Taking Photos With Dictators

Barzani-BushMichael Rubin writes “On this, the one-year anniversary of Obama’s Cairo speech, the silence of the Obama administration in the face of backsliding on rights, freedom, and liberty in Kurdistan, Turkey, and Arab states such as Egypt and Yemen, is deafening”:

In recent weeks, independent journalists in Kurdistan have begun to receive cell phone death threats (as Sardasht did before his murder). When they have gone to security to lodge complaints, the journalists are harassed. It is now only a matter of time until more journalists are whacked. The victims are not insurgents nor violent Islamists, but rather liberals and the best of the new generation. Obama’s inaction is dangerous because, when administration officials like assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman or U.S. congressmen on a junket take their photos with [Masud] Barzani, cynicism grows about perceived U.S. endorsement [of] dictators; this in turn encourages anti-Americanism.

I don’t disagree with Michael here on the Obama administration’s lack of follow-through on the promise of the Cairo speech, which I’ve found deeply disappointing, or with his concern about the increasing oppression in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nor do I disagree that cuddling up to dictators encourages cynicism and anti-Americanism (though isn’t it interesting how conservatives can make such claims without being accused of “blaming America”?) As you can see from the photo at right (Bush shaking hands with Barzani), Bush himself knew quite a bit about cuddling up to dictators.

I do disagree, however, with his use of “backsliding” here, as if George W. Bush left the region on a pro-democracy trajectory, which he most certainly didn’t. Back in January 2009, just as Bush was leaving office, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report — its annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties — noted that “2008 marked the third consecutive year in which global freedom suffered a decline.”

In February of this year, RAND issued a report finding that the Iraq war, in addition to hurting U.S. credibility and influence in the Middle East, had hobbled democratic reform in the region. According to the report, Iraq’s continuing instability “has become a convenient scarecrow neighboring regimes can use to delay political reform by asserting that democratization inevitably leads to insecurity.” A rather grim verdict for Bush’s “freedom agenda,” the difficult consequences of which Obama now has to contend.