Particularly notable in just the past month have been White House receptions for Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's heir-apparent, his son Gamal; the praise lavished by Vice President Dick Cheney on Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev during a recent visit to Almaty; and last week's normalization of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
"You add up all the pieces, and the message to the world is, 'We have a lot of other business than just democracy in this region,'" according to Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) here. "And that business means friendly relations with all sorts of autocrats."
Whether due to the ever-tightening oil market, the sweeping electoral victories by Islamist parties in Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, or geo-strategic manoeuvring against Iran, Russia and China, the administration now appears to have all but abandoned its "freedom agenda" in favor of a new "realism" not much different from that practiced by successive U.S. administrations during the Cold War.
And, in a scenario familiar to veterans of Washington's Cold War machinations against democratic but suspiciously left-wing governments, the administration is focusing its efforts at "regime change" against those Middle Eastern governments which, besides Israel, enjoy the greatest popular and electoral legitimacy in the region -- namely, Iran and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Moreover, the administration's neo-conservative supporters, who were the first to justify the Iraq invasion as part of a grand strategy to "transform" the Middle East into a democratic region presumably far more hospitable to Israel and the West, have become noticeably less enthusiastic, particularly since HAMAS's sweeping election victory in the PA.
They now argue that the administration was wrong to press free elections on the region's rulers as a way of promoting democratic change in the absence of years, perhaps decades, of gradual liberalization.
"...(A)n intense focus on holding elections everywhere as quickly as possible ...has been a mistake because, although elections are part of the democratic process, they are never a substitute for it," wrote former Israeli minister Natan Sharansky whose 2004 book, "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," was personally and repeatedly endorsed by Bush himself as the inspiration for his 2005 Inaugural Address.
That address marked the high point of the administration's freedom rhetoric, which Bush had launched in earnest in February 2003 in a speech at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) where he first cited an analogy between the democratization of occupied Germany and Japan and what Washington intended for Iraq.
During her confirmation hearings as secretary of state on the eve of the 2005 inaugural, Condoleezza Rice also insisted that Bush had "broken with six decades of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the hope of purchasing stability at the price of liberty."
"As long as the broader Middle East remains a region of tyranny and despair and anger," she argued, "it will produce extremists and movements that threaten the safety of Americans and our friends."
Indeed, for some months after the inaugural, it appeared that the policy was more than mere rhetoric.
Encouraged by the momentum created by the ballot victory of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the smooth running of elections in Iraq in January and the subsequent "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon, the administration exerted unusually strong pressure on the elder Mubarak to release jailed opposition leader Ayman Nour and enact major constitutional changes. It also pressed Saudi Arabia and the emirates on their reform programs, and even gave up access to a key military base in Uzbekistan, a strong ally in the "global war on terror," after the massacre last May of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in Andijan.
As the situation continued to go downhill in Iraq, Hizbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood did particularly well in elections in Lebanon and Egypt, respectively, and tensions with Iran arose after the upset win of right-wing candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, however, Washington's enthusiasm began to fade.
The Palestinian election in January -- which Washington had insisted go forward despite Abbas' and Israel's concerns that HAMAS would win -- appears to have marked a turning point. As noted shortly afterward by the chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, Henry Hyde, "There is no evidence that that we or anyone can guide from afar revolutions we have set in motion."
In the last few months, the return to Realpolitik has been remarkable, even if the rhetoric remains largely unchanged.
"It will be business as usual," said Marina Ottaway, another democracy specialist at the Carnegie Endowment. "I think we can expect that the rhetoric and the funding for democracy-promotion activities through the Middle East Partnership Initiative -- activities that are not dangerous to the regimes in power -- will continue, but what we aren't going to see too much of is high-level pressure on those governments to carry out reforms ...and certainly not pressure on any country to rush into elections."
"What has happened is what the realists predicted -- that Israel and pro-American regimes in the region would be threatened by the democracy drive," said Anatole Lieven, a foreign policy specialist at the New America Foundation.
"If you try to carry out democratization while pursuing policies that the vast majority of Muslims detest and in countries where economic development is stagnant, democracy will of course lead to anti-American radicalism," he added.
In addition to the strength of Islamist parties throughout the Middle East, the growing competition with Russia and China over energy supplies and pipelines and the looming confrontation with Iran also help explain the administration's fading enthusiasm for democratization, particularly in the Gulf and among Iran's Central Asian neighbors, such as Azerbaijan.
"The administration is trying to convince these countries to be allied with us against Iran," noted Ottaway. "When you want them to help you, it's not a good time to be critical."
Indeed, almost exactly one year after the Andijan massacre, the Pentagon is urging a major reassessment of relations with Uzbekistan, apparently in hopes of regaining access to the Khanabad air base, particularly in light of Russia's recent success in acquiring access to bases there.
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May 22, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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