The philosopher Isaiah Berlin categorized political leaders as either foxes or hedgehogs. The fox, he explained, knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing. Pres. George W. Bush was decidedly a hedgehog on the subject of Middle Eastern dictatorships. His repeated message — the essence of what he called his “freedom agenda” — was that the dictators can never have more than a tenuous hold on power. He said people naturally chafe under political oppression, and frustrated desires for a political voice were driving young Muslims into the ranks of the Islamist extremists.
Bush’s insight is being vindicated now on the streets of Cairo. Meanwhile, the American foreign-policy establishment’s wily foxes, who perceived the regimes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Gulf as embodiments of stability, are not looking too astute.
Insight is one thing, however, and execution of policy is another. The Bush administration did not always advance the president’s freedom agenda consistently or well. Egypt is a case in point. The State Department’s work there to promote liberalism and to cultivate pro-democratic forces did not match Bush’s clarion pro-democracy pronouncements.
The Obama administration then came along and so scorned Bush that, in repudiating his freedom agenda, it threw the baby out with the bathwater. The Obama team chose not to try to repair or improve Bush’s policies. Rather, in its national-security approaches to Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela, and the Arab states, it downplayed human-rights and democracy concerns or discarded them altogether. Obama’s goal was to increase U.S. influence in the world by sounding more humble, even apologetic. When addressing the world’s Muslims in his 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama dealt cursorily with democracy, while elaborating on how America and the West have mistreated Muslims through colonialism, ignorance, and disrespect. Obama cut funds for State Department democracy programs. And when Iranian demonstrators bravely defied imprisonment, torture, and death to protest their government’s electoral fraud in June 2009, Obama’s frigid detachment shocked even many of his own political supporters.
Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially reacted to the upheaval in Egypt by voicing confidence in Mubarak’s stability. President Obama has now scrambled to get on the right side of history in Egypt, but he clearly is discomfited by his administration’s lack of good contacts, information, and options, problems he helped create when he repudiated democracy promotion. He cannot be pleased that the United States is functioning mainly as spectator rather than player in the grand events under way in Egypt and the Arab world.
In the U.S. government, thoughtful promotion of democracy abroad continually runs up against challenges from the foreign-policy “realists,” who see democracy as irrelevant and despotism as stable. That view predominates at the State Department and CIA, which helps explain why the pro-democracy policies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush often met with resistance from the institutions asked to implement them.
Another challenge is the need to balance conflicting U.S. values. Promoting political freedom may be accepted as an important goal of U.S. policy, but it does not always trump all other U.S. goals. To defeat Hitler, after all, Franklin Roosevelt allied with Stalin. Human-rights specialists often present all-or-nothing arguments from the standpoint of moral purity, but officials with broad responsibilities are forced by circumstances to make tradeoffs among important interests.