What US conservatives never saw coming

Obama’s critics say Arab revolutions vindicate Bush’s freedom agenda, but they overestimate US influence.

US conservatives have seized the opportunity provided by Arab revolutions to seek vindication for George Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’ [GALLO/GETTY]

While many American conservatives were quicker to warm to the recent Arab revolutions than the Obama administration, they were wrong to have always assumed that American power was the essential ingredient for change in the region.

In his aptly (and mischievously) titled article, Project for a New Arab Century, Muhammad Khan alleged that the recent eruption of popular revolutions in the Middle East left conservative enthusiasts for democracy promotion “largely silent”. In fact, conservatives have been very vocal as of late. In the midst of the Obama administration’s waffling response to the protests, George W. Bush supporters have seized the opportunity to seek vindication for the former president’s ‘freedom agenda’.

Elliot Abrams, who served as Bush’s deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, was the first out of the gates. On January 29, Abrams highlighted Bush’s comments on the universality of democracy and the instability of autocracy as prescient strategic insights confirmed by unfolding events. Why, Abrams asked, could Obama not follow Bush’s example and express his support for the popular protests more unequivocally?

Others have gone much further than Abrams. For Charles Krauthammer, a popular conservative columnist and one of the chief theorists of democracy promotion, the current upheavals have been all about Bush. “Everyone,” Krauthammer insisted on March 4, “is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda” now.

If this is true, then it behooves us to ask what Krauthammer defines as the ‘freedom agenda’. It turns out that, according to Krauthammer (all that talk about ‘regime change’ from 2002 to 2003 notwithstanding), the chief principle of the ‘freedom agenda’ can be reduced á la Abrams to the rather pedestrian insight that “Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom”.

But Krauthammer does not stop there and advances quickly from the banal to the absurd. Apparently, in Krauthammer’s words, “the Bush Doctrine set the premise” for the current revolutions, upsetting age old structures of power in the Arab world. Really? Did the Arab public truly require Bush’s imprimatur on democracy before they rose up to demand greater justice and freedom with the tools provided by democratic discourses?

More serious and substantial commentary has come from William Inboden, a former senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council under Bush. On January 30, Inboden asked why the Obama administration did not see the Egyptian revolt coming and on February 11, he insisted that “not everyone was wrong on Egypt” – pointing to the intriguing (but marginalised) work of the bi-partisan Working Group on Egypt since 2010.

The Working Group on Egypt was perhaps the most persistent and vocal group in Washington circles warning of the decrepitude of the Mubarak regime. On April 17, 2010, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, received a letter from the group, led by Michele Dunne and Robert Kagan, warning that Egypt was “at a critical turning point”. The group cautioned that unless the US took a serious interest, Egypt risked “sliding backwards into increased authoritarianism” rather than “progressing gradually on a path of desirable reform”.

Receiving little response, the group sent a second letter to Clinton on May 11 2010. Several weeks later Dunne and Kagan penned an op-ed in the Washington Post highlighting the gulf that had “opened between the government and the citizenry” in Egypt. Dunne and Kagan worried that if the US did not take action, then Egypt might be lost to radicalism.

A US-centric view

Before going any further, however, it is worth considering what exactly these critics of the Obama administration actually saw coming in the Arab world. After all, there was nothing particularly profound or prophetic about pointing out that the Egyptian people had little affection for Mubarak and his policies in 2010.  If we really want to know whether American conservatives ‘saw it coming’, it is better to look beyond their particular assessments of the Mubarak, Ben Ali or Gaddafi regimes to their general view of the relationship between power and change in the region.

Well before Bush II came into office, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), a ‘neo-conservative’ think-tank based in Washington DC, began to mount a full-on assault against the ‘realist’ assumptions they perceived to be governing American foreign policy. Chief amongst their targets was the allegedly narrow ‘realist’ construal of national interest. Far better, the PNAC contended, to expand the concept of national interest to encompass things like the promotion of democracy abroad.

After 2001, the PNAC’s arguments about democracy promotion and national interest gained momentum. Along with this argument came an unchallenged assumption about the nature of political change in the Arab world.

While conservatives such as Bush spoke enthusiastically about the universality of democracy they remained convinced that beneficial change would come about in only one of two ways: Regime change or gradual internal reform. In either case, American power and support were considered the essential element. American inaction meant either the maintenance of the status quo or the spread of Islamic radicalism.

In many ways, this myopic, American-centric view of power and change continues to govern both conservative and liberal American views of the Arab world. What conservatives never saw coming, along with the majority of American foreign policy analysts, was the manner in which the Arab world has changed in recent months. It turns out America was not the essential catalyst for change that everyone assumed.

Twice in a decade now, hitherto neglected non-state actors have seemingly come from nowhere to fundamentally alter both America’s perception of the Middle East and the history of the region itself. Unfortunately, Americans were too mesmerised by the spectre of their own power to see such things coming.

At this juncture, as Americans ponder their future relationship with the Arab world, they might do well to consider the ideas of an important, but neglected theorist of political power, John Howard Yoder. He offered the sound insight that state power (whether ‘soft’, ‘smart’ or ‘hard’) is not equivalent to real power and that he who wields the sword is not the source of agency or creativity in history.

Todd M. Thompson is an assistant professor of International Affairs at Qatar University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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