Friday, January 31, 2014
Bush's Freedom Agenda: Claiming Victory Without Victory
The claim put forward by some (Raz, 2011; Daily Beast, 2011) that U.S. President George W. Bush’s ‘Freedom Agenda’ contributed to the ‘democratic wave’ that engulfed the Middle East and North Africa in the aftermath of the Arab Spring is one that is prima facie hard to prove. A deeper examination of this tall claim shows there is, in fact, little basis to support it at all. In this essay I describe what the Freedom Agenda is, who is putting forward this claim and why it should be viewed with scepticism.
President Bush followed a policy course that ignored or contradicted the tenets of his own Freedom Agenda as much as it promoted it, making any claim that it had the designed or desired effect questionable. Additionally, it is also questionable that there has been a democratic wave resulting from the Arab Spring judging by the results thus far. It is far too early to begin to make assertions about the causes or outcomes of the Arab Spring at all, let alone that U.S. policy contributed to it. The contributing factors and causes of the Arab Spring will be debated for many years into the future, but the Freedom Agenda should not seriously be considered a major factor among them.
The Freedom Agenda
According to President G.W. Bush’s White House, the Freedom Agenda promotes freedom and democracy in the world as alternatives to ‘repression and radicalism’ (White House Press Office, 2007). It asserts that besides the moral imperative to promote freedom, international democracy provides increased security for America and its allies at home. As evidence of President Bush’s support for the agenda, the White House exhibited a long list of political activists and dissidents from oppressive states Bush met with between 2003 and 2007; touts the creation of a $1 million U.S. government legal fund to support the defence of captive dissidents; a presidential ‘Freedom Defender’ award for activists or NGOs who strongly commit to ‘defending liberty and courage in the face of adversity’; and another ‘Diplomacy for Freedom’ award for the U.S. ambassador who does most to promote the Freedom Agenda (ibid.). It mentions the doubling of funding for ‘Democracy, Governance and Human Rights’ and for the National Endowment for Democracy. It includes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the struggle against anti-democratic forces, as well as diplomatic efforts to support movement toward freedom and democracy in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (ibid.).
Bush’s 2007 Prague Speech (White House, 2007) is the President at his rhetorical best when speaking about his Freedom Agenda. Before an audience including the national leaders of several former Soviet satellite states and political dissidents from many different nations, Bush spoke about the courage of Eastern Europe facing the Nazis and enduring the ‘long darkness’ of the Soviet Union. He calls their democratisation a ‘triumph of freedom in the battle of ideas’. He claims the post-9/11 struggles of America and its allies against Islamic extremism in the War on Terror are an equal struggle in the battle of ideas and that freedom and democracy are not only a moral imperative, but also the greatest weapon in this struggle. He goes on to hold that America is pressing for democratic reform in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, among others. Bush acknowledges that democratic change may lead to violence, but that it is necessary and preferable to pursuing stability and asserts that fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are caused by extremists attacking democratic reform and freedom. He puts forward America’s wars in the Middle East as proof that the Freedom Agenda is eliciting a response from these extremist opponents who fear freedom and democracy.
Perhaps the greatest proponent and Bush-era official who has publicly cited the Freedom Agenda the most as a factor in the Arab uprisings is Elliot Abrams, a Deputy National Security Advisor to G.W. Bush. As early as February 2011, with the Arab Spring only in its third month, Abrams was making media rounds promoting the Freedom Agenda as a factor in the revolts and called for the Obama administration to push for freedom and democracy in the region (Raz, 2011). Abrams criticises President Obama as a state-centred Realist for rejecting the Freedom Agenda by continuing to focus on and attempting to negotiate with Middle Eastern dictators in preference to supporting a dialogue with their peoples striving for freedom and cited ‘slow and unenthusiastic’ Obama administration policy in support of protestors in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria as examples (Abrams, 2011). Abrams and his allies believe that President Obama should have supported the uprisings by seeing them as the will of the people and engaging with them, even if that means regime change, as opposed to solely diplomatically engaging with their embattled dictators (LaFranchi, 2011).
