Obama’s Middle East speech: ‘I’m contrite, Bush was right’

David Meyers Former White House Staffer
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In his speech about the Middle East, the president correctly stated that “years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither. Instead, the lack of freedom in the Middle East made the region an incubator for terrorist movements.”

The president went on to outline his vision of a democratic Middle East: “Americans believe that every person… on every continent has the right to determine his or her own destiny. So America has committed its influence in the world to advancing freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism. We will take the side of democratic leaders and reformers across the Middle East.”

The president I’ve just quoted is not Barack Obama. It is George W. Bush. And the speech was delivered nearly five years ago, in August of 2006, to the American Legion National Convention.

Five years later, President Obama and many of his supporters have embraced President Bush’s Freedom Agenda as their own. But they have only done so after years of criticizing President Bush’s commitment to a democratic Middle East as naïve, imperialistic, insulting, and patronizing.

The Arab Spring has proven Bush prescient and correct. And while President Obama should be commended for embracing the Freedom Agenda, he should also be held accountable for his past position and statements.

During his Cairo address in 2009, Obama disparaged Bush’s Freedom Agenda. “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.”

Obama said he was committed to “governments that reflect the will of the people.” But he undermined the statement by calling for a “realist” foreign policy and suggesting that some nations didn’t want or weren’t prepared for democracy: “Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.”

Obama’s remarks cast Bush as a naïve imperialist, and distorted Bush’s record by implying that the Freedom Agenda was centered on Iraq (it was much broader and relied predominately on “soft power”). Obama also implied that President Bush wanted to “impose” American-style democracies on the Middle East. But Bush was always very clear in saying that there was no one-size-fits all democratic system, and that democracies in the Middle East would be very different from those in America and Europe.

The Freedom Agenda was really about President Bush’s recognition of the universal desire of all people to be free. And President Bush fought steadfastly for this principle, even when it strained relationships with our partners in the region. For example, Bush constantly urged Hosni Mubarak to institute democratic reforms. At the time, some of Bush’s critics said this would undermine “stability” in Egypt. If Mubarak had listened to President Bush’s pleas to hold real elections and open up the political system, things might have turned out differently.

Furthermore, President Obama’s early foreign policy demonstrated a very skeptical view of Bush’s Freedom Agenda. Instead of embracing freedom, Obama embraced a “realist” foreign policy that focused on building relationships with dictatorial and tyrannical regimes such as those in Syria and Iran. And when Iranian students took to the streets of Tehran to demand an accountable and democratic government, Obama’s support was tepid at best.

In his speech, President Obama said that “after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” But President Bush didn’t accept the world as it was. During his time in office, the United States actively pursued the world as it should be.

The Arab Spring has forced Obama’s hand, and he has now admirably corrected course and embraced the Freedom Agenda. President Bush won’t seek any credit, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve it.

President Bush’s critics used to demean him with phrases like “Bush lied, people died.” Here’s a new one they should try: “I’m contrite, Bush was right.”

David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.