Sticking to the Agenda
In Israel last week, the Republican Party presidential nominee declared that the Arab world’s uprising against corrupt, venal regimes could have been preempted had US President Barack Obama only sustained George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in the Middle East.
For readers who have successfully purged their memories of America’s last Republican president – and who among us haven’t at least tried? – the Freedom Agenda was unveiled as the cornerstone of Bush’s foreign policy shortly after his re-election in 2004. It committed the White House to the eradication of dictatorship anywhere in the world, much the way previous US presidents have declared war on poverty or drug use at home.
The implications of the Freedom Agenda were most profound in the US, where Washington had for years nurtured relations with a host of autocrats for the sake of cheap oil and Israeli security. Neoconservatives hailed Bush’s “new realism” as an end to decades of cynical dealing with thuggish regimes, which they interpreted as the root cause of Arab dystopia. True to form, the commissars of the by-then failing US enterprise in Iraq failed to anticipate the consequences of Bush’s plans and by mid-2006, after Islamist groups had scored electoral triumphs in Palestine and Egypt, the Freedom Agenda had been throttled in its crib.
Mitt Romney, however, is peddling a version of events that, while bearing no resemblance to reality, goes down well with his supporters in Likudnik Israel. During his stopover in Jerusalem last week, he told the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper that the “whirlwind of tumult” in the Middle East was unleashed because “President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda” and “the reforms that could have changed the course of their history in a more peaceful manner.”
Admonishing Obama for jettisoning a foreign policy that had been spiked by its own architect long before his election is redolent of Republican fabulism. (Its party leaders insisted, for example, that a “Sino-Soviet bloc” was running the Communist side of the Cold War even after Beijing and Moscow had all but declared war on each other.) Romney’s interpretation of the Freedom Agenda and his implication that the Arab Awakening, as the sage George Antonius called it eight decades ago, is inimical to US interests betrays a typically Washingtonian ignorance about the nature of Middle East conflict and the limits of America’s ability to harness it. The conceit that democracy would render the Arab world an oasis of stability obscured Israeli and, until its withdrawal from Iraq a year ago, US occupation as the taproot of violent outrage in the region. More fundamentally, it overstated America’s ability to influence events in a part of the world it has never bothered to comprehend on its own terms.
It is a myopia shared by Democrats as well as Republicans. Obama supporters demand he be given credit for the Arab revolts simply because they occurred “on his watch,” though his endorsement of a free Middle East, like Bush’s before him, has been selective. While Obama eventually called for Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down, for example, his response to calls for democracy in Bahrain, where an unpopular monarchy hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been decidedly mute.
In that sense, Obama is sustaining an established policy of American control over a region that, whoever inhabits the White House, ultimately reveals itself to be illusory.