As Muammar Qaddafi’s regime was falling in Libya in October 2011 under the pressure of a NATO air campaign, President Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice held that the Bush administration, “pursued the Freedom Agenda not only because it was right but also because it was necessary. There is both a moral case and a practical one for the proposition that no man, woman or child should live in tyranny . . . In the long run, it is authoritarianism that is unstable and unrealistic.” Rice predicted a positive ending to the revolts and cites the Freedom Agenda as a contributing factor to the uprisings (Daily Beast, 2011).
In summary, the Freedom Agenda developed by President G.W. Bush and his national security team holds that pursuing international democracy, reform and freedom are a moral and security imperative for the United States and its allies in a battle of ideas against oppression and extremism and should be pursued in preference to a policy of maintaining stability by engaging with dictators and heads of state, though accepting that this course may lead to increased tensions and violence. U.S. diplomacy, accompanied by military force where necessary, is the tool to be used to pursue the agenda. From the outset of the Arab Spring, the policy’s architects have asserted that the Freedom Agenda was a factor in triggering the uprisings.
Contradicting the Agenda
The most significant evidence to undermine the claim that Bush’s Freedom Agenda contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings is that it was not adhered to as claimed. Though the Freedom Agenda can be seen as Bush’s legacy and signal foreign policy agenda (Miniter, 2007), Bush and his national security team created policy that contradicted the Freedom Agenda as much as followed it. It does not follow that the agenda was a cause of the Arab Spring if it was not followed in practice.
The administration holds out discussions on democratic reform and increasing freedoms with the leaders of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among others, as proof of pursuing the agenda (White House Press Office, 2007). Pervez Musharraf seized power in Pakistan in a 1999 military coup and subsequently banned his opponents from participating in elections, initially appointed all members of National Assembly, and threatened politicians with criminal investigations if they were critical (Bennett Jones, 2002: 274). Despite continuing moves to consolidate his power and to amend the constitution, this undemocratic behaviour was met only with assurances that ‘private messages’ were being sent to Musharraf by the administration (Carothers, 2003: 85). Pakistan was given $600 million in U.S. aid by the Bush administration in 2002 (ibid.). Musharraf’s decision to support President Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq garnered a further $3 billion from the United States in 2003 (Bennet Jones, 2002: 3), with many more millions to follow until he stepped down in 2008. By way of comparison, according to a 2007 White House ‘Fact Sheet’ on the Freedom Agenda (White House Press Office, 2007), in 2008 President Bush, at the height of his Freedom Agenda legacy-building, budgeted $1.5 billion for all Democracy, Governance and Human Rights projects and $80 million for the Endowment for Democracy. If money translates into support, the administration’s support for Pervez Musharraf was almost twice as strong as its touted commitment to democracy and freedom.
Saudi Arabia provides an even clearer example of the Bush administration contradicting its Freedom Agenda. Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud (2007) documents the long, close relationship between the Bush’s and the Saudi royal family. Despite these strong ties and influence, Bush has little to exhibit as far as real freedom and democratic reform is concerned. Much as with Pakistan, the Bush administration exerted little pressure other than to privately discuss democratic change with the al-Sauds (Carothers, 2003: 87). Initially following the 9/11 attacks and terror attacks in Saudi Arabia itself in 2004 and 2005, it was argued by advisors inside and outside the Kingdom that democratic reform may be needed to quell unrest within the Kingdom (Fattah, 2007). This liberalisation fit in well the Bush’s agenda. However, only very small changes occurred: laws oppressive to women were eased a bit; half the seats in local councils were opened up for democratic elections; and restrictions on public protest were relaxed (ibid.). By 2007, the moment of reform had passed. Petitions for establishing constitutional monarchy continue to be rejected. Though royal family members often mention reform in speeches, little is actually being done (ibid.). Restrictions have in fact tightened again since the Arab Spring, especially in areas such as media and free speech (AFP, 2011). What democratic reforms have been made in the Kingdom during Bush’s era and since have been small, cosmetic and, in some cases, been fully reversed (Fattah, 2007). In fact, Saudi Arabia lands on Freedom House’s Worst of the Worst list as among the world’s most oppressive societies in every year of President Bush’s term and since, frequently receiving the lowest rankings possible in ‘Freedom’, ‘Civil Liberties’, and ‘Political Rights’ (Freedom House, 2001-2013 inclusive).
