Bush, Obama, And Political Reform In The Middle East

Sifting through the debris of George W. Bush’s Middle East “freedom agenda,” Shadi Hamid writes “for all its singularly destructive actions, the Bush administration might very well be the only administration to have ever challenged the fundamental premises of US policy in the Middle East.”

For liberals long disillusioned with the narrowness of US-Mideast policy, it may be worth recalling that the “Arab spring” — when a number of Arab countries experienced democratic opportunities — was not a figment of the conservative mind. It was real. […]

After Islamist groups registered electoral victories across the region, the Bush administration quickly reversed course and buried its “freedom agenda.” The year 2005 became America’s lost moment in the Middle East. But that it was lost is different from not happening at all; something remarkable had, in fact, occurred.

I can agree with this to a point. While the idea that a lack of democracy and an overabundance of authoritarianism is a driver of extremism in the Middle East was not a diagnosis original to the Bush administration or its neoconservative idea-men, I think he and they do deserve some credit for making it. Unfortunately, their ideas for dealing with this problem were incredibly ill-conceived and counter-productive, and grounded in a fairly narrow and essentialist view of Middle East culture. It’s not as if Bush simply lost his nerve — or, as a neoconservative might prefer it, his will — on democracy. Bush’s abandonment of democracy promotion was in large part a panicked response to forces bolstered by the central element of his broader Middle East agenda: The war in Iraq. One really can’t understand the Bush administration’s propping and then dropping of Middle East democracy in isolation from those “singularly destructive actions” that Shadi acknowledges.


That said, I agree with Shadi that the Obama administration has placed too little emphasis on political reform in the Middle East, and share his hope that the administration will begin to show a bit more creativity in its approach to the region. The Cairo speech offered a positive sign that the U.S. was prepared, at long last, to recognize the role that Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood have to play in the political process (something we’ve long recognized in practice in Iraq) but, as Shadi notes, there’s unfortunately been very little follow up to the speech. Given the priority that administration has placed on cultivating Arab support for its Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and Iran agenda, it’s understandable that they’d downplay pressure on reform, but at the very least it would be nice to see some greater acknowledgment that political stagnation creates problems for the U.S. in the region, just as do Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shadi suggests that Obama’s success in passing health care has provided some momentum for a more ambitious foreign policy, but I’d also suggest that Obama’s more recent success in forging a stronger international consensus on nuclear security indicates that this administration has the capacity to approach the painstaking, long-term project of Middle East political reform with a seriousness that was lacking in the previous administration. By invading Iraq and replacing its government, Bush basically attempted to deal with the problems of the Middle East by overturning the chess board. At the very least, Obama seems to understand that the more responsible approach is to play better chess.