|Former US President George W Bush waves while signing copies of his memoir in Dallas, Texas [Getty]|
It was only a matter of time. Once the uprisings spread from Tunisia to Egypt to protests of differing sizes everywhere from Yemen to Syria to Jordan – and even Italy – some semi-delusional retreaded tyre was going to emerge from the shadows to proclaim President Bush was responsible for the sudden flowering of revolution and democratic potential across the Middle East.
Enter Elliot Abrams. Yes, the same Elliot Abrams that was convicted of unlawfully withholding information from the Congressional Investigation into the Iran-Contra affair.
Abrams, who you might think would be disqualified from publicly addressing all matters pertaining to “democracy-building” – after undermining the will of the representatives of the United States people with his involvement in arguably the biggest political scandal of President Reagan’s administration – took to the pages of the Washington Post to share his nostalgic blend of freedom-fries optimism and historical revisionism:
“This spirit did not always animate US diplomacy in the Bush administration; plenty of officials found it unrealistic and had to be prodded or overruled to follow the president’s lead. But the revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right – and that the Obama administration’s abandonment of this mind-set is nothing short of a tragedy.”
What mindset was that? The one that treated American freedoms in the manner that Dick Cheney does a hunting companion’s face? Or the one that Don Rumsfeld discusses in his new book that led the Bush Administration to gather plans to attack Iraq within two weeks of 9/11 – which has only already been corroborated by everyone from Clinton and Bush’s counter-terrorism czar, Richard Clarke, to former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill – even though there was no evidence they had anything to do with that act of barbarism – and still isn’t.
Maybe, just maybe, on Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, we can remember how the conservative icon spoke of winning “hearts and minds” in the then-solidly communist Soviet bloc. This meant leading by example at home, so other countries would yearn for liberty – and not bombing Latvia because, you know, that would somehow inspire a passion for freedom in Bulgaria.
What I find most interesting about what Abrams has to say is that it is not just wrong – but the polar opposite of the truth. The undemocratic actions by President Bush both at home and abroad, from rendition and torture to preemptive war in Iraq, are the very antithesis of the promotion of freedom.
There is both anecdotal evidence and public opinion research that shows, as one would expect, that these tragically ill-conceived policies alienated many. Such as those in the Arab world who John Zogby found in an April 2002 poll to have “a high regard for US science and technology … and those with access to the internet and satellite TV like Americans and American culture, including its movies and television programs”.
What changed? Well, there was that whole Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and black sites thing. Oh and we bombed them. Not so popular among those we are trying to fill with visions of democratic republics.
Sadly, President Obama has not lived up to his promises to end these abuses – and in some cases can even be accused of being worse than President Bush. This might be why, in an August 2010 poll, also by Zogby, countries in the Arab World such as Egypt – which had given the US a second look, are now turning against our president and us.
Speaking of Egypt, it has been ruled by Mubarak’s autocratic hand for 30 years, including torture, political repression, and a will to keep himself in power by any means necessary. For this, President Mubarak is hated by both reformers, who want democracy, and Islamist groups (namely the Muslim Brotherhood), who have made no secret of wanting to replace Mubarak with an Islamic polity.
Sound familiar? It should. That was pretty much the profile of Saddam Hussein, his rule, and his enemies before the US invasion.
This doesn’t mean that democracy is inevitable in Egypt, or that it would have been in Iraq. Yet, neither was the case in the United States in the late 18th Century – or any country in the aftermath of a revolution.
There is always the possibility of a Lenin ousting a Kerensky. Which is why all civilised countries need to do what they can – which might just mean staying away – to ensure democratic forces in Egypt and elsewhere end up in the majority – and not those that produced the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri.
But if Elliot Abrams really wants to look back in history for how best to encourage democracy, he’d consult his Reagan days, when that president rejected the fringe who wanted to preemptively attack the Soviet Bloc, choosing to use economic, cultural and other pressures instead.
This is not to say I don’t have many criticisms of Reagan’s presidency, including his foreign policy. From ignoring Aids to supply side economics to El Salvador – believe me, I could talk your ear off. And it is also not to go all in on Reagan-Cold-War-ending-worship, with the likes of Grover Norquist, who sometimes seems to not only want to drown government in a bathtub, but share one with Ronnie. Reagan was but one of many figures who contributed to the end to the Cold War.
But on this current matter, the one that sees people standing up for self-determination in the streets of many Middle Eastern capitals, Presidents Reagan and Bush aren’t even close.
So if Abrams is searching for the smarter way to get to democracy in a region where it’s largely absent, he would do better to study up on his former boss, rather than the doings of his latter one.
Cliff Schecter is the President of Libertas, LLC, a progressive public relations firm, the author of the 2008 bestseller The Real McCain, and a regular contributor to The Huffington Post.
Follow Cliff Schecter On Twitter: @Cliffschecter
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.