President Obama’s remarks Thursday on the Middle East sounded just about as naive and hypocritical as the blather George W. Bush used to offer up. That’s because Obama has embraced Bush’s bloated and inconsistent Middle East “democracy agenda,” which comes down to this:
We will support democracy and freedom in the Middle East, unless we won’t.
This is why people hate us. At least, with the Chinese or the Russians, people understand what they are getting: brutal self-aggrandizement and manipulation with no pretense of resort to higher values.
I get that Obama wants to be consistent – to put forward a philosophy that will guide our interactions with the Arab world. And he understandably wants to be on the side of the good, which means freedom and democracy. He said:
The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders, whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.
But unfortunately, these goals collide with two other U.S. interests: stability, and oil.
This is why Obama could offer the flowery words above and yet not even mention feudal Saudi Arabia. Nor did he call for Syria’s Bashir Assad to step down, suggesting instead that the man who has in recent weeks killed hundreds of his own people could somehow join the cause of freedom. It’s why Obama, whatever his supposed commitment now to freedom, vacillated for days on what to do about the challenge to Mubarak in Egypt, and why he only now is getting tough with our ally Bahrain as it cracks heads.
I wish I could, but I just don’t believe the sappy nonsense Bush used to promulgate, and which we now hear from Obama, about every heart yearning for freedom. My experience and reading tells me that many hearts yearn instead for order and rules, whether imposed by authoritarian governments or theocracies.
We need to work to change those hearts, to promote democracy. But we need to deal with the world we find. If we knew, as we did, that pushing aside Mubarak may well lead to the Islamic Republic of Egypt while informing our other allies that we are unreliable, then we needed to work to keep Mubarak in place.
Democracy and freedom are long term goals. As societies change, they will be ready for democracies that don’t install Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood in power. But we should not signal to the world that we are the squeaky clean apostles of Jeffersonian values, which is what, despite a few caveats in his speech, Obama suggests.
Our priority is what works best for America. To pretend otherwise only invites contempt.