loss of over 4,000 brave young men and women to drag the country back into a modicum of stability. And even despite the lull in violence, the final product in Iraq is yet to be determined after all this time.

This result can hardly be construed as an inspiration for Arabs, many of whom were questioning the messiness of democracy when Iraq was on the verge of an all out sectarian civil war.

Take another aspect of Bush’s freedom agenda, when the administration encouraged the Palestinians to hold an election, only to reject the outcome altogether when Hamas turned out the victor. As the former president wrote in his memoir, Decision Points, a vital component of his Middle East policy was the promotion of democratic principles, including the protection of human rights and minorities and the rights of the individual. This in and of itself may have led to some inspiration in the Arab world, were it not for the fact that Bush’s foreign policy team boycotted the Palestinian leadership.

These are only two examples but they are two important ones. With the final verdict of Bush’s freedom agenda still out, one can be fairly confident in the early stages of 2011 that the prospects for “freedom” in the region were poor by the time Bush’s team left the White House.

Today’s protests in the Middle East have nothing to do with the Bush days, regardless of the effort by partisan pundits to spin it as an accomplishment. Rather, what we are seeing in the Arab world today is a concerted, strong, passionate and homegrown movement from Arabs themselves who are sick of being subjected to the whims of a few elitists in the presidential palace.

Ironically, what we are all witnessing in the Middle East right now is a seismic event far more powerful than anything the United States could have hoped to accomplish. Arabs themselves have succeeded in shaking the system in just a few short months, without foreign firepower or boots on the ground.

The Arab world can no longer be viewed through a prism of American exceptionalism. Nor should the entire region be distorted as a playground that can be used as a foreign experiment in democracy. A new era in Middle Eastern politics is happening right before our eyes and the United States and its allies would be wise to jump on board and marvel the progress.


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