Timing is Everything: Are We Too Late in Promoting Democracy in Egypt? [Updated and Expanded]

We shall see.  I hope not, for the sake of Egyptians and for my country as well.

I know that some of my friends will say that “Bush was right” to emphasize democracy in the Middle East in his second inaugural address and otherwise.  I agree that much of what President Bush said was right.  Unfortunately he forfeited his credibility, and that of the United States to some substantial extent, by what he did.  He made the decision, at least in the some final sense, to invade Iraq, instead.   I do not doubt that many of the people involved in this subjectively wished for the best for democracy in Iraq, it’s just that they were way over their heads in terms of even understanding the implications of what they were doing, much less controlling them–both for the United States and for Iraq.

Seeing what has happened in Tunisia and what may be happening now in Egypt should remind us of what can happen to change regimes and systems of government without war.  Just as in Eastern Europe, South Africa and many other places.   Likewise, Bush turned his back on traditional American values by associating American exceptionalism with a purported privilege to get involved in torture if it seemed important enough to the United States  in the short run.

I firmly believe that the invasion of Iraq and “the torture problem” are both aberrational behavior for the United States and I am optimistic that we are in the process of recovering our standing in the world and our voice.  Barak Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize for being an American President who simply was not Bush.

Just like Bush, Obama has come into office with essentially no foreign affairs experience, although he is obviously a more worldly person in certain ways, at least in the sense of having spent some time living overseas as a child and having a “multicultural” background.  Has Obama been too reticent in speaking about democracy in his first two years?  I don’t know–everyone is entitled to an opinion about this, but there is no clear answer.  I will say that it is both entirely fair, and vitally important that he be judged as a leader  by what he has in fact said.  I voted for George Bush in 2000, even though like everyone else I knew deep down that he was not really qualified to be President, because I liked a lot of what he said, “compassionate conservatism” and all, that he either did not mean or changed his mind about.

I remember what Obama said in his inaugural address about democracy and our relations with the rest of the world.  I liked it and was inspired by it.  I certainly hope he meant it and will live up to it.

Update: The purpose of this is not to engage in gratuitous “Bush bashing”, but rather to speak against revisionism that makes Bush into something he wasn’t and fails to take into account the fact that Obama took the helm of a country that was weaker and less influential, and more uncertain of its future, because of the substantive mistakes of his predecessor.  It is not just the invasion of Iraq itself, it was the aggressive dismissal of the opinions of those who knew better; the failures represented by Abu Ghraib and the weak response and failure to take responsibility in its aftermath; the mistrust and fear generated by rendition and associated failures to live up to our human rights and rule of law standards–all weakened our standing and influence.  Relatedly, the choice to initiate and run up large deficits made the U.S. more vulnerable as the finance sector bubble led to a near-catastrophic crash.

It seems to me that the greatest state exponents of repression and Islamist extremism across the greater Middle East region have been Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Bush unwittingly, presumably, facilitated Iranian influence regionally, and if anything seemed to draw closer than ever to the Saudis even in the wake of 9-11, including through his energy policies.  While the secret arms-for-hostage deals in the “Iran-Contra” fiasco were the conspicuous low point vis-a-vis Iran, no American president seems to have found his footing on dealing with that regime.

I think Obama and his administration should speak with greater moral clarity on democracy in the Middle East, because it is the right thing to do and because the rhetoric of American Presidents can matter more than we often appreciate.  But in fairness, it should be recognized that he almost had to try to recalibrate our tone and go for a fresh start because what we had been doing in sum was not working.

This is how Michael Hirsh has put it in the National Journal:

The irony for U.S. officials is that while President Bush devoted vast amounts of the country’s blood and treasure to establishing democracy in the Arab world — and devoted many speeches to it, including his second inaugural address — he achieved very little progress toward that goal during his eight years in office. Indeed, the places where Bush openly supported democracy, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, have grown only more troubled, their politics ever more intractable.

By contrast, President Obama has seemed to play down democratic themes in the Middle East, openly supporting the Arab autocrats and waxing lukewarm at best in supporting democracy in those countries and in Iran. Yet the Arab and Iranian democracy movements have taken off on his watch.

The developments of the past few weeks have thus done much to resurrect questions about the so-called neoconservative program. In the lead-in to the Iraq war, many critics questioned whether democracy could really be imposed by force or even outside pressure, or whether instead it had to flow organically from the people in order to stick.

Perhaps we will soon find out.

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