It’s time for Obama to champion the freedom agenda

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.