President Barack Obama’s State Department has reversed the George W. Bush administration’s policies of undermining authoritarian Middle East regimes through the spread of democracy. Indeed, the President appears to have abandoned the democracy agenda.
As the BBC reports, the Obama administration “has all but dismantled the Iran Democracy Fund” – federal funding to a classified list of groups that work to foster democracy and undermine the mullahs’ tight grip on Iran. The timing of this could not be worse, as democracy advocates continue to come under attack for protesting the fraudulent June elections that handed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term. Just last week, Iran announced plans to execute three activists.
As Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) observed, “It is disturbing that the State Department would cut off funding at precisely the moment when… needed most.'”
In Egypt, democracy advocates also feel abandoned. Egyptians believe that President Hosni Mubarak, who has held a tight grip on power since 1981, will appoint his son Gamal as his successor. The Obama administration has been silent on this issue, which has many Egyptians seething. The administration has also withheld comment on the regime’s campaign of mass arrests against opposition leaders, bloggers, and other political activists.
“We are very disgruntled with President Obama,” said Kamal al-Fayoumi, an activist jailed by the government last year. “He has given the regime the green light to do what it wants with the Egyptian people.”
In Turkey, the illiberal Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently launched a campaign to bring down the Dogan Group, a private, pro-West company that owns about half of the country’s media (including CNN Turk). If the AKP succeeds, it could ultimately bring 90% of the media under its control – reminiscent of the state-controlled Russian media. This would be a devastating blow to the region’s only democracy. Liberal Turks are now beginning to ask why the administration has failed to weigh in.
Democracy advocates also are painfully aware of the President’s ambivalence about the U.S. commitment in both Iraq and Afghanistan – two countries where the shoots of democracy are sprouting, but can easily whither.
The beginning of the end of the democracy agenda can be traced back to the President’s Cairo speech in June. He referenced a “controversy about the promotion of democracy… connected to the war in Iraq.” In an attempt to create “a new beginning” with the Muslim world, he stated, “let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.”
Most Americans would likely agree that imposing any political system on others is the wrong approach. However, Obama’s policy of “anti-Bushism” is equally wrong. The democracy deficit in the Middle East has not contracted. And given recent developments in Turkey, the deficit may widen further. This could lead to further radicalization of the region. Failing to recognize this may ultimately harm American interests.