George W. Bush launched his second term as president with an inaugural address that put the spread of democratic freedoms at the heart of his international agenda. In one memorable passage, he promised "all who live in tyranny and hopelessness" that "the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Within days, the administration was making it clear that this "Bush doctrine" would apply even to autocratic US allies like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. When Ayman Nour, a leading Egyptian democracy activist, was arrested on bogus charges and thrown in jail, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a planned trip to Egypt in protest. Her trip was rescheduled only after Nour was released, and upon landing in Cairo in June 2005, she delivered a ringing defense of democracy and the right of peaceful dissenters to be heard.
"Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty," Rice said. "It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."
No one knows how the uprisings now shaking the Arab world from Tunisia to Yemen -- and above all in Egypt, where at least 200,000 protesters yesterday staged the largest demonstration yet against Mubarak's rule -- will end. But a number of Bush's supporters and former aides have been arguing that what is underway in the Arab street vindicates the "freedom agenda" at which so many skeptics had scoffed. "It turns out, as those demonstrators are telling us," writes Elliott Abrams, who was Bush's deputy national security adviser, "that supporting freedom is the best policy of all."
Supporting freedom is the best policy of all, so long as "freedom" is understood to be shorthand for democratic pluralism, the rule of law, property rights, the protection of minorities, and respect for human dignity. Is that what the multitudes in Cairo's Tahrir Square are seeking? No doubt many Egyptians genuinely yearn for liberal democracy. But in a society where 84 percent of the public supports the death penalty for those who leave Islam, and where the only organized, disciplined opposition is the anti-democratic Muslim Brotherhood, it seems safe to assume that many more do not. When Mubarak leaves office -- he promised yesterday not to run for another term -- will an orderly conversion to democracy and civil rights follow? Or will the "Lotus Revolution" be hijacked by illiberal, anti-Western radicals no more interested in popular freedom than Mubarak was?
If US foreign policy in recent years had consistently reflected Bush's "freedom agenda" -- if prodding the Arab world toward a democratic renaissance had become an unmistakable American priority in recent years -- perhaps Egypt would already have made the transition to a moderate, humane, post-Mubarak government. We'll never know. The freedom agenda didn't survive.
Clearly the promotion of freedom and human rights has not been a key objective of the current US administration. When the Iranian government crushed democratic protests in 2009, President Obama refused to get involved, unwilling to "be seen as meddling" in Iranian affairs. He slashed federal funding for programs promoting Egyptian democracy and civil society. In his State of the Union address last week he said nothing about the convulsions that were already underway in Egypt and nothing about Hezbollah's alarming power grab in Lebanon. As for the unprecedented revolution in Tunisia, he gave it a throwaway line near the end of his speech.
Yet it wasn't under Obama that the Bush doctrine was deep-sixed. It was under Bush.
There was no sequel to Secretary Rice's dramatic 2005 exhortation in Cairo. When Mubarak a few months later claimed victory in an "election" so grotesquely rigged that most Egyptians boycotted the polls, US Ambassador Frank Ricciardone publicly fawned over him, going on Egyptian TV to offer "the congratulations of the United States ... for this great accomplishment." Ayman Nour was thrown back in prison, but Rice fought a congressional effort to reduce the nearly $2 billion in aid Egypt annually receives from Washington.
What was true of Egypt was true elsewhere. From Moammar Ghadafy's Libya to Vladimir Putin's Russia, from Saudi Arabia to North Korea, the Bush administration's commitment to liberty and democratic reform all too often receded into little more than lip service -- quotable, perhaps, but ineffective.
Yes, supporting freedom is the best policy. Not just because freedom is better than stability. Not just because tyranny breeds extremism. But because it is unworthy of a nation as great and free as ours not to promote the values it most esteems. It shouldn't take an upheaval in the Arab street to remind us that it is always in America's interest to promote liberal democracy.