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[Joel Brinkley] Revisionist history doesn’t hold up

As the saying goes, success has many fathers. George W. Bush is not one of them.

The former president’s aides and other neocons are mounting a furious effort right now to make the case that Bush’s pro-democracy campaign during his second term led inexorably to the uprising that drove Hosni Mubarak out of office last week.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a canard. I know. I was there. In fact, Bush did far more harm than good.

Elliott Abrams, who was a Bush aide, started this little campaign last month with a Washington Post op-ed that said “the revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right ― and that the Obama administration’s abandonment of this mind-set is nothing short of a tragedy.”

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer went even further. “Today, everyone and his cousin supports the ‘freedom agenda,’” he wrote last week. “Of course, yesterday it was just George W. Bush” and “a band of neocons.

“Fine,” he added. “Fellow travelers are welcome.”

Bush articulated his democracy agenda during his second inaugural address in January 2005. It just so happened that three months earlier, the Iraq Survey Group announced that it had found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Bush needed another rationale for the war. How about bringing democracy to the Arab world ― with Iraq as the inspirational first example?

Today, a new study from the Economist Intelligence Unit, a respected British research institute, ranks Iraq as the weakest of the world’s so-called “hybrid democracies” ― authoritarian regimes that use elections as a cover. It’s also practically the most corrupt nation on earth.

And then there’s Egypt. Working there in 2008, three years after Bush raised his clarion call for liberty, democracy advocates bitterly complained that Bush set them up ― and then betrayed them.

“All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors,” Bush had proclaimed. “When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”

Encouraged by that, Egyptian democracy advocates began stepping forward. Mubarak responded with harassment, prison sentences, torture and worse. And aside from a few tepid complaints, Washington did nothing.

“This is our fault because we believed them,” George Ishak told me then. He was a prominent activist leader who had just been released from jail. “When Bush spoke in 2005, we couldn’t have imagined it would turn out this way.” Other advocates had similar stories.

Hala Moustafa edited Democracy Quarterly magazine, and she said she was thrilled in 2005 when the State Department asked her to introduce Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she came to give a speech in Cairo. But right after Rice left, the secret police began harassing Moustafa. She didn’t go to jail, but “I was subjected to a lot of pressure,” she told me.

Today, the Bush acolytes are also faulting Obama for his fumbling response to the uprising in Cairo. In truth, however, almost every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has faced situations like this one ― holding onto a useful dictator even after he has passed his prime.

Think of Cuba, Iran, the Philippines, Nicaragua, the West Bank and Gaza ... Tunisia. As embarrassing as these moments are, they seem to be unavoidable.

That Economist Intelligence Unit study finds that only 26 of the world’s nations are “full democracies.” Nearly all of them are in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. It characterizes 53 additional nations as “flawed democracies” and all the rest, 88 countries, as full-blooded dictatorships, though some of them pretend to be democratic.

Given all of that, how can the president, or any head of state, conduct a foreign policy without maintaining amicable relationships with at least some of the world’s dictators? It can’t be done.

In a former job, I accompanied secretaries of state as they traveled the world. A year after Rice’s democracy speech in Cairo, I remember waiting on the tarmac there as she sat in the airport terminal with Omar Suleiman, then Egypt’s intelligence chief (and now the vice president) for an intelligence briefing before she flew off to less friendly Arab states.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but Hala Moustafa was aghast. Later she bitterly complained, “the next time Rice came, she had a long meeting with the chief of intelligence.” Democracy advocates were no longer on her itinerary.

“Because they dropped it, they made things worse.”

By Joel Brinkley

Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. ― Ed.

(Tribune Media Services)
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