Bush has a bit more to show for Egypt, but not much. In 2002 the administration decided against increasing the massive military aid Egypt receives from the United States because of Hosni Mubarak’s persecution of Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim (Carothers, 2003: 92). Nonetheless, Mubarak still received nearly $2 billion in U.S. military aid that year, though the Bush administration did reduce annual military aid to Egypt by several hundred million dollars every year until he left office (Sowa, 2013). Egypt is yet another state that, if, as with Pakistan, money translates into support, the Bush administration supported nearly twice as much as it supported freedom and democracy. According to Pressman (2009: 162), the Egyptian regime, as in Saudi Arabia, just ‘tinkered at the margins’. The 2005 presidential election in Egypt was a democratic farce, featuring widespread vote-tampering, state media remaining a Mubarak propaganda tool, and the arrest of his main opponent, Ayman Nour (ibid.). When the Muslim Brotherhood did much better than expected in parliamentary elections, the regime responded with arrests and crackdowns on Islamist and secular parties and vote-tampering in later rounds (ibid.). Though the Bush administration did take some small actions against Mubarak’s anti-democratic excesses, in the round the United States remained his largest foreign donor and supporter.
Besides saying one thing and doing another in Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the reputation of American democracy promotion in the region as a whole suffered during the Bush administration. While America ignored the oppressive and anti-democratic policies of allied dictators and monarchs such as Musharraf, the al-Saud’s and Mubarak, it pushed democracy in states it attacked and invaded. Though Bush claimed to be for democracy in Afghanistan following the toppling of the Taliban, the U.S. campaign depended upon tribal warlords and the Northern Alliance, reinforcing Afghan tribalism to further military goals and sent the message that the U.S. would support warlords over democracy promotion (Hassan and Hammond, 2011: 537). The democratic Karzai government it built after the fall of the Taliban has little authority outside of Kabul and the diversion of resources to the Iraq effort further weakened its power and legitimacy (Carothers, 2003: 88).
Bridoux (2011: 558) points out that in Iraq, the Bush administration did not begin to focus on democracy promotion until it became apparent that the main justification for the war, Saddam’s alleged WMD, did not exist and this is exhibited by the fact that U.S. civilian and military pre-war planning and the initial interim administration in Iraq and the U.S. military command were focussed solely on immediate security and humanitarian needs, not long-term ‘nation-building’ or democracy promotion. Democracy promotion became a reserve justification when the actual security justification fell through. It also calls into question Bush’s assertion of the ‘moral imperative’ (White House Press Office, 2007) to pursue democracy when it is used for politically expedient purposes. Bush’s claim (White House Press Office, 2007) that Taliban and insurgent attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are attacks on freedom and democracy brought on by the enemy’s fear of them is also questionable. After all, the U.S. and its allies showed up in their neighbourhood and began to impose it upon them, not the other way around.
The U.S. seemed, to many, to be targeting its enemies in the Middle East with the ‘threat’ of democracy, but not its friends. The different treatment shown to friends and foes in the Middle East and North Africa generated the criticism that U.S. freedom and democracy promotion was really a tool for punishing or destabilising opponents rather than being truly concerned with granting them to local populations (Pressman, 2009: 160). Bush administration policy, in the words of Carothers (2003: 94), “wrapp[ed] security goals in the language of democracy promotion and then confus[ed] democracy promotion with the search for particular political outcomes that enhance those security goals.” The Bush administration supported the 2006 elections in the Palestinian Territories as an early show of support for democracy promotion, yet also was clear what they wanted the result to be. However, Hamas won a landslide victory, leaving Bush to attempt to put a positive spin on it (Kessler, 2006). Elections in Lebanon since the 2005 ‘Cedar Revolution’ led to more seats for Hezbollah in the national assembly (Dakroub, 2005). Democratic elections in Egypt following the Arab Spring allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to initially gain control of Egypt. The same protestors who toppled the dictator Mubarak in 2011 toppled the democratically-elected Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Democracy promotion and elections have not always achieved U.S. goals, created lasting stability nor made the U.S. safer as the Freedom Agenda claimed it would. It has, at times, had arguably the opposite effect.
