U.S. Policy: Back to the Future

by Michael Rubin
June 2007

On January 20, 2005, after President George W. Bush took his second oath of office, he delivered an address in which he laid out his vision for his second term. In his speech, he reiterated his intention to tie U.S. policy to be the promotion of freedom and democracy abroad.

"All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you," he declared.[1] Many European commentators were aghast. Robin Cook, the former British foreign secretary, wrote in The Guardian, London's left-wing flagship, that "On the very day when the president set forward his mission to bring liberty to the world, a poll revealed that a large majority of inhabitants believe that he will actually make it more dangerous."[2] The conservative Daily Telegraph questioned whether Bush's "ringing encomium of freedom" could survive Iraq.[3] Spain's El Pais, Germany's Die Tageszeitung, and Austria's Die Presse all expressed concern. Sueddeutsche Zeitung observed, "The whole world is seeking an answer…to the question of whether George Bush will really be a changed president in his second term."[4]

They need not have worried. Rather than forward his agenda, Bush's foreign policy team reversed it. On June 20, 2005, speaking at the American University in Cairo, Secretary of State Condoleezza called for multiparty elections. "The Egyptian Government must put its faith in its own people. We are all concerned for the future pf Egypt's reforms when peaceful supporters of democracy—men and women—are not free from violence. The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice."[5] But, less than a year later, the Bush administration remained silent as Egyptian police imprisoned Ayman Nour, President Hosni Mubarak's election challenger, on spurious charges. Then, as Egyptian security forces in May 2006 rounded up hundreds of demonstrators rallying in support of two judges who had alleged fraud in parliamentary elections, Rice did not express outrage. Washington remained silent as Mubarak cancelled municipal elections.[6] On October 3, 2006, Rice stood next to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit at a press conference and, in her prepared remarks, neglected even to mention democracy.[7] Egypt is not the exception, but rather the rule. The Bush administration has abandoned reformers and dissidents across the region, from Iran and Saudi Arabia to Libya and Tunisia.

Election Shock

While the Bush administration does not acknowledge publicly its policy reversal—a lack of candor which undercuts its credibility at home and abroad—the White House and State Department reversed course on the democracy agenda following the combined shock at Muslim Brotherhood gains in the November and December 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections and the Hamas landslide in the January 25, 2006 Palestinian poll. As Hamas celebrated its victory the following day, supporters rushed the parliament building and replaced the Palestinian flag with a green Islamist banner, symbolically subordinating institution to party. Ismail Haniya, who would soon assume the premiership, rededicated Hamas to violence. "Our fighting is only with the Zionist enemy," he said.[8]

Such events shocked Washington. Prior to their election, there was broad consensus not only among those supportive of Bush's democracy agenda, but also those opposed that the most radical Islamist fringe would not benefit from elections.[9] The logic that a foreign policy prioritizing stability contributed to the dynamics culminating in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was and remains compelling.

After the Hamas victory, many in foreign policy establishment reversed course. Rather than examine faulty implementation and a rush to elections, they advocated abandoning Bush's democracy agenda altogether. This is unfortunate. Analysts long expected Muslim Brotherhood gains in Egyptian elections, if only as a response to Mubarak's corruption and dictatorship. Many Egyptians may have preferred a liberal opposition party to the Islamist alternative, but did no serious alternative existed. This in itself was in part a result of traditional U.S. stability policy. For years, the U.S. diplomats allowed the Mubarak regime to veto any aid projects which might benefit an independent political base.

There were many policy remedies short of abandoning democracy to which a stronger leader in the White House might have directed diplomats. Many policymakers had questioned the rush to elections, and the failure to uphold standards for participation.[10] In the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iraqi elections, U.S. and United Nations officials did not object strenuously to participation of those political parties which maintained armed militias. It was a mistake. In each case, political leaders used their militias to intimidate voters or perpetuate fraud. Rather than abandon democracy, Rice might have corrected the standards used to legitimize election participation.

Flawed election design has also empowered extreme elements of society. For Iraq, U.S. officials had the choice of two election systems: A nationwide, proportional representation system based on party lists; or a constituency based systems in which Iraqis would elect officials for specific districts. Rice and Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer chose the former in order to simplify the process. Iraqi party leaders assembled their election list, from which one member would enter parliament for every 0.4 percent of the vote which the list received. Aspiring politicians, therefore, became more accountable to party leaders than constituents. Rather than debate practical issues such as restoration of basic services, education, or security, party leaders amplified populist sectarian and ethnic agendas.

Ideological Aversion

To abandon democracy as a goal was not a huge leap. While Bush had committed himself to democratization, even in his first term, the policy never took firm hold. The White House announced initiatives with great fanfare, but implemented relative few.

