In the streets of Cairo, proof Bush was right

Bush ad­viser El­liott Abrams says Obama should have lis­tened to the for­mer pres­i­dent

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - El­liott Abrams, a se­nior fel­low for Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, was a deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser in the Ge­orgeW. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

For decades, the Arab states have seemed ex­cep­tions to the laws of pol­i­tics and hu­man na­ture. While lib­erty ex­panded in many parts of the globe, these na­tions were left be­hind, their “free­dom deficit” sig­nal­ing the po­lit­i­cal un­der­de­vel­op­ment that ac­com­pa­nied many other eco­nomic and so­cial mal­adies. In Novem­ber 2003, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush

asked these ques­tions:

“Are the peo­ples of the Mid­dle East some­how be­yond the reach of lib­erty? Are mil­lions of men and women and chil­dren con­demned by his­tory or cul­ture to live in despo­tism? Are they alone never to know free­dom and never even to have a choice in the mat­ter?”

The mas­sive and vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions un­der­way in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jor­dan and

Ye­men, and the re­cent re­volt in Tu­nisia that in­spired those events have af­firmed that the an­swer is no and are ex­plod­ing, once and for all, the myth of Arab ex­cep­tion­al­ism. Arab na­tions, too, yearn to throw off the se­cret po­lice, to read a news­pa­per that theMin­istry of In­for­ma­tion has not censored and to vote in free elec­tions. The Arab world may not be swept with a broad wave of re­volts now, but nei­ther will it soon for­get this moment. So a new set of ques­tions be­comes crit­i­cal. What

les­son will Arab regimes learn? Will they un­der­take the steady re­forms that may bring peace­ful change, or will they con­clude that ex­iled Tu­nisian Pres­i­dent Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali erred only by fail­ing to shoot and club enough demon­stra­tors? And will our own govern­ment learn that dic­ta­tor­ships are never truly sta­ble? For be­neath the calm sur­face en­forced by myr­iad se­cu­rity forces, the pres­sure for change only grows— and it may grow in ex­treme and vi­o­lent forms when real de­bate and po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion are de­nied.

The regimes of Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak prof­fered the same line to Washington: It’s us

or the Is­lamists. For Tu­nisia, a largely sec­u­lar nation with a lit­er­acy rate of 75 per­cent and per capita GDP of $9,500, this claim was never de­fen­si­ble. In fact, Ben Ali jailed mod­er­ates, hu­man rights ad­vo­cates, editors — any­one who rep­re­sented what might be called “ hope and change.”

Mubarak took the same tack for three decades. Rul­ing un­der an end­less emer­gency law, he has crushed the mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion while the Is­lamist Mus­lim Broth­er­hood has thrived un­der­ground and in the mosques. Mubarak in ef­fect cre­ated a two-party sys­tem — his rul­ing Na­tional Demo­cratic Party and the Broth­er­hood — and then de­fended the lack of democ­racy by say­ing a free elec­tion would bring the Is­lamists to power.

Of course, nei­ther he nor we can know for sure what Egyp­tians re­ally think; last fall’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tion was even more cor­rupt than the one in 2005. And some­times the re­sults of a first free elec­tion will find the mod­er­ates so poorly or­ga­nized that ex­treme groups can eke out a vic­tory, as Ha­mas did when it gained a 44-to-41 per­cent mar­gin in the Pales­tinian elec­tion of 2006. But we do know for sure that regimes that make mod­er­ate pol­i­tics im­pos­si­ble make ex­trem­ism far more likely. Rule by emer­gency de­cree long enough, and you end up cre­at­ing a gen­uine emer­gency. And Egypt has one now. “An­gry Fri­day” brought tens of thou­sands of Egyp­tians into the streets all over the coun­try, de­mand­ing the end of the Mubarak regime. The huge and on­ce­feared po­lice forces were soon over­whelmed and the Army called in. Even if these demon­stra­tions are crushed, Egypt has a pres­i­dent who will be 83 at the time of this fall’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Ev­ery day Hosni Mubarak sur­vives in power now, he does so as dic­ta­tor propped up by brute force alone. Suc­ces­sion by his son

Ga­mal is al­ready a sour joke, and one must won­der whether Egypt’s rul­ing elites, civil­ian and mil­i­tary, will wish to tie their fu­ture to Hosni Mubarak rather than seek­ing a new face.

The three decades Hosni Mubarak and his cronies have al­ready had in power leave Egypt with no re­li­able mech­a­nisms for a tran­si­tion to demo­cratic rule. Egypt will have some of the same prob­lems as Tu­nisia, where there are no strong demo­cratic par­ties and where the de­mands of the peo­ple for rapid change may out­strip the new govern­ment’s abil­ity to achieve it. This is also cer­tain to be true in Ye­men, where a weak cen­tral govern­ment has spent all its en­er­gies and most of its

re­sources sim­ply stay­ing in power.

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.

U.S. of­fi­cials talked to Mubarak plenty in 2009 and 2010, and even talked to the far more re­pres­sive Pres­i­dent Bashar alAs­sad of Syria, but they talked about their goals for Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace and ig­nored the po­lice states out­side the doors of those pres­i­den­tial palaces. When the Ira­nian regime stole the June 2009 elec­tions and peo­ple went to the streets, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion feared that speak­ing out in their sup­port might jeop­ar­dize the nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions. The “re­set” sought with Rus­sia has been with Prime Min­is­ter Vladimir Putin, not the Rus­sian peo­ple suf­fer­ing his in­creas­ingly despotic and law­less rule.

This has been the great­est fail­ure of pol­icy and imag­i­na­tion in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach: Look­ing at the world map, it sees states and their rulers, but has for­got­ten the mil­lions of peo­ple suf­fer­ing un­der and be­gin­ning to rebel against those rulers. “En­gage­ment” has not been the prob­lem, but rather the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­sis­tence on en­gag­ing with regimes rather than with the peo­ple try­ing to sur­vive un­der them.

If the Arab regimes learn the wrong lessons and turn once again to their po­lice and their armies, the U.S. re­ac­tion be­comes even more im­por­tant. Pres­i­dent Obama’s words of sup­port for both the demon­stra­tors and the govern­ment late Fri­day, af­ter speak­ing with Mubarak, were too lit­tle, too late. He said Mubarak had called for “a bet­ter democ­racy” in Egypt, but Obama’s re­marks did not clearly de­mand democ­racy or free elec­tions there. We can­not de­liver democ­racy to the Arab states, but we can make our prin­ci­ples and our poli­cies clear. Nowis the time to say that the peo­ples of the Mid­dle East are not “ be­yond the reach of lib­erty” and that we will as­sist any peace­ful ef­fort to achieve it — and op­pose and con­demn ef­forts to sup­press it.

Such a state­ment would not el­e­vate our ideals at the ex­pense of our in­ter­ests. It turns out, as those demon­stra­tors are telling us, that sup­port­ing free­dom is the best pol­icy of all.


Pro­test­ers in the Egyp­tian cap­i­tal cover their faces as tear gas sur­rounds them Fri­day.


Demon­stra­tors in Alexan­dria, Egypt, tear down a por­trait of Pres­i­den­tHos­niMubarak, who has ruled un­der an emer­gency law for 30 years.


Tu­nisian stu­dents and teach­ers protest in front of the prime min­is­ter's of­fices in Tu­nis last week, call­ing for a clean break from the de­posed regime.

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