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Can Obama erase ‘Bush nostalgia’ in the Middle East?

Obama has reverted to Clinton-era policies in the Middle East. But Arab reformers are nostalgic for something more like Bush’s “freedom agenda,” which helped usher in a promising moment for Arab reform.

By Shadi Hamid / April 12, 2010

Doha, 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 US, there is a sense of “Bush nostalgia,” including in a rather unlikely place – the Middle East.

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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 US 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, US policy continues to be anchored by a cynical bargain with Arab autocrats: If they faithfully support US regional objectives, the US 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 have ever challenged the fundamental premises of US 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 US-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.