Many of those implementing Bush administration policies expressed indifference if not disdain for his policies. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, while mislabeled a neoconservative by many European commentators, was ambivalent to democratization. He directed his staff, for example, to replace the term democracy with representative government in every memo directed to his office. The difference is important, for the latter could include benevolent autocracies which co-opt factions, or states which pursue the Lebanese model of sectarian quotas.

Foreign policy specialists do not abandon opinions when they enter government service. Indeed, their debate is a critical part of the interagency process that shapes policy. Where the Bush administration differed from its predecessors, though, was in the weakness and disorganization of his National Security Council. Established by the National Security Act of 1947,[11] the National Security Council coordinates policy across agencies. Under Rice's stewardship, the Council neglected to resolve many open policy questions. Under both Rice and her successor Steven Hadley's stewardship, the Council failed to impose discipline to ensure that various agencies implemented those rare policy directives upon they or the President had ruled.

While most presidents populate their National Security Council with officials loyal to their agenda, White House chief-of-staff Andy Card decided early in Bush's first term to trim the National Security Council budget through reliance on secondement of career employees whose salaries other departments paid. With few exceptions, the Pentagon opted out of this scheme, because Rumsfeld frowned on the idea of paying anyone who did not directly serve his department. Accordingly, Rice staffed the Council with State Department and Central Intelligence Agency employees. Many made little secret of their disdain for the Bush administration. Prior to the 2004 elections, senior National Security Council officials resigned to work for Bush's election opponents.

Within the State Department, there was as much disdain for Bush's agenda. Just a year after Bush included Iran in the "Axis of Evil," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called the Islamic Republic a democracy in an interview with The Los Angeles Times.[12] One senior diplomat serving in Baghdad told his British colleagues that he thought Bush and his polices to be stupid. Bush subsequently nominated the man to be ambassador to an Arab country important both as a subject of democratization and as an ally in the war on terror.

While Rice spoke often of democracy while national security advisor, it was not difficult for her to abandon the policy upon her move to the State Department. The traditional foreign policy establishment disliked the Bush emphasis on democracy. Outreach to dissidents makes tenure in diplomatic postings difficult. Many diplomats seek to avoid rather than instigate tension between their embassy and host government. At its root, their attitudes touch upon a philosophical divide among foreign policy professionals: Should embassies represent the U.S. government to entire countries or just their governments? Those who believe the latter focus attention on relations with ruling regimes rather than upon opposition groups and civil society.

Rice's staffing reflected antipathy toward democratization. Her Policy Planning Director Stephen Krasner placed Suzanne Maloney, an Exxon Mobil official who had deferred an earlier employment offer because she preferred to work in a Kerry administration, in charge of the Iran portfolio. Maloney used her position to veto expenditure of much of the $75 million which the Congress allocated to support democracy in Iran. In an April 2007 interview against the backdrop of the Islamic Republic's seizure of 15 British hostages, her husband told an Iranian paper, "America also has to forget the hopeless policy of regime change, as well as the $75 million budget for the opponents of the Tehran government."[13] Rice also appointed Nicholas Burns her undersecretary of state for Policy, the same position promised him by the Kerry administration. After Robert B. Zoellick stepped down as deputy secretary of state on July 7, 2006, Rice sought to promote Burns, but the White House personal office vetoed his nomination.

Future U.S. Direction

So where does U.S. Middle East policy stand? Iraq continues to consume U.S. attention. When ethnic and sectarian violence did not subside, opponents of democratization blamed the reform agenda. Regardless of whether democratization is to blame for exacerbating violence in Iraq, neither the White House nor the State Department can pursue a proactive democracy agenda so long as violence and instability continue there.

Events dictate policy. Violence in the West Bank and Gaza, and the threat of renewed instability in Lebanon also constrain U.S. diplomacy. Despite pledges to form a united front, Hamas and Fatah are today in a state of civil war. In Lebanon, too, Hezbollah holds stability hostage. Hezbollah's cross-border attack on Israel on July 12, 2006, sparked a month-long war which underlined both regional instability as well as Iran's growing regional influence.

Diplomats and many administration officials have suspended the push for reforms and re-embraced the short-term stability afforded by current leaders. Perhaps nothing symbolized this more in Washington than Vice President Dick Cheney's decision to receive Gamal Mubarak, the son of the Egyptian ruler and his anointed successor.[14]

The State Department will pressure for a breakthrough on outstanding issues in the Middle East. This is less a sign of an ideological reshuffle than conformity with the actions of second term administrations. It was during Ronald Reagan's second term that he and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev pursued rapprochement. Clinton had three goals as he neared the end of his presidency: To achieve a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli settlement, to re-establish relations with Iran, and to normalize relations with Vietnam. That he succeeded only in the latter was not the result of lack of effort, but rather because reality intrudes upon the best of intentions.

The desire of Rice and some of Bush's handlers for a high profile success upon which to stake Bush's legacy is not enough to overcome the diplomatic problems which have hampered earlier solutions. Rice may want to revive the Palestinian-Israel peace process, but to do so mandates Palestinian abandonment of terror.

