In comments on the PBS NewsHour during the Egyptian crisis, David Brooks has suggested that the Obama administration has been "more like the George H.W. Bush [Bush 41] administration" in its preference for stability over democracy promotion in the Mideast and Arab world. Jackson Diehl of the Wash. Post has also argued for some time that the Obama administration retreated from the George W. Bush (Bush 43) policy of support for democratic reformers in the region.
Yet what did the Bush 43 policy of democracy promotion in the region actually amount to? It invaded Iraq, ostensibly to establish democracy there (once the other justifications for the invasion evaporated), only to end up creating a chaotic, violent mess that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, exiled and internally displaced millions more, killed upwards of four thousand U.S. soldiers, several thousand coalition soldiers, ignited a civil war, and produced a situation where car bombers and other suicide bombers still target and kill with some regularity Iraqi soldiers, policeman, and civilians. Fifty thousand U.S. troops remain in Iraq, though the number is slated to go down. The forms of democracy are present in Iraq but whether the government, which took months to form after the last parliamentary elections, is able to meet the aspirations and needs of the population is still an open question, or that at least is my impression.
So that was the G.W. Bush democracy agenda as it played out in Iraq. What about the rest of the region? The G.W. Bush administration pressed for elections to be held in the West Bank and Gaza, and then pronounced itself horrified and astonished when Hamas won in Gaza in January 2006. What about Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, all U.S. allies? Did the G.W. Bush administration do anything besides an occasional rhetorical gesture to promote democracy in those countries? Did it ever suggest that it might cut aid to Egypt unless Mubarak took steps toward democratic reforms? Or did it content itself with saying "you really should do this" and then doing nothing when Mubarak showed no inclination to change? If the G.W. Bush administration's democracy agenda in the region had been as sincere and effective as some retrospective accounts now suggest, would the U.S. have had to face the situation in Egypt that has erupted in the last few weeks, one in which an at least apparent conflict between short-term U.S. interests, on the one hand, and U.S. values, on the other, has put policy makers in a somewhat awkward (to put it mildly) position? I think the question answers itself.