RE: Shadi Hamid on Obama & Bush “nostalgia”

Shadi Hamid of Brookings (Doha) had an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor on 12 April looking at “nostalgia” for the Bush years among Arab reformers. It deserves some comment and consideration.

While President Obama’s domestic position has been strengthened considerably by the passage of health-care reform, there is nothing – yet – to suggest global support for American foreign policy will follow suit. Outside the US, there is a sense of “Bush nostalgia,” including in a rather unlikely place – the Middle East.

This is particularly the case for Arab reformers who, while disliking the Bush administration in almost every way, were fully aware that Bush’s “freedom agenda” helped usher in a promising moment for Arab reform.

On the Obama administration’s relative lack of pressure, Esam al-Erian, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, sounded almost wistful of political openings that came about under Bush: “[Now President Mubarak] can do whatever he wants internally…. It feels like we’ve gone backward a little bit,” he said.

Indeed, the excitement Arabs felt after Mr. Obama’s historic Cairo speech became the backdrop for the mounting disappointment of the last nine months. Instead of making a clean break with past US policies, the current administration has reverted to the neorealism of President Clinton and the first President Bush, with its emphasis on competence and pragmatism.

Now as then, US policy continues to be anchored by a cynical bargain with Arab autocrats: If they faithfully support US regional objectives, the US turns a blind eye to their suppression of domestic dissent. It’s business as usual.

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.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, liberals complained that Republicans failed to grasp the root causes of terror. But in their own way they did. Republicans offered an intuitive, if overdue, interpretation: Without democracy, Arab citizens lacked peaceful means to express their grievances and were therefore more likely to resort to violence. Thus, in order to rid the region of extremism and political violence, an ambitious, transformative vision of promoting democracy became not only necessary but urgent.

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.

I remember the weekend of Dec. 12, 2004, when 30 of us participated in a workshop for Arab reformers in Amman, Jordan. At the end, one of the organizers, Radwan Masmoudi, gathered the group and told us there was now an unprecedented window of opportunity to push for democracy. If we let it pass, he warned, it may not come again.

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. Discussing the Bush administration’s pro-democracy efforts in Egypt, leading Islamist reformer Abdel Monem Abul Futouh explained to me, “Everyone knows it … we benefited, everyone benefited, and the Egyptian people benefited.”

That feeling of possibility is difficult to find in the Arab world today.

Hamid’s point is relevant and deserves attention. It is the case that many Americans, especially on the left, have become jaded and cynical about American foreign policy in the Middle East. The intellectual and ideological foundations of the Bush policy are widely considered to be tainted indeed. The neo-conservative idea has turned it dirty for a lot of Americans and Middle Easterners alike. Many Americans would find it difficult to believe that there might be some Arab or Muslim not paid off by Benador Associates who had some appreciation for the “Bush doctrine”; Hamid makes it clear that such people do exist. What is more important is that we understand this in the context of the 2004/2005 period, when American policy actually had something to say about protests on the ground in places like Egypt. It remains debatable how much democracy promotion is actually valuable to the American national interest in tangible terms. The fact that leaders/dictators in several resource rich and geo-strategically important Arab states are likely to keel over soon makes its important for American policy in the region to be more forward looking than it is. Hamid pushes in this direction though his point might be stronger if he quoted more non-Islamists to offer a broader sampling of the opposition in the region.

Others have established some important caveats and frameworks that are important when thinking about Hamid’s piece. Greg Carlstrom makes at least two important points worth working with:

  1. The Arab world, writ large, does not miss Bush and his policies. If we’re talking about “Bush nostalgia,” we’re really talking about a specific desire for a U.S. foreign policy that doesn’t support Arab autocrats at the expense of Arab populations.
  2. The Bush administration was not actually committed to unqualified democracy promotion in the Middle East, or in the broader Muslim world. Bush made a strong rhetorical commitment, and he supported democratic movements when he agreed with their goals (e.g. the “Beirut spring”), but his commitment always had exceptions and evaporated altogether when Islamist parties started winning elections.

Additionally, Matt Duss writes:

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.

These are fair points, though the Cairo speech is generally quite irrelevant in this blogger’s view. It bought the administration some good will and some time to chalk up to just about nothing where its key points are concerned. This blogger has believed since the time of the speech did little more than to sugar coat a confused policy and an administration exasperated with the region. Readers will recall this blogger’s pessimism at the time of the Cairo speech. This was partly for its content and partly for its context. Its context one of increasing pessimism within the administration (and American society) about reform in the region and the importance of human rights in American policy there. The whole exercise was at its core quite transparently cynical and insincere. In trying to signal a break with the Bush administration’s democracy promotion agenda, which was rightly seen as interventionist and poorly thought through, the Obama clique ended up moving too far in the opposite direction. One recalls the Qur’anic verse that says something to effect of poets “wandering in every valley such that they say what they do not do” and that “poets are followed by the wayward”. Such has been the case with many in the aftermath of “A New Beginning”; while the “outreach” component of the Obama policy may have some impact, it appears to be too cautious and without follow-up. The disappointment Hamid mentions is real and proceeds in part from the unrealistic expectations set by the administration and its fans.

And prominent voices on the left and the pundit class have cheered this on. As Peter Baker wrote in the New York Times last week:

If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns. He has generated much more good will around the world after years of tension with Mr. Bush, and yet he does not seem to have strong personal friendships with many world leaders.

“Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,” the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.

