Saving the freedom agenda

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.

freedom and justice party, Egypt_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
freedom and justice party, Egypt_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 democratic.
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.
First, 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 authoritarian regimes.
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 parties.
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.
So as 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 process.
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 Spring.
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 itself.
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.
When it 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.
The writer 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.