NY Post: On Middle East, O Must Copy W
In his June 2009 Cairo speech on US-Islamic reconciliation, President Obama dedicated 1,020 words to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only 375 to promoting democratic ideals. That reflected a U-turn from the priorities of President George W. Bush — and Obama’s subsequent policies showed the same single-minded belief that delivering a Palestinian state would be the panacea for America’s troubles in the region.
Recent weeks have shown Bush’s views were more in tune with the Arab masses than Obama’s. Unless radically realigned, US policy could pulverize any hope for friendly US-Arab relations.
When Obama took office, America had spent the last eight years pushing democracy in the region. Bush pressured the Saudi monarchy into holding partial municipal elections in 2005. That same year, elections in Egypt yielded 114 members of parliament unaffiliated with President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. In 2006, the United Arab Emirates held partial parliamentary elections, and in 2002 women won the right to vote in Bahrain.
Under Obama, Saudi Arabia’s scheduled second election has been indefinitely postponed. The 2010 Egyptian elections saw an upswing in vote-rigging and dropped the number of elected non-NDP representatives to 84. Last year, Freedom House’s definitive “Freedom in the World” report downgraded Bahrain from “partially free” to “not free.”
The administration’s public moves showed no support for freedom, either. Filling a slot that Bush had pointedly left vacant, Obama sent an ambassador to Syria, where a miniscule Alawite elite rules a Sunni majority. The administration failed to renew the visa of leading Bahraini human-rights activist Professor Abdul Jalil al-Singace, who is disabled and was later detained and tortured in Bahrain, where a Sunni minority rules a Shia majority. When a Bahraini MP asked her about the monarchy’s arrest of lawyers and human-rights activists, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she saw Bahrain’s glass as “half full.” And Obama drastically cut US aid for Egyptian democratic causes from $54.8 million in 2008 to $20 million in 2009.
At the same time, he applied unprecedented pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. This ultimately yielded a 10-month settlement freeze, but no substantial Palestinian response. By contrast, Bush’s hands-off approach to the conflict didn’t prevent then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from offering the Palestinians a capital in Jerusalem, all of Gaza and 94 percent of the West Bank, with territory in Israel to bridge the difference. (The Palestinians refused.)
President Bush’s emphasis on democratization certainly led to mistakes — as in Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor did it prevent him from selling $20 billion in weapons to the Gulf autarchies with no strings attached. But its basic tenet — that the Muslim masses are hungry for democracy — has been vindicated.
To achieve his goal of friendship between the US and Islamic world, Obama must admit his mistake, at least tacitly. A failure to support the Arab world’s growing demand for democracy will leave the US with a handful of deposed friendly autocrats and 350 million enraged Arabs.
Matt Mainen is an analyst at the Institute of Gulf Affairs.