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The punch-drunk President

By Benjamin MacQueen - posted Wednesday, 28 May 2008

In the last months of his Presidency, George Bush is attempting to revive, or at least rehabilitate, a program that once stood as a centrepiece of his foreign policy: the so-called Middle East Freedom Agenda. In trying to achieve this, Bush is looking increasingly like a punch-drunk fighter trying to land an unlikely knockout blow that might salvage his legacy.

The Freedom Agenda was built on a 2002 National Security Strategy assessment that advocated the active spreading or promotion of democracy throughout the Middle East to ensure US national security alongside regional development. However, with the stalling of the initiative in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and as a non-starter in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere to date, the President is on the road spruiking his vision anew.

At Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort that played host to the World Economic Forum recently, the President called for “freedom and peace” across the region, a situation that could only be achieved through allowing Arab citizens to be treated with “the dignity and respect they deserve”. Indeed, truly honourable sentiments. Bush even went as far as to admonish, not by name but by implication, key allies such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in denouncing single-party rule and the detention of opposition forces.


However, behind the rhetoric, as always, lies a far more confused reality. Despite the statements, Egypt remains the second largest recipient of US aid. While it is also a key beneficiary of US democracy promotion funding, there is little evidence of this strengthening credible opposition forces in the country. This is a similar pattern in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, the Gulf and elsewhere in the region.

What Bush’s statements have done is to further alienate many progressive forces in the region from wanting to associate themselves with either his administration or a potential McCain White House. In addition, the reprimanding tone of the speech put offside leaders that must be bought into the game if any serious political reform in the region is to occur.

Bush’s latest entreaty occurred in the wake of his provocative speech to the Israeli Knesset where he levelled thinly veiled derision at Presidential hopeful Barak Obama by likening his support for negotiations with terrorists (read Iran) as akin to appeasement of Nazi Germany. This is despite the President not knowing, or caring to reference his celebrated predecessor Reagan’s negotiations with the very same Iran, or Rumsfeld’s negotiations with Saddam Hussein, or even his own negotiations with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il.

The weakness the US finds itself in now as an advocate for much needed political reform was perhaps most starkly revealed in Bush’s visit to long-term ally Saudi Arabia, also prior to the World Economic Forum. There, he had an unsuccessful parley with the Saudis to lower oil prices to take pressure off the US economy he has driven into recession.

This is a President and an administration that has severely mismanaged the policy that was to be the prize in its foreign policy trophy case.

The President himself, deeply unpopular both in the US and the Arab world, has not done himself or his one-time bitter rival, John McCain, any favours in his latest Middle East tour, nor in his truly bizarre recent reflections on giving up golf as an “act of solidarity” with families who have lost loved ones in Iraq.


This last-minute attempt to defend his foreign policy legacy has missed the mark, and it is increasingly likely that his legacy will go crashing to the canvas.

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About the Author

Dr Benjamin MacQueen is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne. He researches US democracy promotion policy in the Arab world.

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