He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”

Readers will recall this blogger’s support for policy realism on Iran and Turkey and a number of other issues (going back very far). This should not be confused with indifference to democratic reform. The Bush doctrine produced a devastating war in Iraq that has killed perhaps a million or more people. It hurt the United States in Arab and European public opinion. The most problematic result of the Bush policy for American liberals may be that it has warped their self-perception and posture towards the region. There is a sense that democracy or reform cannot “work” in the Middle East (and perhaps should not be allowed to), that it is better to sit with the Big Man than to offer any real assistance to anyone else, and so on. Americans perceive their own limits in the region and the world with this in the back of their minds; and that translates into the hyper-cautious route the administration (and its pundit friends) has taken on reform in the Arab countries and Iran. This is closely related to the wider crisis in American politics and society (perhaps best exemplified by the substance of the debate over health-care, the Tea Party movement, the rise in the militia movements and so on). This malaise is especially prominent in the intellectual class, where decline (relative and absolute) is on many smart peoples’ minds. In the Middle East the result of that crisis is to kill the “hope” president Obama used to inspire, as during the Cairo speech. That speech has depreciated in meaning and value from the moment the President left Cairo University. This may be necessary in the American context as it stands for now.

So, the Bush doctrine is widely seen as a failure, wholesale. Thus, the response is to reverse it, to move from one troubled extreme to another. The result is likely to be similarly obnoxious as during the Bush years where the Middle East is concerned. At a time when succession problems are widespread — in Egypt and Libya and Algeria and Tunisia for instance — this is partly intelligent and partly troublesome. It is smart in that it recognizes the strength of many regimes and their strategic value; it also operates with an awareness of the limitations of American leverage. It is troublesome because it fails to utilize what leverage the United States does have for medium and long-term reforms that might produce something more than immediate gratification in terms of public opinion or happy relations with geriatric dictators. And it discounts the importance of mass discontent in the region. The problem is this: the Obama administration has failed to find the proper balance in its strategic realism, where it could secure what is useful now and work for what will be useful going forward. This exists in his great power policy, where he is more effective, but is lacking in his Middle East policy, which is dominated by buzz words and short-term, cosmetic considerations. More praise is due where the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned, but not by much.

American leaders do not appear to appreciate the significance of the growing discontent among Egyptian workers, the intensifying youth violence and infighting in Algeria. What does this mean for the United States in ten years? There is, however, more appreciation for the sensitivities of leaders, a valuable and important thing; but the administration has not shown a real capacity to express holistic empathy in its policy. There is pandering to the masses in speeches but in policy back-slapping and good fellas. Hamid is correct to note that Republic foreign policy in the Bush years saw this as a problem but failed to deal with or address it in a truly constructive way. The Obama administration has been, as Hamid writes, disappointingly conventional and uncreative in its approach to the Middle East. But it is not so bad that an observer can credibly say that it can only improve from here; it could be much worse and it could worsen indeed. At least the president’s policy has yet to precipitate massive and unmanageable crises — yet. How the administration will deal with coming power transitions will tell us more than what he has already done.

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4 thoughts on “RE: Shadi Hamid on Obama & Bush “nostalgia”

  1. Many Americans would find it difficult to believe that there might be some Arab or Muslim not paid off by Benador Associates who had some appreciation for the “Bush doctrine”

    I wouldn’t necessarily have a hard time believing it to certain extent, but Hamid’s piece really fails at giving a broader perspective. He simply states what I would think is slightly obvious, that some Arab reformer activists were quite sympathetic to the underlying idea of Bush’s “freedom agenda.” That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily surprising. What I would like to know is whether “Arab street” writ large has the same sympathies as the reformers on this point, and to what extent. (I think Carlstrom nails it on this point, saying rightly, that while the “Arab world” doesn’t miss Bush in the least, they are obviously sympathetic and supportive of policies that don’t give due deference to autocrats and dictators in the region).

    The most problematic result of the Bush policy for American liberals may be that it has warped their self-perception and posture towards the region. There is a sense that democracy or reform cannot “work” in the Middle East (and perhaps should not be allowed to), that it is better to sit with the Big Man than to offer any real assistance to anyone else, and so on.

    I think this is quite true. I’ve read (and heard) thousands of times from “mainstream Liberals” that the Middle East supposedly “isn’t ready for Democracy” or that the people “don’t have what it takes.” I find both of these comments quite ridiculous and naive for reasons that could take an entire blog post to explain.

    “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,” the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.

    I would hesitate to call Obama a realist in any sense given his administrations complete lack of any meaningful framework to deal with the problems in the region, but apparently Emanuel doesn’t see that as a problem. (Not all that shocking, he’s a Domestic political hack who’s sole purpose is to ensure immediate results with regards to the Presidents agenda so the Presidents poll numbers don’t drop too much).

    It is troublesome because it fails to utilize what leverage the United States does have for medium and long-term reforms that might produce something more than immediate gratification in terms of public opinion or happy relations with geriatric dictators.

    Our political class has always been an abject failure at trying to gauge long term policy implications. I think this party has to do with Domestic concerns (i.e. re-election), but also the uncertain nature of such predictions. Carlstrom noted that Bush was selective in his “freedom agenda,” and I think this is partly due to the fact that many in his administration were worried that given the chance, the people would elect Islamist parties who aren’t aligned with our interests. Obviously, this is a possibility (and one wonders how much we could possibly do to stop such a thing from happening given the limits of our power but I digress), but I don’t think it should take primary concern and end up shelving the prospects of encouraging political reform.

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