Nor will rapprochement with the Islamic Republic be easy. Many presidents have tried. Radical students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran three days after U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski met Mehdi Barzargan, the Islamic Republic's first prime minister to discuss resumption of full relations. While most Americans remember the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal for the illegalities of circumventing Congress to fund the Nicaraguan resistance, it was also an attempt to build trust and enable reconciliation with Tehran. The Iranian government embarrassed Madeleine Albright in 2000 when the Iranian Foreign Minister failed to show up for a private meeting arranged with the Secretary of State on the fringe of multilateral talks over Afghanistan.

While Rice may want to renew attempts at engagement, they have little chance of success. The Iranian leadership believes the Bush administration to be weak. Just four days after Rice expressed U.S. willingness to hold bilateral talks with Iran, Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamenei responded, "Why don't you just admit that you are weak and your razor is blunt?"[15] Nor is there any indication that the Iranian government will respond positively toward engagement on issues important to Washington such as Iran's nuclear program and its support for terrorism. Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran nearly tripled while, at the same time, rising oil prices bolstered the Iranian treasury. Rather than moderating, however, the Iranian government spent up to 70 percent of the hard currency windfall on its nuclear and military programs. While some officials may hope for a Kissinger-to-China moment, sometimes reality intrudes.

Nor is Bush necessarily willing to make the sacrifices which Kissinger did. In his 1975 attempt to win Iran-Iraq peace, Kissinger sacrificed the Iraqi Kurds. Undercutting his diplomacy with Beijing was a willingness to abandon Taipei. Neither Bush—nor the foreign policy establishment—is willing to abandon Israel for peace with the Palestinians, abandon Lebanon for peace with Syria, or abandon Iraq for peace with Iran. Diplomats may seize upon the Saudi initiative, but in both Washington and in Riyadh, the attempt has more to do with embracing the optic of engagement rather than in substantive diplomacy. The Saudis are more interested in repairing an image soiled by the Kingdom's past funding of al-Qaeda terrorism than in breaking new ground in the peace process. They know insistence upon the Palestinian right-of-return to Israel proper as a prerequisite will go nowhere. It would mean the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, a price unacceptable everywhere except, perhaps, in some West European capitals.

Even if the Middle East stabilizes, the push for democracy will not return. Rice lacks strong beliefs, and prefers celebrity to purpose. Many of the staunchest proponents of Bush's democracy agenda have either resigned or abdicated their positions. But declarations that the purge of neoconservatives equates with a long-term return to realism do not hold water. There is no sign that Bush has abandoned his desire to support democrats and dissidents. The president may still believe his own rhetoric, even if his trusted aides do not. The result is a muddle, not a strategy, one which Iran and its proxies will be happy to exploit.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

[1] "President Sworn-In to Second Term." Office of the Press Secretary. The White House. January 20, 2005. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/01/250120-1.html
[2] Robin Cook. "Fireworks in Washington, despair around the world." The Guardian (London), January 21, 2005. Pg. 28.
[3] "Bush must sort out Iraq if he is to keep his promises." The Daily Telegraph (London), January 21, 2005. Pg. 29.
[4] "European press review for Friday 21 January." BBC Monitoring, Caversham, January 21, 2005.
[5] Condoleezza Rice. "Remarks at the American University in Cairo." U.S. Department of State. June 20, 2005. http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm2005/48328.htm
[6] Jeffrey Azarva. "Reneging on Reform: Egypt and Tunisia." Middle East Outlook, April 2007. http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.25873/pub_detail.asp
[7] Condoleezza Rice. "Remarks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit after their Meeting." U.S. Department of State. October 3, 2006. http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2006/73525.htm
[8] "Hamas calls for international pressure on Israel." Agence France Presse, January 26, 2006.
[9] See, for example, discussion of Ray Takeyh and Nikolas K. Gvosdev, The Receding Shadow of the Prophet: The Rise and Fall of Radical Political Islam (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2004), in Daniel L. Byman, "How to Fight Terrorism." The National Interest, Spring 2005.
[10] See, for example, "Debate: ‘Democracy is about more than Elections,'" Middle East Quarterly. Summer 2006. http://www.meforum.org/article/983
[11] Public Law 235-61, Statute 496, U.S. Code 402; amended in 1949 by 63 Statute 579; 50 U.S. Code 401 et seq.
[12] Robin Wright. "U.S. Now Views Iran in More Favorable Light," Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2003, pg. 5.
[13] "Ray Takeyh: A time to be conciliatory with Iran." Hamshahri (Tehran), April 5, 2007.
[14] Peter Baker. "Mubarak's Son Met with Cheney, Others." Washington Post, May 16, 2006. Pg. A4.
[15] Speech at Behesht-e Zahra, Islamic Republic News Agency, June 4, 2006.

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