The Return of Pushing Democracy
The New York Times
By Peter Baker
WASHINGTON — The cheers of Tahrir Square were heard around the world. But if you listened carefully, you might have heard cheering from another quarter 7,000 miles from Cairo as well, in Dallas.
The revolution in Egypt has reopened a long-simmering debate about the “freedom agenda” that animated George W. Bush’s presidency. Was he right after all, as his supporters have argued? Are they claiming credit he does not deserve? And has President Obama picked up the mantle of democracy and made it his own?
The debate in Washington, and Dallas, tends to overlook the reality that revolutions in far-off countries are for the most part built from the ground up, not triggered by policy made in the halls of the West Wing. But the lessons of the Egyptian uprising will ripple through American politics, policymaking and history-shaping for some time to come.
President Bush, after all, made “ending tyranny in our world” the centerpiece of his second inaugural address, and, although he pursued it selectively, he considers it one of his signature legacies. The very notion of democracy promotion became so associated with him, and with the war in Iraq, that Democrats believed that it was now discredited. Never mind that Republican and Democratic presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan, had championed liberty overseas; by the time Mr. Bush left office it had become a polarizing concept.
Mr. Obama was seen by some supporters as the realist counterbalance who would put aside the zealous rhetoric in favor of a more nuanced approach. He preached the virtues of democracy in speeches, but did not portray it as the mission of his presidency. When the Green Movement protesters of Iran took to the streets of Tehran, Mr. Obama’s relatively muted response generated strong criticism.
By contrast, foreign policy specialists said, Mr. Obama’s embrace of the Egyptian protesters in the last couple of weeks, if cautious at times and confused by conflicting signals from others in his administration, seemed to suggest a turning point.
“He got on the right side of this thing when a lot of the foreign policy establishment was cautioning otherwise,” said Robert Kagan, a Brookings Institution scholar who long before the revolution helped assemble a nonpartisan group of policy experts to press for democratic change in Egypt. “And he got it right. This may strengthen his confidence the next time this kind of thing happens.”
For Mr. Obama, the challenge may be to define the spread of liberty and democracy as a nonpartisan American goal, removing it from the political debate that has surrounded it in recent years. Democrats who have long worked on the issue have expressed hope that he can shed the goal’s association with Mr. Bush, while framing it in a way that accounts for the mistakes of the last administration.
“The stirring events in Egypt and Tunisia should reinforce what has always been a bipartisan ambition because they are vivid reminders of universal democratic aspirations and America’s role in supporting those aspirations,” said Kenneth Wollock, president of the National Democratic Institute, a government-financed group affiliated with the Democratic Party that promotes civil society abroad.
Finding the right balance has never been easy. Mr. Bush focused on democracy as a goal after the invasion of Iraq found none of the weapons of mass destruction reported by American intelligence agencies. He elevated it to a central theme in his second inaugural address, according to advisers, to infuse the war on terrorism with a positive mission beyond simply hunting down terrorists. His argument was that more freedom would undercut radicalism.
But there was always an internal tension in his administration. Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld makes clear in his new memoir that he thought the emphasis on democracy was misplaced, given the difficulties of transplanting Western-style institutions in regions accustomed to autocracy. Then, in 2006, the election of a Palestinian government led by Hamas quieted some of the administration’s ardor for democracy.
Matt Latimer, a former Bush speechwriter, recalled in a recent column in The Daily Beast that he prepared a ringing speech on democracy for the president to deliver while in Egypt in his final year in office, only to have it watered down at the last minute. “Demands for reform in Egypt became a mere ‘hope’ that Egypt might ‘one day’ lead the way for political reform,” Mr. Latimer wrote.
Still, in recent days, former Bush advisers like Elliott Abrams and Peter Wehner have written columns recalling the former president’s calls for change, and crediting them with setting the stage for what would come later in the Middle East, a region that skeptics often said would never move toward democracy. Whatever the final language of the 2008 appearance in Sharm el- Sheikh, they said Mr. Bush spoke to democratic ideals.
“He was right in saying, for the first time, that people in the Middle East wanted freedom as much as people in any other region, and in beginning through diplomacy and programs to help,” said Lorne W. Craner, a Bush assistant secretary of state for democracy and currently president of the International Republican Institute.
Mr. Craner said, “His message became conflated with the method of displacing Saddam Hussein in Iraq,” and to too many, “the freedom agenda meant invading a country and staying there while I.E.D.’s were going off.” But, he added, “Bush placed us on the right side of history, and that served the interests of democrats in the region, and the United States as well.”
Not everyone sees it that way, especially in the Obama White House, where the assertion rankles deeply. “Was Bush right?” scoffed one Obama adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Give me a break. How many democratic transformations like this took place when he was in office?”
Several, actually, in Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan, where popular risings also toppled entrenched ruling systems. But later events in those countries also showed that such first steps did not necessarily point in a straight line to lasting Jeffersonian democracy. Similarly, the change in Egypt has only begun, as Mr. Obama pointed out on Friday. Its final destination is still very much up in the air.
So, too, is Mr. Obama’s destination. Aides said he has been focused on the issue of democracy abroad since the beginning of his tenure. Last fall, they compiled a 17-page, single-spaced compendium of speech excerpts to show it. But he seems to have found more of a voice in the last six months.
On Aug. 16, officials said, he issued a formal but unpublicized presidential study directive seeking a review of political reform in the Middle East and North Africa. The following month, he gave a speech at the United Nations in which he declared that “part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.” And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton likewise gave speeches pressing governments in the Middle East and elsewhere to reform.
Aides to Mr. Obama said he can make progress where Mr. Bush faltered because the current president has made reaching out to the Muslim world a priority and has de-emphasized the idea that the fight against terrorism means a war on Islam. While Mr. Bush also sent such messages, Obama aides said the baggage of Iraq and Guantánamo Bay undercut the impact.
“We do not make this about us,” said one senior administration official, who was not authorized to be identified. “We very carefully say this is about the people. We’re on the sidelines, we never talk about our values, we talk about universal values. Does that create space for these things to happen?” Hopefully so, the official said.
The question then becomes whether democracy promotion will again become a bipartisan aspiration.
Damon Wilson, a former Bush aide and now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, said he was surprised that Mr. Obama did not take ownership of democracy as an issue from the start. But with Egypt, he now has a chance to do that, Mr. Wilson said, expressing hope that Republicans will not turn away from the notion simply because Mr. Obama is embracing it.
“Of all the issues to fight on,” he said, “democracy is not one where we should be declaring partisan differences.”Top