Defending America’s “Freedom Agenda”

Project Syndicate 

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.

True, a freedom agenda will not change people’s attitudes overnight, but if pursued consistently, over time, with bipartisan support in the US – and more constant support in Europe – it will have a chance to make serious headway.

There are many “if’s” here, but pro-democracy activists can only live on hope, or, as the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous put it, they are condemned to hope.

Despite Bush’s mixed record, he still seems to share this hope. Will the same be true of America’s next president?