What's Left of Bush's Democracy Agenda?





Mr. Mandel is a fellow in History at Melbourne University who specializes in U.S. foreign policy and author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (London: Routledge, 2004).

The other month in Cairo, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed at a press conference that the Bush Administration had quietly waived a congressional hold on $100 million in military aid to Egypt. The Washington Post observed that Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, standing next to her, "couldn't conceal his smug satisfaction."

As well he might. Congress had halted funds in the interests of protecting the independence of the Egyptian judiciary and stopping police abuses by the regime of Hosni Mubarak – precisely the sort of exercise in promoting democracy, not merely in Iraq, but across the Middle East, that President George W. Bush declared in November 2003 to be "a focus of American policy for decades to come."

Previous administrations had preferred stable autocracies that in time incubated Islamist absolutism. Yet, in the event, and putting the special and mixed case of Iraq to one side, Bush's new democratic commitment has not even outlived his own presidency.

At first, Bush's commitment looked like it was being upheld. In 2003, he called on Mubarak to release leading human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and withheld $130 million in supplemental aid to Cairo until he did so. In 2005, Rice cancelled a visit to Cairo to protest the arrest of another such activist, Ayman Nour, leading to his release.

Egypt, being after Israel the second highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, is susceptible of pressure, adroitly applied and sustained, and now was surely the time for more. Yet already in February 2005, the Bush Administration, which had called for elections in Egypt, allowed itself to be fobbed off in with what was described by the New York Times as Mubarak's "unexpected announcement" of direct, multiparty presidential elections for the first time since the 1952 military coup.

In fact, proclamations of impending democratic reform have a long pedigree in Egypt and Mubarak, who once stated that no president should serve more than two terms, is now into his fifth, having spent the last two years harassing opposition figures into impotence.

In 2006, hundreds of Egyptians were arrested for demonstrating in favor of judges who denounced the rigging of recent parliamentary elections. Apparently, Mubarak was still unimpressed with the tenor of election results, so he obviated the risk of a repeat performance in local elections by simply canceling them. Meanwhile, his presidential challenger, Nour, again rots in jail for allegedly falsifying petitions to run in the presidential elections that were actually approved by the government at the time. Yet these regressive developments no longer move the Bush Administration to protest or to consider withholding its enormous annual subvention to Cairo.

American failure to promote democracy appears to be a pattern. Libya is another example.

Fearing Washington's wrath before during and after the removal of Saddam Hussein, Libya's perennial maximum leader Muammar Ghaddafi dismantled his non-conventional weapons programs and suspended the use of terrorism. The U.S. was in a strong position to pressure Ghaddafi to liberalize his country and in Fathi El Jahmi, Libya's leading human rights activist, it had a natural ally. Indeed, U.S. pressure led in 2004 to Jahmi's release from prison.

But Jahmi's new-found freedom last only two weeks. His re-incarceration and the absence of any Libyan move towards democracy did not prevent the Bush Administration in 2006 from resuming full diplomatic ties with Libya. Today, Gaddafi still exercises sole, despotic dominion in Libya and Jahmi rots in prison.

In the Palestinian Authority, Bush dramatically broke with past orthodoxy in June 2002 by calling upon Palestinians to elect "leaders not compromised by terror" and to "build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty." Since then, however his administration has been frantically working to subvert the attainment of these very goals.

In 2003, Bush adopted the Roadmap peace plan, designed to lead to Palestinian statehood irrespective of Palestinian conduct, and claimed it to be an elaboration, rather than the undoing, of his own goals. In 2006, his Administration plunged forward with urging elections on a population radicalized by hate propaganda and resentful of corrupt elites. The result was delivering power to Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which calls in its Charter for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews – a monumental failure of democracy promotion which Rice denies to this day. Having wrongly second guessed this outcome, the Bush Administration now backs an increasingly Islamist Fatah that has taken no steps in the direction of Bush's June 2002 benchmarks and works to create a Palestinian state governed by it.

The Bush Administration seems to have hit upon a maladroit mixture – a preoccupation with democratic processes at the expense of democratic purposes, a fixation with means rather than ends, and a partiality for détente with dictators. The result has been the emboldening of radical and authoritarian regimes alike, the empowering of terrorists and their sponsors and the demoralization of reformers. This is the legacy that Bush bequeaths his successor in just over nine months.

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