President Obama’s speech on May 19 outlining the administration’s Middle East policy vindicates his predecessor’s freedom agenda, though the two men reached the same place by different paths. It was the 9/11 attacks that forced George W. Bush to conclude that promoting democracy and human rights in the Muslim Middle East was a core American interest. Insofar as the source of 9/11 was the poisonous political culture of the Middle East, in Bush’s view, American policy had to focus on the people of the region and the societies they have made.
It’s worth recalling that this is not the lesson Obama drew from 9/11. His June 2009 Cairo speech was premised on another understanding of the attacks—that anti-Americanism had its roots in Muslims’ legitimate grievances with Washington’s policies, perhaps above all the U.S. relationship with Israel. Obama’s ambiguous words last week on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as well as his opposition to introducing democracy by force in Iraq, show that he still hasn’t entirely embraced his inner Bush. Nor is he likely to credit the last president much, since his own road to the freedom agenda comes by way of the Arab Spring, that series of uprisings that Obama may have helped inspire, albeit unwittingly.
Obama is still wary of Bush’s language, preferring, for instance, self-determination to democracy. But there is little in Obama’s speech that Bush did not say in promoting his freedom agenda. Bush’s rehabilitation then comes not, as Bush’s defenders had hoped, at the hands of historians decades after his death, but rather from the successor administration, though it won office on an anything-but-Bush platform. More important, Obama’s speech signals that we’re approaching a consensus on U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
No wonder: 9/11 altered the way American policymakers interact with the region. The attacks brought a sea change in U.S. strategy. The Middle East became the one region in the world that Washington could no longer relate to solely in terms of nation-states. It turned out that some of our allies were untrustworthy, some even inciting their own people against us and supporting anti-American terror through nonstate actors. Further, because Arab and Muslim publics justified and celebrated the slaughter of American civilians, U.S. policymakers were forced to conclude that something was deeply wrong in these cultures.
In overthrowing Saddam, Bush went over the heads of the region’s rulers to make America’s case directly to Middle Easterners. Obama, too, spoke past Middle Eastern presidents and princes, though he didn’t mean to. He came to office promising to engage rogue regimes like Syria and Iran that his predecessor had isolated—another of Bush’s excesses and errors for which the new president would make amends. Obama saw the Middle East as united by Islam, instead of divided against itself in every possible way, into sects, ethnicities, tribes, and nations. Another dividing line was between the powerless people and their governments. With his Cairo speech, which Obama intended as the centerpiece of a reset with the entire region, the president unintentionally undermined Hosni Mubarak in his own capital. When 18 months later Egyptians took to the streets to demand Mubarak’s ouster, Obama asked aides how he could possibly go against the people whose aspirations he had encouraged.
But if the Cairo speech is part of the Arab Spring, so is the invasion of Iraq, for toppling the strongman Saddam Hussein made previously unimaginable changes not only thinkable but possible. Last week, Obama said Iraq is “poised to play a key role in the region.” It should also play a role in the White House’s promotion of self-determination. Without rooting the freedom agenda in deep soil, Obama is likely to miss some of what the Bush administration learned in Iraq.
Take state sponsorship of terror. The fact that Osama bin Laden was found hiding in Pakistan, a U.S. ally, confronts the White House with the same problem the Bush administration faced: collusion between Middle Eastern regimes and terrorist organizations. Bush put regional rulers on notice by making an example of Saddam, and the message got across. Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program and stopped sponsoring terrorism, then Syria was forced out of Lebanon. Obama has undone some of that good work by going easy on Syria and taking weak, half-hearted action against the Libyan leader. Obama has shown these nasty regimes that the Americans will not really befriend you if you comply with the request to disarm—but neither are the Americans serious enough to kill you.
The other thing the Obama administration might learn from American experience in Iraq is how Middle Eastern societies are actually transformed. That Obama has promised Egypt $1 billion in debt relief and another $1 billion in aid suggests Washington is not going to foot the bill for these transitions, as it did in Iraq. But Washington has learned a thing or two about Arab political cultures—about sectarianism and Islamism, both its Sunni and Shia variants; about cultivating a new generation of political leaders and sidelining less savory actors. Indeed, Washington has become the locus of expertise on Middle East democracy. Now that Obama has vindicated Bush’s freedom agenda, he can best advance U.S. interests, and promote the self-determination of Middle Easterners, by learning not just from his predecessor’s failures but his successes as well.