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As democracy dies in the Arab world, ‘where is the US?’

October 15, 2020 at 9:00 am

People demonstrate in support of the Egyptian people’s protests against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak in front of the White House in Washington on 29 January 2011. [NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images]

A debate that is sure to resurface in Washington in the new year is the question over the promotion of democracy. Will it once again be reinstated in its traditional place within US foreign policy? With his “America First” agenda, President Donald Trump moved away from what had been a key pillar of US foreign policy, since at least the time of President Ronald Reagan. The 40th president of the US extolled freedom and democracy around the world and reached out to dissidents in central and eastern Europe, setting the tone for his successors.

The high point in the aggressive promotion of democracy, however, came during the era of President George W. Bush. His election at the beginning of the millennium has been proclaimed, with some hyperbole it should be said, as the dawn of the age democracy promotion. It was the bedrock of what came to be known as the Bush “Freedom Agenda”.

Enthralled by Neo-Cons within his administration, Bush waged wars and toppled unfriendly governments in the name of promoting democracy – from Africa to the Middle East. This agenda, which in reality was always set against US economic and security interests, took a battering following the failed invasion of Iraq and by the choking of democracy when the wrong side emerged victorious, as was the case when the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas won the 2006 elections.

The disaster left in the wake of Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” did not undermine this effort completely. Though it did not form the pillar of President Barak Obama’s foreign policy agenda, it remained a key component of his vision. Trump, however, parted with his predecessors on this issue. He has sought to: “Shift the United States away from the broad commitment to actively supporting democracy’s global advance that former President Ronald Reagan established in the early 1980s and that all US presidents since, Republican and Democratic alike, have pursued in at least some substantial ways,” according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an article bemoaning “What has been lost.”

Of course, it doesn’t take a think tank to realise that the trashing of norms domestically and abroad by Trump has destroyed any credibility the US may have had in taking the moral high ground as the defender of the “free world.” The president has not only inflicted damage on the US as a model for others, he has undermined the very concept that underpins democracy. Nonetheless, the chaos and instability of the Trump era will come to an end one day, perhaps sooner rather than later.

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Though the policy of promoting democracy is under severe strain, talks of the US abandoning its traditional role as the self-proclaimed promoter of democracy is premature. The moral vision of advancing democracy is deeply rooted in American politics, and thus, unlikely to be abandoned any time soon. The very idea of the benevolent US hegemony is centred on this belief. The disaster wrought by Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” ought to have dispelled this notion, though it has served American imperialism well. However, as President Obama showed, the idea of the US as the torch-bearer of democracy cannot be surrendered so easily.

Looking at the Clinton files, the thinking of the Obama administration around the promotion of democracy tells us just how entrenched this idea is within the American psyche. Under Obama, this vision was given a fresh lease of life. Instead of “promoting democracy” it became “building democratic institutions.” The logic, explained Doug Hattaway, who served as White House Press Secretary under the Obama administration, was that democracy had become “tainted” and a new language was needed to advance the same goal.

“Because of Bush’s belligerence and the way the Republicans talk about advancing democracy as ‘promotion of American values’ and ‘winning the ideological war,’ the word ‘democracy’ itself was tainted,” communicated Hattaway in an email to the then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

US President Barack Obama (R) talks on the phone with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as Vice President Joe Biden (L) and the President's National Security team listen in the background in the Oval Office on 28 January 2011 in Washington, DC.  Obama spoke to Mubarak after Mubarak appeared on television and ordered his ministers to resign, but did not offer to resign himself in the wake of widespread protests in Egypt. [Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images]

US President Barack Obama (R) talks on the phone with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as Vice President Joe Biden (L) and the President’s National Security team listen in the background in the Oval Office on 28 January 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke to Mubarak after Mubarak appeared on television and ordered his ministers to resign, but did not offer to resign himself in the wake of widespread protests in Egypt. [Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images]

In his email, Hattaway advised that the US should “support” instead of “promote” democracy, outlining what he termed the US’ “aspirational diplomacy”. Promoting democracy, he explained, had become synonymous with imposing democracy. “US strategy should be patient, humble, cooperative and pragmatic, and not always active and public,” argued Hattaway.

Urging Clinton to meet with the board of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of a number of US-funded organisations set up to promote democracy, he admitted to “having an agenda” which was to see that democracy regain its rightful place in US policy and become a 4th D in the mantra of development, defence and diplomacy. “I also hope,” added Hattaway, that: “The Administration can undo the damage done by Bush, and take back democracy support as a defining issue for Democrats.” Though there was a new-found humility to the promotion of democracy during Obama’s two terms, it remained a key objective of his administration. This, however, was met with strong opposition from Arab autocrats.

The United Arab Emirates was one of the first countries in the Middle East to protest Obama’s softer approach to the promotion of democracy. Writing to Clinton, Abu-Dhabi accused the NDI of training the Muslim Brotherhood and of funding pro-democracy groups, which the unelected monarchs viewed as a threat to their rule. An email discussing the UAE complaint, shows officials in the State Department confirming that the allegations against the NDI were “completely false” and that they had the records to prove this. This, however, did little to defuse the quarrel between Washington and Abu-Dhabi over the training provided by the NDI. During the height of the Arab Spring, the UAE closed down the NDI’s office in Dubai, sparking a wider debate about the role played by the US in triggering the popular uprising.

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The same Arab rulers are now profoundly anxious over changes in the White House and whether the promotion of democracy will be given a new lease of life. The possibility of a Joe Biden victory in November has seen deep unease amongst the Gulf kingdoms that have invested heavily in Trump. Gulf autocrats, reported the Financial Times in an article on US and Middle East relations in a post-Trump era, are fearing that a Biden win: “Would usher in a fresh period of uncertainty and unease.” Some are said to be asking whether a new president: “Could cold shoulder states as a punishment because of their closeness to the Trump administration.”

Saudi officials are believed to have expressed deep concerns over a return of “Obama-era” officials who will politicise relations between Riyadh and Washington. The same officials are quoted stating that there is a: “Real possibility of a hard reaction to Saudi, purely to be anti-Trump.” It was predicted that the most obvious policy shift would be the Biden administration re-joining the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018, to the applause and relief of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The biggest fear, though, is that the entire relationship forged since Trump’s Riyadh trip in 2017, which triggered the cold war with Qatar, could be upended – more so if Congress also falls fully under Democrat control.

“Where is the United States?” was the question posed to President Obama by leading policymakers in an email laying out America’s foreign policy agenda in his second term in office. Urging Obama to place the promotion of democracy at the centre of his foreign policy agenda, the memo to the president called to: “Place the United States once again at the vanguard of the global democracy movement,” while pointing out that: “The United States needs to do more in support of the difficult struggle for democracy in the Arab world.”

Which America will we see in the new year? Will it be Trump, who has turned his back on the idea of promoting democracy, or will it be Biden, who may restore this goal despite its many flaws?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.