I wrote recently about Obama’s funding cuts to pro-democracy groups in Egypt. Shadi Hamid in a recent op-ed writes that the overall movement of the Obama administration away from spreading democracy and towards more pragmatic Middle East policy has led to a kind of ‘nostalgia’ for the Bush years among Arabs: ‘for all its singularly destructive actions,’ Hamid writes, ‘the Bush administration might very well be the only administration to have ever challenged the fundamental premises of US policy in the Middle East.’ He argues that the very ideas that liberals find so unpalatable, Bush’s ideological emphasis on democracy and freedom as the key to peace in the region, were actually a fresh approach to the Middle East that opened up an opportunity for reform now closed by Obama as he reverts to pragmatism and ‘a cynical bargain with Arab autocrats’. The closing of this window has thus led to a sense of nostalgia amongst Arab reformers for the Bush years and the support offered to them from the West back when the spread of democracy was an administration priority.
It is true that Obama’s departure from Bush’s attempt to fund democracy has had an effect on opposition movements in places such as Egypt, but there are several problems with Hamid’s conclusion. Firstly, it is hard to believe in a widespread feeling of nostalgia for Bush, whose foreign policy failures in the region hardly need enumerating, and whose support for democracy was always offset by his dubious alliances with the Gulf states and his funding to institutions such as the Egyptian army, often higher than the support allocated to reforming movements. The struggle for democracy in the Middle East is, speaking reductively, one between populations and autocracies, and so any nostalgia must be viewed in this context; if there is any, it is for a policy of support for the population against the autocracy represented by funding for pro-democracy groups, and not for Bush and his ideological crusade.
Bush’s support for democracy only went so far – it was limited, firstly by his support for autocracy as mentioned above, but also by his fear of the results of Middle Eastern democracy. When Islamist parties began winning elections, Bush and the neocons became afraid of the door they may be opening by advocating democracy. His was a Western paradigm of democracy in which joyful Arabs, free from their autocratic shackles, would straightaway go out and elect nice secular pro-Western governments. This is certainly a possibility, but it’s only one possibility, and democracy isn’t worth having if you refuse to admit that it could lead to results that you aren’t entirely happy about. The Bush years were not some golden age of support for Arab populations in their fight for free and fair elections. Obama’s departure from a select few of his policies is disappointing, but hardly cause for Bush nostalgia.
The Moor Next Door, once again, has an excellent roundup of responses to Hamid’s article, and extends this with a good critique of Obama’s uber-realism in the Middle East: ‘The most problematic result of the Bush policy for American liberals may be that it has warped their self-perception and posture towards the region. There is a sense that democracy or reform cannot “work” in the Middle East (and perhaps should not be allowed to), that it is better to sit with the Big Man than to offer any real assistance to anyone else, and so on. Americans perceive their own limits in the region and the world with this in the back of their minds; and that translates into the hyper-cautious route the administration (and its pundit friends) has taken on reform in the Arab countries and Iran.’ The rest of the article is well worth reading.