by Charles Dunne
Director for Middle East and North Africa Programs
Eight years and a day after President George W. Bush laid out a broad agenda in support of freedom and representative government in the Middle East at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood before the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on November 7 to essay a detailed overview of the Obama administration’s response to the Arab Spring. The secretary’s remarks did much to advance and clarify the administration’s policy. But their historical continuity with the Bush policy was equally striking. Call it the Bush Freedom Agenda 2.0.
First, Clinton tried to confront criticism of American policy and reconcile the many contradictory impulses of U.S. democracy promotion in the region, taking on charges that America might “actually long for the old days” of friendly dictatorships as well as accusations “from activists who think we aren’t pushing hard enough for democratic change and from government officials who think we’re pushing too hard.” She strove mightily, with some success, to explain why U.S. policy has varied widely from country to country, ranging from military action in Libya to relatively quiet complaints about Bahrain’s repression of its Shi’a majority. She mounted a spirited defense of why democracy promotion should be ranked among U.S. regional interests at all. And she took on the outdated consensus prevalent within much of the U.S. diplomatic corps—the Arabists of today and yesterday—that democracy is rarely in American interest in a region where, as Al Capone was rumored to have said of Chicago, you can get so much more done with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.
Here was where Clinton’s speech really shone. She plainly rejected the “false choice” between “progress and stability” while pointing out the real choice between “reform and unrest.” She nodded toward the necessity of a humble approach in the conduct of U.S. diplomatic affairs, but nevertheless proposed a policy that would lead with America’s principles rather than bowing to the weaknesses of past diplomatic and political baggage.
Second, she upped the ante for the United States’ friends in the region.
Clinton expanded the critique of Bahrain’s torture, abuse, and repression of its prodemocracy activists, and made clear what the administration expects: real reform and dialogue with the opposition. She also insisted that the administration would hold Bahrain to implementing the findings of its independent commission of inquiry.
She had pointed warnings too for Egypt’s ruling military council, stating that if in the future the most “powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest.” She went on to note obliquely, without naming Egypt, that arresting bloggers for criticizing public officials—as Egypt’s military has, charging numerous activists with “insulting the military”—is wrong. So too is incitement of sectarian tensions by state television, as occurred in the October 9 incident in the Maspero area of Cairo, when 27 Coptic Christians were killed during a political protest. Clinton also said the United States would defend civil society when it is under pressure, as nongovernmental organizations and their international partners are in Egypt. Most important, she warned that “when unelected authorities say they want to be out of the business of governing,” as the Egyptian military claims it does with decreasing credibility, the Obama administration will hold them to it.
Clinton even threw down the gauntlet before other unnamed friends in the region—presumably, one hopes, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies—by insisting that the United States will “urge reluctant reformers to move faster.”
Third, the secretary made clear that the administration is intent on pressing forward in support of democratic change despite the doubters in the United States and abroad. In so doing she continued the work of breaking new policy ground that Bush began in the fall of 2003.
A little historical perspective is in order. In his NED speech, Bush announced a radical “new policy” called the “Forward Strategy of Freedom,” stating very generally that “the advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country.” In his own speech last May, President Obama extended this approach beyond what even Bush might have thought wise, declaring that “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”
Picking up where Bush and Obama left off, Clinton told her NDI audience that she would soon issue new policy guidelines to U.S. embassies in the region to structure official efforts in support of this policy mandate. She detailed areas in which the United States would be active, including economic and technical assistance; promotion of “trade, investment, regional integration, entrepreneurship, and economic reform”; supporting development of civil society; and standing up for freedom of expression. And she pledged that “America will also use our presence, influence and global leadership to support change.” All this will trouble America’s enemies and worry its less-than-democratic friends in the region, which is as it should be.
One could of course have wished for more. Holding Bahrain accountable to the findings of the independent commission, which the government set up and financed (and which most prodemocracy activists regard with a great deal of skepticism) is not enough to bring about the kind of meaningful change needed in that country. On Syria, the secretary reiterated the administration’s calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, but said nothing in regard to specific next steps (such as recognizing the external Syrian National Council in place of the Assad government, as the United States did with Libya’s Transitional National Council).
Clinton’s forward-leaning remarks on the direction of U.S. policy also papered over the very real reluctance of many foreign affairs bureaucrats to implement such guidance. In policy circles, for example, the debate over how much to support Egyptian civil society organizations that do not comply with Egypt’s onerous and punitive Mubarak-era registration law continues, as does discussion of how much control to give the Egyptian government over U.S. civil society funding.
The timing too could have been better: the speech would have been much more effective roughly six months ago, when Obama had just laid out the overall vision. Then, the Arab Spring was young, and prodemocracy activists could have used the encouragement.
Finally, it remains to be seen whether these noble sentiments on democracy and support of reform will be accompanied by instances of foot-dragging, backsliding, appeasement of governments, and abandonment of activists, as they sometimes have in the past. Clinton opened the door to just such a possibility when she pointed out that “there will be times when not all of our interests align … that is just reality.”
On the whole, however, Clinton’s speech was another important step in crafting a coherent policy on Middle East democracy promotion in an era of isolationist impulses, straitened budgets, and high suspicion of American motives. For that the secretary is to be commended, and wished the best of luck.