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Robin Simcox: Democracy promotion and the problem of legacy in U.S. politics

It is generally Ronald Reagan, not George H.W. Bush, who is given credit for ending the Cold War - despite having been out of office for three years when the Soviet Union packed it in. Similarly, it is Reagan who is associated with funding the Afghan mujahideen, despite it being Jimmy Carter who first approved covert aid of anti-Soviet forces in 1979.

Potential revolution occurring in the Middle East at a time when President Obama has been slashing George W. Bush's democracy assistance aid budgets abroad could be a similar quirk of history. This is especially relevant in Egypt. Relations between Bush and Mubarak were generally icy, with the Bush White House keen to fund democracy promotion outlets in Egypt. The same cannot be said of Obama, whose administration's approach to democracy promotion in Egypt was spelt out as early as December 2009 by Shadi Hamid, Director of research at the Brookings Institute in Doha:

As early as March 2009, the Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shukri happily noted that relations with the United States were improving because Washington was dropping its demands “for human rights, democracy, and religious and general freedoms.” Meanwhile, in her first trip to Cairo the same month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Egyptians that “conditionality is not our policy.” More striking, however, are the drastic cuts in democracy assistance to Egypt contained in the Obama Administration’s 2010 budget request. 

President Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq on national security grounds, not to promote democracy; but he was keener to push a liberalising agenda in the Middle East than any of his predecessors, and certainly his successor. Yet it is Obama who will be in the White House at a time when some of these Middle East government's either fall or are forced to vastly reform.

What is still unclear is whose policy was the shrewder. Paul Wolfowitz is optimistic, saying that 'we have a better chance of a good outcome if we support positive change than if we support the status quo'. I tend to think he is right - we have to encourage democracy, and should no longer be in the business of propping up dictators for short-term gains which only foster longer-term resentment in these countries. However, if full and fair elections were held throughout the Middle East tomorrow, not too many of these newly elected democracies would be pro-Washington. The large amount of seats the Muslim Brotherhood gained in the 2005 Egyptian elections - even in the face of government rigging - should make us nervous about what is to come.


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