In summary, the Bush administration pursued a policy course that was just as contradictory to its own Freedom Agenda as it was supportive of it. The relationships with some of the very states—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—that it cites itself (White House, 2007; White House Press Office, 2007) as proof of following the agenda also offer proof it did not. The unequal application of the Freedom Agenda between friends and foes also called the commitment into question and damaged the reputation of U.S. democracy promotion. A policy that was not truly followed cannot be cited as successful in achieving its goals or if it did so, it did so incidentally. Where the U.S. and its allies have established democratic governments—Afghanistan and Iraq—they also did much to weaken them and were only able to do so following military action. These governments did not come to be through indigenous agitation for freedom and democracy brought on by the Freedom Agenda. In the case of Iraq especially, the Bush administration turned to democracy promotion as a major goal only after its initial justification for the war turned out not to exist. The bases offered for promoting the Freedom Agenda—moral imperative, long-term stability, and increased security for the U.S.—have also been shown to be questionable as, when it was followed at all, it has arguably not dependably provided those things or not more so than the alternative policies it criticised and was supposed to offer improvements over.
Too Early to Predict Anything, Let Alone a ‘Democratic Wave’
It is too early to predict or draw any serious conclusions as to the causes, effects and consequences of the Arab Spring. Arguably, it is still going on. Battles in Syria are still raging. The revolution in Egypt continues with the deposition of Mohammed Morsi by the military following demonstrations as large as those against Mubarak (Maqbool, 2013). Protests may flare up again in any number of countries in the region. Any real academic analysis of the Arab Spring cannot take place until all of the facts are known or until it appears to reach some sort of conclusion. Anyone who attempts to do so prematurely risks getting it wrong and being overcome by events, as those who have been asserting since 2011 that the Freedom Agenda contributed to the Arab Spring have been. It is hard to know what next month will bring in the region, let alone claim the events have been a triumph for any policy or any party involved.
It is also too early to say that there has been a ‘democratic wave’ at all in the Arab Spring. Freedom House has called Tunisia the ‘Arab Spring’s pivotal democratic example’ (Walker and Tucker, 2011) and is arguably where the revolt began and where there have been signs of real democratic reform. However, in neighbouring Libya, it took NATO military intervention to topple Muammar Qaddafi. Some armed militias still, two years on, refuse to give up territory. Fighting still grips all of Syria where the regime and rebels are locked into an effective stalemate as foreign Jihadists join in and America and its allies wrangle with Russia, Iran and China over intervention there. Despite protests and minor concessions, there has been no real democratic change in places such as Iran, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait. Egyptian protestors overthrew the dictator Mubarak in 2011, but then also overthrew his democratically-elected successor Morsi in 2013. The transition there begins anew with Morsi in the court dock along with Mubarak. In some Arab and North African states, there has been no change at all.
Though many protestors and activists clearly have and will continue to call for increased freedom and democracy and many who have never been politically involved before have taken to the streets to take up the cause, there has not yet been a ‘democratic wave’ if one judges that by the state-by-state results of the Arab Spring thus far. The Middle East and North Africa region is still overwhelmingly not free and democratic (Freedom House, 2013). This being the case, it is hard to argue that the Freedom Agenda contributed to a ‘democratic wave’ resulting from the Arab Spring if there really hasn’t been such a wave as yet. Nonetheless, as above, it is still far too early days to judge what caused or will become of the Arab Spring.
The Bush Freedom Agenda has not contributed to a ‘democratic wave’ resulting from the Arab Spring. The Bush administration deviated from the agenda as much as it adhered to it. Some of the same evidence it puts forward to show its support for the agenda shows equally it did not support it. The administration’s goals in applying the agenda were arguably not met in practice. It is questionable if there has been a ‘democratic wave’ at all thus far following the Arab Spring, though it is still too early to form real conclusions yet as to the causes and consequences of the uprisings. The Arab Spring continues today in many places. However it should be clear that a policy agenda that was only partially or haphazardly followed and has arguably not brought about the goals it sought to achieve in an event that is not yet over cannot be credited with achieving anything.
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