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Democracy uprising in Egypt: Vindication for Bush 'freedom agenda'?

Critics of Obama's 'pragmatic' approach to Arab regimes say former President Bush was right to push democracy – even if by force. Others say Iraq war delayed its onset in Egypt and elsewhere.

By Staff writer / February 1, 2011

Demonstrators carry a huge flag in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 1. More than a quarter-million people flooded into the heart of Cairo Tuesday, filling the city's main square in by far the largest demonstration in a week of unceasing demands for President Hosni Mubarak to leave after nearly 30 years in power.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

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Washington

Does US foreign policy under President George W. Bush have anything to do with the pro-democracy protests now rocking the Egyptian regime and forcing accommodation elsewhere in the Arab world?

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Events of the past weeks in the "greater Middle East" are, naturally, prompting scrutiny of US policy under President Obama and of the long US relationship with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But they've also intensified a never-quite-ended boxing match about the "freedom agenda" of Mr. Bush, with some analysts arguing vindication for his attempt to speed democracy to the region and others suggesting the former president's policies did more harm than good to pro-democracy forces there.

In one corner are those who say Bush was right: It is about freedom and democracy. They argue that the US would be better off in the region today if the Obama administration had pursued Bush's vision of regime change in the name of the people’s rights and freedoms, instead of taking a pragmatic tilt to accommodate dictatorial regimes such as Iran in 2009 and other Arab countries more recently.

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In the other are those who cite the Iraq war, which Bush pursued at least partly to create a beacon of democracy in the region, as perhaps the single most significant setback for pro-democracy advocates in the region in the past decade.

The debate over the Bush “freedom agenda” may have found its best opposing arguments so far from two Washington thinkers.

Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser in the Bush White House, says the former president believed fervently that Arabs have the same yearning for “liberty” as other people and that dictatorships “are never truly stable.” Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen “seem to come as a surprise” to the current administration, which cast aside the "freedom agenda" as "too ideological," says Mr. Abrams, now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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