Egypt’s perilous standoff over democratic reforms has put the Obama administration on the defensive, with no clear end in sight to a stalemate that has exposed the White House to fire from all sides of the political spectrum.
Some analysts have given President Barack Obama credit for managing a complicated, volatile crisis as well as anyone could reasonably expect.
But many other foreign-policy experts, worried about the historic wave of unrest now spreading across the Middle East, are reconsidering George W. Bush’s pro-democracy “freedom agenda,” which the Obama foreign policy team largely rejected as too simplistic.
The policy questions continued to emerge Sunday even as representatives of the Egyptian government met with opposition leaders and offered major concessions in an effort to quell the uprising.
The regime of Egyptian strongman and staunch U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak promised to release imprisoned protesters, end restrictions on reporters covering the crisis, and institute constitutional reforms.
The early reaction from the tens of thousands of demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, however, suggested Egypt’s masses may not be satisfied until Mubarak is out of power, and possibly out of the country.
The Obama administration is drawing increasing fire for its apparent reluctance at times to bid Mubarak adieu:
- Nathan Brown, director of Middle East studies at George Washington University, said on CSPAN’s American Journal on Sunday that administration officials “have been shifting positions and calibrating constantly, and it certainly looks as if it’s an administration that’s kind of reeling with the punches. But to be fair to them, what they’re trying to do is react to realities on the ground.”
- Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who has just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, tells Newsmax that Obama’s soft-peddling of criticism toward Middle East despots has been “shameful.” “[George W.] Bush was absolutely right on his freedom agenda,” Land said. “He said the only way you’re going to fix this [terrorism] problem is to drain the swamp. … I think Obama’s whole human-rights agenda has been sadly missing. I mean, I know a lot of Democrats who are shocked by how Kissinger-esque it has been.”
- Longtime Bush antagonist Maureen Dowd credited Bush in part, saying he “meant well when he tried to start a domino effect of democracy in the Middle East and end the awful hypocrisy of America coddling autocratic rulers. But the way he went about it was naive and wrong.” By contrast Dowd said Obama was “calling around this week to leaders in the region to stanch the uncontrolled surge of democracy in the Arab world.”
- The New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier said Obama’s policy of engagement and multicultural globalism has had “the effect of aligning America with regimes and against peoples.” He added, “This was the case with our response to the Iranian rebellion in 2009, and it was the case with our response to the Egyptian opposition until a few hours ago. The striking thing about Barack Obama’s ‘extended hand’ is how utterly irrelevant it is to the epochal events in Egypt, and Tunisia, and Iran, and elsewhere.”
- Stephen Carter, a Yale professor and left-leaning author, told The Daily Beast readers that the protests in Egypt prove Obama’s predecessor was right to push for democracy in the Arab world. The foreign-policy establishment largely derided Bush’s democracy push as naïve, but now some observers say it could have given the United States more credibility in the Arab world.
- Elliott Abrams, a Bush-era deputy secretary of state, conceded that Bush’s actual policies didn’t always live up to his “freedom agenda” rhetoric. “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,” Abrams wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
- Conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe wrote that human rights and reform has clearly not been a priority of the Obama administration, adding: “It is unworthy of a nation as great and free as ours not to promote the values it most esteems. It shouldn't take an upheaval in the Arab street to remind us that it is always in America's interest to promote liberal democracy.”
- In a story titled “Was George Bush right?” The Economist stated that “Mr. Bush was indeed a far more active champion of democracy than Mr. Obama has been,” but said Bush still bears responsibility for invading Iraq.
In a 2003 speech Bush stated: ‘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. 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."
The Bush administration often failed to act on its pro-democratic ideals however, particularly during the administration’s second term when it turned its attention to seeking peace in the Middle East.
Some observers believe Bush’s policies and the Iraq War actually delayed the onset of human-rights concerns in the Middle East, however.
Brown, the George Washington foreign policy expert, told CSPAN that the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which nearly triggered a civil war, raised fears in the eyes of many Arabs over the chaos that could accompany democracy: “The Iraqi situation made it possible for Arab regimes to be able to say to their own societies: ‘You really want to push this? You really want to push mobilization of people out into the street? This is where we may be headed,’” he said.
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