Can Obama Erase ‘Bush Nostalgia’ in the Middle East?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

While President Obama’s domestic position has been strengthened considerably by the passage of health-care reform, there is nothing – yet – to suggest global support for American foreign policy will follow suit. Outside the United States, there is a sense of “Bush nostalgia,” including in a rather unlikely place – the Middle East.

This is particularly the case for Arab reformers who, while disliking the Bush administration in almost every way, were fully aware that Bush’s “freedom agenda” helped usher in a promising moment for Arab reform.

On the Obama administration’s relative lack of pressure, Esam al-Erian, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, sounded almost wistful of political openings that came about under Bush: “[Now President Mubarak] can do whatever he wants internally…. It feels like we’ve gone backward a little bit,” he said. Indeed, the excitement Arabs felt after Mr. Obama’s historic Cairo speech became the backdrop for the mounting disappointment of the last nine months. Instead of making a clean break with past U.S. policies, the current administration has reverted to the neorealism of President Clinton and the first President Bush, with its emphasis on competence and pragmatism.

Now as then, U.S. policy continues to be anchored by a cynical bargain with Arab autocrats: If they faithfully support U.S. regional objectives, the United States turns a blind eye to their suppression of domestic dissent. It’s business as usual.

For all its singularly destructive actions, the Bush administration might very well be the only administration to ever challenge the fundamental premises of U.S. policy in the Middle East. After the attacks of Sept. 11, liberals complained that Republicans failed to grasp the root causes of terror. But in their own way they did. Republicans offered an intuitive, if overdue, interpretation: Without democracy, Arab citizens lacked peaceful means to express their grievances and were therefore more likely to resort to violence. Thus, in order to rid the region of extremism and political violence, an ambitious, transformative vision of promoting democracy became not only necessary but urgent.

For liberals long disillusioned with the narrowness of U.S.-Mideast policy, it may be worth recalling that the “Arab spring” – when a number of Arab countries experienced democratic opportunities – was not a figment of the conservative mind. It was real. I remember the weekend of Dec. 12, 2004, when 30 of us participated in a workshop for Arab reformers in Amman, Jordan. At the end, one of the organizers, Radwan Masmoudi, gathered the group and told us there was now an unprecedented window of opportunity to push for democracy. If we let it pass, he warned, it may not come again.

After Islamist groups registered electoral victories across the region, the Bush administration quickly reversed course and buried its “freedom agenda.” The year 2005 became America’s lost moment in the Middle East. But that it was lost is different from not happening at all; something remarkable had, in fact, occurred. Discussing the Bush administration’s pro-democracy efforts in Egypt, leading Islamist reformer Abdel Monem Abul Futouh explained to me, “Everyone knows it … we benefited, everyone benefited, and the Egyptian people benefited.” That feeling of possibility is difficult to find in the Arab world today.

Obama had the misfortune of inheriting the Middle East Bush left him. More troubling, the one interesting, original idea the Bush administration left behind – that political freedom was key to the future of the region – was the one idea that Democrats seemed most uncomfortable with. It sounded too aggressive and ideological, ringing of the missionary zeal that had doomed neoconservatives.

To be sure, the Obama administration’s Middle East policy is a welcome respite from the anger and acrimony that dominated Bush’s final years. On Israel-Palestine, Obama appears personally committed to seeing through a resolution to the conflict. On Iran, he appears personally committed to not invading another foreign country. A sensible Middle East policy, however, is different from a great one. What we need is not only better instincts and greater empathy – Obama is perhaps the first president to grasp the role of grievance in Arab life – but a coherent strategy and a bold vision. Obama needs to back creative policymaking that takes necessary risks.

Such a reorientation may be within reach. After writing him off as a weak, ineffectual leader, the improbable success of health-care reform has many now saying just the opposite. If Obama is becoming a visionary at home, one hopes he reserves some of that strength and ingenuity to fashion a more imaginative policy in the Middle East.