It’s time for Obama to champion the freedom agenda

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Earlier this week, after the State of the Union address, I wrote a piece explaining why Obama should be thanking Bush for bequeathing to him a set of defense and foreign policies that, by and large, have been successful, and which, for the most part, he has adopted.

Unfortunately, Bush’s most important foreign policy, the so-called freedom agenda, is something for which Obama has been decidedly lukewarm, if not ambivalent and dismissive. And this ambivalence and indifference have come with a cost: They have damaged America’s international standing and undermined our global strategic interests.

Our enemies, after all, realize that what Obama said at West Point in December 2009 is true: He doesn’t care much for American international engagement, because “the nation that [he’s] most interested in building is [his] own.”

And America very much needs to be “changed” and improved, because, as Obama said in his speech in Cairo in June 2009, there is much moral equivalence between the United States and the Arab world.

The struggle for women’s equality, after all, continues in both places, he said. And just as Arab despots and “violent extremists” have wreaked havoc in the world, so, too, have Western colonialists and imperialists.

Who, then, can expect America to lead? What moral example can we possibly set? And by what right do we dare assert ourselves?

That, unfortunately, is the hard lesson that is now being learned on the streets of Egypt and Tunisia, Yemen and Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan — countries in which the universal human aspiration for liberty and opportunity are now stirring about wildly, and with potentially portentous, far-reaching consequences. Yet the Obama administration has been disconcertingly silent.

Indeed, as Jackson Diehl observes in today’s Washington Post:

The administration’s miscalculation about [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak was threefold: First it assumed that the damage done to relations by George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” was a mistake that needed to be repaired.

In fact, Bush’s push for political liberalization was widely viewed, in Egypt and in the region, as the saving grace of an otherwise bad administration policy.

Diehl goes on to note that Obama and his team have seriously misread the situation in Egypt. In the administration’s view, “there was no chance of serious reform — much less revolution — under Mubarak.” Wrong.

Diehl explains,

As an emboldened Mubarak stepped up repression, staged a blatantly rigged parliamentary election in November, and began laying the groundwork to present himself for “reelection” this year, the administration chose to mute its criticism.

Bland, carefully balanced statements were issued by second- and third-level spokesmen, while Clinton and Obama — who regularly ripped Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — remained silent.

This was morally wrong and strategically stupid. The United States, of course, cannot control what happens in Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East. The destiny of countries there is ultimately their own.

However, the United States wields tremendous influence worldwide. People still look to us for leadership. People still see America as a moral exemplar, despite our flaws and our problems — or perhaps because of them: because we candidly acknowledge our errors and our wrongdoing, and we seek to make amends. People the world over know this about the United States.

Bush may have been an imperfect president who made more than his fair share of mistakes; but no one ever doubted that, under his leadership, the United States stood squarely and forthrightly on the side of freedom and opportunity worldwide.

Liberal democracy, Bush realized, is the great alternative to repression and radicalism. It offers a better and more hopeful way; it promises “change you can believe in”; and it is the wave of the future.

Say what you will about Bush, but the man believed this — and the rest of the world knew that he believed this. And that knowledge inspired trust and respect worldwide.

And that, ultimately, is what really matters in international politics — not how well people “like” us, but rather, how much they respect and heed us.

People worldwide may well “like” the United States more now that Obama is president, but so what? Who cares?! Who gives a damn?! International politics is not a popularity contest; it’s a test of wills and underlying strength.

Of course, the United States should not needlessly antagonize people and countries. But by the same token, our foreign policy cannot be held hostage to the global opinion polls and a desire to be “liked”: Because if we try to appease international public opinion, we will end up being neither liked nor respected — and our country will be less secure and less safe as a result.

Bush understood this; but I’m not sure Obama does. Consequently, according to Diehl,

Egyptian opposition activists now say, Clinton and the United States are being blamed in public opinion for that crackdown [by the Egyptian government]. “She is seen as having given Mubarak the green light,” as one told me.

Obama and Clinton are right to be concerned that decidedly illiberal, Islamist elements might hijack the democracy protests in Egypt and thereby undermine U.S. national security interests in the Middle East.

We should work to prevent such an outcome by, for instance, making our foreign aid to Egypt contingent upon the development of liberal democratic institutions and the rule of law. Liberal democracy, after all, involves much more than elections. There are also the governing bodies and legal framework that establish democratic rules and principles. And there are non-governmental entities — a free press, political factions or parties, interest groups, advocacy organizations, religious groups, et al. — that hold political leaders accountable to those whom they govern.

All of these liberal democratic elements are important because they help to diffuse, moderate and modulate political power.

Still, we cannot guarantee that Islamist elements will not wield power in Egypt and other Middle East countries. This is something that we should guard against; however, it is not something that should stop us from supporting democratization in the Middle East.

The chastising experience of governing will itself serve to neuter the Islamists. And ultimately, they, like all representative political leaders, will be held accountable for their actions. Indeed, how well they govern will determine whether they can and will retain political power.

In any case, we should not overstate the Islamist threat in Egypt and elsewhere. As Diehl explains,

Given time to establish themselves [six months to a year, he says], secular forces backed by Egypt’s growing middle class are likely to rise to the top in those elections — not the Islamists that Mubarak portrays as the only alternative.

Obama’s State of the Union address was rightly called “Reaganesque” because of its optimistic and forward-looking embrace of American exceptionalism and its commitment to “winning the future.” But the secret to Reagan’s success lied in his formulation of explicit public policies and public pronouncements that put America on the side of liberal democracy not just at home, but internationally as well.

Reagan’s commitment to liberal democracy at home and overseas was also championed to good effect by George W. Bush. Yet Obama, like the other Bush president, Bush the elder, has been disconcertingly reluctant to do the same.

This must change. The repressive autocracies in Egypt and the Middle East are inherently unstable and cannot survive a world of instantaneous communication and international travel.

Egyptians and people throughout the Middle East see what we in the West have; and they realize that they have been cheated by their leaders. They rightly will not stand for it any more; and neither should we.

We’re better than that. We’re the United States of America. Let’s have a foreign policy that proclaims and champions the revolutionary principles of our founding.

John R. Guardiano is a writer and analyst in Arlington, Virginia. He writes and blogs for a variety of publications, including FrumForum, the American Spectator and The Daily Caller. Follow him at his personal blog, ResoluteCon.com, and on Twitter @JohnRGuardiano.

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