The former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has a piece in the Washington Post today talking up democracy. Nice piece, thoughtful, mindful of the risks, etc. But it leads with Rice’s synopsis of the Bush administration on Egypt. Rice, as she watched good old Hosni Mubarak address the Egyptians last week, tells us that she thought to herself “it didn’t have to be this way.” If only Hosni had listened to Condi. If only he had stayed on track with his reforms and not “reversed course.” Cue soft music. Tears of regret.
In the wake of Rice’s own quite forward-leaning speech in Cairo in June 2005, there were hopes Mubarak would suspend emergency laws. In 2006 he renewed them. There were hopes for more open elections. Instead, that same year, local elections were postponed. In 2007, controversial changes to the Egyptian constitution that limited civil rights were pushed through by Mubarak, and Rice mustered the following wet noodle of a response: “We always discuss these things in a way that is respectful, mutually respectful, but I have made my concerns known and we have had a good discussion.” In January 2008, President George Bush helpfully underscored the administration’s position on Egypt while in Sharm el Sheikh: “I appreciate very much the long and proud tradition that you’ve had for a vibrant civil society.”
After Bush and Rice’s early commitment to democracy in the Middle East, things went swiftly downhill. Democracy activists in Egypt who had once been on the White House’s hit parade were forgotten. Efforts to crowbar open Egypt’s political system were tossed. And it didn’t happen slowly. It was, after all, the Bush administration that first gave the seal of approval to Gamal Mubarak’s dynastic succession with a widely noticed Gamal “drop by” at the White House in May 2006.
The Bush administration deserves enormous credit for many things—contending with the aftermath of 9/11, taking the war to al Qaeda, ousting Saddam and more. It also deserves credit for a real vision for a better Middle East. What it doesn’t deserve is credit for the courage of its rhetorical convictions or the execution of that vision. And of all those who ensured that nothing would be done to undermine Egyptian President Mubarak, Condi Rice did the most.
I remember a meeting with Secretary Rice at the State Department in the second term of the Bush administration. I asked why the president and secretary had not been more public in their condemnation of Mubarak’s “reversal of course” on democratic reform. Turning to me with considerable animus in her voice, Dr. Rice informed me that diplomacy was not a “cartoon” and proceeded to virtually shout justifications for the administration’s positions at me in a room full of other Middle East types about town. As we left the room, one of those experts (who shall remain unnamed) smiled at me and said: “Democracy in the Middle East. It’s over.”
Yes indeed, Dr. Rice. It didn’t have to be this way.