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Passion isn’t a solution

April 9, 2012

Fred Hiatt is worried that Obama lacks passion in his commitment to freedom and democracy:

The biggest unpredicted event of Obama’s term has been the Arab Spring. He responded to it, case-by-case and overall, as if it were an unwanted distraction, not a historic opening.

In Egypt, the Obama administration embraced Hosni Mubarak until he was doomed, neglecting the secular democrats Mubarak was jailing, and then re-embraced the military regime that succeeded him,opening the military aid spigot despite many broken promises on democratization. Obama was tugged by the French and British into a military rescue of Libya’s revolutionaries, but offered little help to their Syrian counterparts, despite far greater human devastation. He has shown understanding for Bahrain’s repressions, and Saudi Arabia’s.

More striking than his country-specific hesitancy has been the absence of any high-level, overarching embrace of the strategic opportunity. Two decades ago, as the Iron Curtain shredded, the United States led a Western alliance that jumped at the chance to consolidate democracy from Slovakia to Estonia. The chance to nurture democracy in the heart of the Islamic world has not elicited a comparable response.

Hiatt here is making some obvious and unfavorable comparisons to the reaction of the U.S. and the broader Western world to 1989. Well, let’s look back at the passionate firebrand who was leading the charge when the Iron Curtain fell – George H.W. Bush. The narrative spun here makes it sound as if the U.S. rushed into the fall of the Iron Curtain with open arms and grand designs – in reality, during the fall of the Iron Curtain and later, the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States remained extremely cautious and more careful about preventing chaos and instability than exporting democracy per se. It was only after it was clear that the bipolar system had completely and utterly collapsed that the triumphal, grandiose approach to policymaking was able to fully liberate itself from the diplomatic and institutional considerations which restrained it under the elder Bush.

A survey of Bush’s approach from the Eastern European perspective makes it relatively clear that Bush was hardly passionate about unleashing democracy, and the U.S. was careful to prioritize prudential concerns with the Soviet Union above the remaking of Eastern Europe per se.

As Lawrence Eagleburger argued:

reform in the Soviet bloc and the relaxation of Soviet control over Eastern Europe are bringing long-suppressed ethnic antagonisms and natural rivalries to the surface and putting the German question back on the agenda… it is ultimately the Europeans themselves who have the principal stake in making the transition to a new and undivided Europe a peaceful and orderly one.

Bush reaffirmed commitments to stability at the Malta Conference, where he essentially pledged not to take undue advantage of the dissolution of Soviet client regimes, or the centripedal ethno-nationalist tensions brewing within the USSR itself. While the U.S. did sense a historical opportunity for a “new world order,” it was one that was not going to be foisted upon the world out of a revolutionary fever dream. It was one where maintaining balances of power and the integrity of alliance structures was valued far more highly than the destruction of authoritarianism, and the simultaneous careful U.S. policy towards China at the time demonstrates the President was indeed cautious to manage events on a case-by-case basis. Declassified documents since Tiananmen reveal that Bush saw China’s repression as an unfortunate development for bilateral relations but an internal affair, and recognized the U.S. outrage as passions to be managed for the sake of high diplomacy, not to be nurtured or unleashed on the world.

Had the U.S. pressed harder on the USSR in the midst of the dissolution of its internal and external empires, the potential for Gorbachev to be replaced by a much more odious combination of forces or a more violent and chaotic dissolution of the USSR would likely have been greater. Contra Hiatt, Bush was relatively dispassionate and concerned with high diplomacy and a restrained, pragmatic brand of liberal institutionalism that would likely be rather familiar to the Obama administration. As Hiatt criticizes:

But his stance also reflects his own brand of idealism, which values international law and alliances more than the promotion of freedom. The democrats’ uprising in Iran threatened his hopes of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran’s rulers. Aid to Syria’s democrats requires approval from the U.N. Security Council, which is unattainable without Russian and Chinese acquiescence.

The value of international law, alliances, and diplomatic concerns over unbridled democratic revisionism? This sounds very much like the administration which dealt with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the Gulf War, and Tiananmen Square. Bush’s caution had very little ill effects, indeed, it sometimes seems such ancient history that commentators can easily forget there ever was a period of uncertainty about what looks, in retrospect, like a total and unmitigated triumph for the United States. But Bush was wise to be cautious, and it seems foolish to impugn Obama with essentially taking Bush’s prudential, case-by-case and often reluctant approach to a crisis of legitimacy in the Middle East. After all, whereas Bush only had to worry about preventing our enemies from collapsing more quickly than we could handle, Obama also has to consider the collapse of regimes allied with the U.S.

Ultimately, though, Hiatt offers very few explanations of how U.S. “passion” could solve the difficult dilemmas the U.S. faces. More passion will not make the military realities in Syria’s civil war more amenable to some kind of magic bullet intervention – it’s not as if the UNSC discord is the only thing that makes Syrian intervention a difficult prospect. Nor would the U.S. be able to easily promote democracy in Bahrain without threatening the very partnerships with Gulf states that helped overthrow Libya’s government and would be important in a similar effort in Syria. Nor is it clear at all what kind of support the U.S. could have offered to the Green Revolution that would have allowed it to overcome the institutionalized opposition of the Iranian security services – or why the Green Revolution, a movement which did not fundamentally question the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic or its foreign policy, would have wanted such a degree of U.S. support. Hiatt ponders:

That, in turn, may help explain why many key objectives Obama laid out in his vision statement — peace between Israelis and Palestinians, securing all nuclear materials, a global response to climate change — remain elusive. In the long run, a passion for freedom might do more to shape a world in which such problems can be solved.

How exactly would a passion for freedom solve the problem that Palestinians and Israelis have, for now, apparently irreconcilable visions of what freedom means and requires? How would a passion for freedom in Iran stymie the regime’s demands for independent nuclear energy and freedom from U.S. hegemonic interference, something with reformists and the Green movement have consistently supported? How would a passion for freedom, directed against China’s CCP, make climate negotiations with that rising greenhouse gas emitter any more simple?

I have certainly been critical of some of Obama’s approaches to uprisings in the Arab world, but blaming the inconsistencies and intricacies of managing a foreign policy crisis on a lack of passion is hardly a fair assessment. Particularly when we cut through the hazy triumphalist myth about how the U.S. handled the crisis which beset U.S. international relations from 1989-1991, it is apparent that Obama is acting with much of the same prudence, considerations for international institutions, alliances, and general cooperation and respect for great powers’ interests and internal affairs that Obama has displayed as of late. Whatever faults one can identify with Obama’s approach, a shortfall of passion seems unreasonable in historical comparison and irrelevant in practical terms.

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