Saving the freedom agenda
Whether or not Israel unilaterally strikes, the US must ensure that sanctions are kept in place.
Former White House aide Elliott Abrams Photo: courtesy
Not long after September 11, US president George W. Bush declared “a new policy,
a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” No longer would the US
support dictators, but would actively push Arab states to become
The policy was based on two primary conclusions: first, that
under authoritarian regimes, the Middle East “will remain a place of stagnation,
resentment, and violence ready for export”; second, the tenets of liberalism
were universal and the “peoples of the Middle East” are not “somehow beyond the
reach of liberty.”
Inspiring words, but elections in Lebanon and in the
Palestinian Authority (which Bush brought about) led to victories for Hezbollah
and Hamas. While some advocates of the “freedom agenda” have hailed the
Arab Spring as confirming Bush’s vision, in Egypt, Islamist parties won the
parliament and presidency.
But that doesn’t mean president Bush was wrong
in principle. His argument was essentially a reformulation of the
self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their
creator with certain unalienable rights.” The “freedom agenda” merely applied US
support for democracy abroad to the Middle East, where a pro-stability
philosophy governed its foreign policy.
For those who were indeed
inspired by the “freedom agenda,” who, as liberals and humanitarians, still
desire the success of democracy in the Middle East, the question is not whether
democracy was meant to come to the region. The question is how, in light of
subsequent developments, the “freedom agenda” could be modified to ensure that
democracy is not merely the rubber stamp on an Islamist takeover.
it should be recognized, as it has been by many, that elections alone do not
establish democracy. An election can be merely the one-time tool of an
anti-democratic group in seizing power. Elections can also be rigged, either by
outright electoral fraud or because those in power don’t allow for real
opposition. The symbolic power of an election, which Bush realized could draw
people to democracy, can also be misused as a method of legitimizing
Instead of merely calling for or endorsing
elections, the focus should be on establishing a democratic political culture by
offering direct assistance to democratic organizations and pressing states,
including new democracies – and pressing them hard – to establish and protect
those institutions such as a free media and (non- Islamist) opposition
Second, the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the region
tends to unleash extreme anti-Israel forces, which may have even been fostered
by the former regimes.This is not just a threat to Israel. If
democracy enables those forces to wreak havoc on their neighbors as well as
their own citizens that democracy will be artificial and worthless.
part of its push for a democratic culture, the US should make clear, to Egypt
especially, that state institutions must be free of anti-Israel rhetoric, that
anti-Israel terrorist groups must be eliminated, and that “reviewing” peace
treaties, leaving Israeli embassies unprotected from violent mobs and arresting
Jewish tourists as “spies,” are all unacceptable.
Third, the US itself
must not feed the obsession over Israel with repeated attempts at reviving the
peace process. This shifts regional attention away from the various states’ many
internal problems. These misguided efforts also divert US attention and capital
from actually promoting democracy.
In a recent discussion with Elliot
Abrams, a senior Bush administration official who worked on promoting democracy
in the Middle East, Abrams revealed that the Annapolis Conference, for example,
came at the expense of pressuring Mubarak to make democratic reforms in Egypt,
which might have allowed for a stable transition to democracy minus an Islamist
takeover, because Mubarak’s support was deemed necessary for the peace
President Barack Obama similarly attempted to revive the peace
process, freeze settlements and (unlike Bush) heavily pressured an Israeli prime
minister for naught. As a result, Obama lost valuable time in confronting Iran
over its nuclear program, lost prestige, and was caught off-guard by the Arab
The final and most important reform to the freedom agenda is
shifting focus to Iran, the preeminent anti-democratic force in the region.
During our conversation, Abrams said it would have been “ludicrous” to think
about democracy in the Middle East with someone like Saddam Hussein “sitting in
the middle of it.” It seems equally ludicrous to think about democracy in the
Middle East when the mullahs are sitting on high in Iran.
It goes without
saying that Iran must be prevented from developing nuclear
weapons. Whether or not Israel unilaterally strikes Iran and regardless
of how much damage it does to Iran’s nuclear program, the US must ensure that
sanctions are kept in place and be overtly willing to use force
The sanctions and military, cyber, covert and other attacks will
take their toll on the regime. The mullahs cannot hold out forever as their
airplanes threaten to fall out of the sky for lack of replacement parts, food
prices rise, their currency is devalued, they are unable to export their most
lucrative commodity, and cannot insure their commercial shipping, while also
silencing all opposition.
In the meantime, the US must be willing to
confront them wherever they try to exert influence. That is, Iran must be
contained regardless of its nuclear weapons capability.
As the regime
weakens, the Green or another democratic movement will appear.
does, the US should be ready to openly support it.
If the US can resist
the urge to pull Israeli-Palestinian peace out of the stone, and instead ensure
democratic institutions take root and irrational anti- Israel war fervor is
suppressed, all while facing down the Iranian regime until it crumbles like the
Berlin Wall, the democracy that president Bush envisioned – that all liberals
remain faithful to – will flourish, even in the Middle East.
is executive-director of Likud Anglos. An article on his interview with Elliot
Abrams will appear in this week’s Jerusalem Post Magazine. A transcript of the
interview will be available online.