Less than 18 months after U.S. President George
W. Bush declared in his 2005 Inaugural Address his unequivocal commitment to
the "ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," tyrants, particularly
in the Islamic world, are taking heart.
From North Africa to Central Asia, top U.S. officials are busy embracing dictators
– and their sons, where appropriate – even as they continue to mouth
the pro-democracy rhetoric that became the hallmark of the administration's
foreign policy pronouncements, particularly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq
failed to turn up evidence of weapons of mass destruction or ties to al-Qaeda.
Particularly notable in just the past month have been White House receptions
for Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's
heir-apparent, his son Gamal; the praise lavished by Vice President Dick Cheney
on Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev during a recent visit to Almaty;
and last week's normalization of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
"You add up all the pieces, and the message to the world is, 'We have
a lot of other business than just democracy in this region,'" according
to Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) here. "And that business
means friendly relations with all sorts of autocrats."
Whether due to the ever tightening oil market; the sweeping electoral victories
by Islamist parties in Egypt, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories; or geo-strategic
maneuvering against Iran, Russia, and China, the administration now appears
to have all but abandoned its "freedom agenda" in favor of a new "realism"
not much different from that practiced by successive U.S. administrations during
the Cold War.
And, in a scenario familiar to veterans of Washington's Cold War machinations
against democratic but suspiciously left-wing governments, the administration
is focusing its efforts at "regime change" against those Middle Eastern
governments that, besides Israel, enjoy the greatest popular and electoral legitimacy
in the region – namely, Iran and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Moreover, the administration's neoconservative supporters, who were the first
to justify the Iraq invasion as part of a grand strategy to "transform"
the Middle East into a democratic region presumably far more hospitable to Israel
and the West, have become noticeably less enthusiastic, particularly since Hamas'
sweeping election victory in the PA.
They now argue that the administration was wrong to press free elections on
the region's rulers as a way of promoting democratic change in the absence of
years, perhaps decades, of gradual liberalization.
"[A]n intense focus on holding elections everywhere as quickly as possible
… has been a mistake because, although elections are part of the democratic
process, they are never a substitute for it," wrote former Israeli minister
Natan Sharansky, whose 2004 book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom
to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, was personally and repeatedly endorsed by
Bush himself as the inspiration for his 2005 Inaugural Address.
That address marked the high point of the administration's freedom rhetoric,
which Bush had launched in earnest in February 2003 in a speech at the neoconservative
American Enterprise Institute (AEI) where he first cited an analogy between
the democratization of occupied Germany and Japan and what Washington intended
During her confirmation hearings as secretary of state on the eve of the 2005
inaugural, Condoleezza Rice also insisted that Bush had "broken with six
decades of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the hope of purchasing
stability at the price of liberty."
"As long as the broader Middle East remains a region of tyranny and despair
and anger," she argued, "it will produce extremists and movements
that threaten the safety of Americans and our friends."
Indeed, for some months after the inaugural, it appeared that the policy was
more than mere rhetoric.
Encouraged by the momentum created by the ballot victory of Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas and the smooth running of elections in Iraq in January and the
subsequent "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon, the administration exerted
unusually strong pressure on the elder Mubarak to release jailed opposition
leader Ayman Nour and enact major constitutional changes. It also pressed Saudi
Arabia and the emirates on their reform programs, and even gave up access to
a key military base in Uzbekistan, a strong ally in the "global war on
terror," after the massacre last May of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators
As the situation continued to go downhill in Iraq, Hezbollah and the Muslim
Brotherhood did particularly well in elections in Lebanon and Egypt, respectively,
and tensions with Iran arose after the upset win of right-wing candidate Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, however, Washington's enthusiasm began to fade.
The Palestinian election in January – which Washington had insisted go
forward despite Abbas' and Israel's concerns that Hamas would win – appears
to have marked a turning point. As noted shortly afterward by the chairman of
the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, Henry Hyde,
"There is no evidence that that we or anyone can guide from afar revolutions
we have set in motion."
In the last few months, the return to realpolitik has been remarkable, even
if the rhetoric remains largely unchanged.
"It will be business as usual," said Marina Ottaway, another democracy
specialist at the Carnegie Endowment. "I think we can expect that the rhetoric
and the funding for democracy-promotion activities through the Middle East Partnership
Initiative – activities that are not dangerous to the regimes in power
– will continue, but what we aren't going to see too much of is high-level
pressure on those governments to carry out reforms … and certainly not
pressure on any country to rush into elections."
"What has happened is what the realists predicted – that Israel and pro-American
regimes in the region would be threatened by the democracy drive," said
Anatole Lieven, a foreign policy specialist at the New America Foundation.
"If you try to carry out democratization while pursuing policies that
the vast majority of Muslims detest and in countries where economic development
is stagnant, democracy will of course lead to anti-American radicalism,"
In addition to the strength of Islamist parties throughout the Middle East,
the growing competition with Russia and China over energy supplies and pipelines
and the looming confrontation with Iran also help explain the administration's
fading enthusiasm for democratization, particularly in the Gulf and among Iran's
Central Asian neighbors, such as Azerbaijan.
"The administration is trying to convince these countries to be allied
with us against Iran," noted Ottaway. "When you want them to help
you, it's not a good time to be critical."
Indeed, almost exactly one year after the Andijan massacre, the Pentagon is
urging a major reassessment of relations with Uzbekistan, apparently in hopes
of regaining access to the Khanabad air base, particularly in light of Russia's
recent success in acquiring access to bases there.
(Inter Press Service)