Obama's commitment to Middle East democratic reform questioned

Political dissidents and academics are saying that 'many of us are lamenting the good days of Bush'.

WASHINGTON // More than a year into Barack Obama's presidency, democracy advocates, political dissidents and academics are beginning to question his commitment to promoting democratic reform in the Middle East. Unlike his predecessor, George W Bush, who spoke in stark terms about "liberty" and "tyranny" and who, in the case of Iraq, sought to spread democracy through military force, Mr Obama rarely mentions democracy promotion as a major part of his foreign policy. In both his public statements and his policy decisions - including his muted response to the disputed presidential elections in Iran - Mr Obama has taken a much gentler position on questions of political representation, personal freedoms and the role of civil society, many analysts say.

"Certainly there has not been a lot of emphasis on democracy promotion," said Marina Ottaway, the director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who in a recent policy review admonished the administration for not exerting even a "modicum of effort on political reform" in the region. While the drawdown of reform rhetoric has disappointed activists, it also points to a re-emergence of a more prudent realpolitik, according to Michele Dunne, a Middle East analyst who also is affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment. Aggressive democracy promotion under Mr Bush, she said, ultimately empowered traditional US adversaries, including Hamas, showing that Washington should be careful what it wishes for.

"It think it was a more general sense that, 'OK, this freedom agenda is very radical. It can have unintended consequences that are problematic. Maybe we should slow it down a little bit and not push so hard,'" she said The Obama administration has, at times, trumpeted democratic reforms with the same rhetorical flourish as Mr Bush. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said in a speech at Georgetown University last month that the goal of this administration, like previous ones, is to "promote, support, and defend democracy".

But she also described Washington's approach as one of "principled pragmatism", with "agile" tactics that reflect the "realities on the ground". Some democracy advocates worry that such "pragmatism" is code for putting US strategic aims ahead of moral and ideological considerations. Such concerns run particularly high in Egypt, a country that US presidents have long valued for its role in the Middle East peace process. In exchange for Egypt's help in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Washington has often turned a blind eye to the oppressive ruling style of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, who has outlawed opposition parties and jailed his political opponents.

While Mr Bush showed some willingness to confront Mr Mubarak on issues of democracy, Mr Obama, so far, has not, according to Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy advocate and critic of Mr Mubarak. Mr Ibrahim is living in exile in the United States. "Many of us are lamenting the good days of George Bush," said Mr Ibrahim, now a visiting professor of Islamic Studies at Harvard University. "No matter his mistakes he made elsewhere in foreign policy, he was determined and consistent in his democracy promotion agenda. That is not the case with President Obama, unfortunately."

Mr Obama's budget for 2010 raises the overall amount of aid for democracy and governance programmes in the region, according to a report by the Project on Middle East Democracy (Pomed), an independent Washington-based think tank. But the breakdown of where the money is being spent paints a more complex picture. Much of the increased funding is being diverted to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the US has recently expanded its military campaign. In Egypt and in Jordan - another country that is crucial to the Middle East peace process - the budget for democracy programmes has been slashed by about 40 per cent.

Civil society groups, such as non-governmental organisations and think tanks, have suffered the deepest cuts. In Jordan, funding for such groups dropped 44 per cent, according to the Pomed report. Aid to Egyptian civil society groups, meanwhile, was winnowed to US$7 million (Dh25.7m) from a previous annual sum of $32m. Funding in Egypt also has been cut for groups that are not officially sanctioned by the government, despite evidence suggesting that such groups are less prone to meddling and more effective.

Stephen McInerney, the author of the Pomed report, said the cuts show that Mr Obama is basing his financial aid, in part, on a desire to "repair what it saw as relationships that had been damaged during the Bush administration". Some simply call that smart diplomacy. "I think it's the more realistic, pragmatic approach [to say] that there's a limit to the number of friends we've got in this world, and let's work with them and hope to inspire them with our own example," said Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia who served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs during Ronald Reagan's presidency. "Don't just wave the flag and expect things to happen."

"We do value the Mubarak relationship; we have for years," he added. "Sure there are changes we hope will come about [in Egypt], but as the outsider, we don't know how to bring these changes about. We just don't have the know-how." "Obama realises that sometimes you have be prudent and take gradual steps," added David Mack, a career diplomat and former US ambassador to the UAE. "The worst thing you can do is raise false expectations."

Ms Ottaway, of the Carnegie Endowment, also cautioned against returning to Mr Bush's more aggressive tactics. But she has urged Mr Obama to act quickly to beef up his political reform agenda in order to salvage some of the goodwill that greeted him in office. To do so, she said, Mr Obama could offer new incentives for Arab countries to engage in a discussion on political reforms. Such a quid pro quo, she said, might include a commitment by the US to reform its own policies in the region, such as its perceived double standard when it comes to dealing with Israel.

"Something which is badly needed and that would improve US policies in the region is a discussion on what are the principles that the US itself needs to respect in its policies toward the Arab world," she said. "It cannot be the United States preaching again to Arab countries what to do." sstanek@thenational.ae mbradley@thenational.ae Matt Bradley contributed from Cairo