Defending the Freedom Agenda

Too Many Believe All the U.S. Cares About in the Middle East Is Oil and Israeli Security

Opinion | Ammar Abdulhamid | February 2008

Former Syrian MP and political prisoner Mamoun al-Homsi, Kurdish activist Djengizkhan Hasso of the Executive Council of the National Assembly of Kurdistan and I recently met with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. National Security Adviser Steven Hadley, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, National Security Adviser to the Vice President John Hannah and several other officials also attended the hour-long meeting.

Coming close on the heels of the Annapolis conference, which brought together representatives from all Arab states – including Syria – and Israel, many observers regarded our meeting as a signal of the Bush administration’s refusal to normalize bilateral relations with Syria or strike any deals or bargains with its regime.

Indeed, these views may not be far off the mark. For, while talking to us, Bush did not try to mask his disdain for Syria’s rulers, and he rejected the possibility of direct talks or any improvement in relations. As such, the "positive body language" that Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Emad Moustapha, said he detected during his brief encounter with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the Annapolis meeting was outweighed by Bush’s negative verbal language during our meeting. And we all know where the buck stops.

For our part, we underscored the worsening human rights situation in Syria. Indeed, no sooner did our meeting finish, and with the world commemorating International Human Rights Day, the Syrian regime launched a massive campaign of arrests and intimidation directed against some of the country’s most prominent dissidents. Though many were freed within hours, some remain in jail.

This episode also highlights the need for continued emphasis on human rights and democracy promotion. Indeed, growing cynicism in this regard is a dangerous trend, because this is the one issue that still appeals to the people of the Middle East and can help immensely in the Western powers’ battle to win hearts and minds in our region.

America’s "freedom agenda" is not the cause of its current travails in the Middle East. The problem has been a lack of consistency in promoting the agenda, failure to develop broader international support for it, and the behavior of the US itself, which has presented it as a martial plan, rather than a Marshall Plan.

Whatever the cause of these shortcomings, the lesson that US and Europe policymakers should draw is that the objective – facilitating democratization and modernization – remains valid, despite the need for a change in tactics.

Abandoning the freedom agenda would reaffirm the still-popular notion that all the US really cares about in the Middle East is oil and Israeli security, at the expense of everything else, including regional development and the well-being of the Arab and Muslim peoples. This conviction continues to facilitate recruitment by extremist groups, and must be countered effectively to prevent the emergence of new fronts in the war on terror.

Other articles from this issue

  • Wake Up At the ECB

    Trichet Can Relax; As Growth Slows, So Will Inflation
    News | Melvyn Krauss
  • Stagflation Cometh

    America’s Growth Under George Bush Was Not Sustainable; Now the Day of Reckoning Looms
    Opinion | Joseph Stiglitz
  • Commitment Phobia

    It’s When the Relationship Gets Closer That Many Men Begin Staging a Way Out
    Opinion | Marlies Dachler
  • From Feast to Fast

    Fasching in Vienna – Everyone a Queen (or King) of the Night During Ball Season
    On The Town | Victoria Oscarrson
  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review February 2008