Julian Assange’s data dump has helped confirm that America’s democracy agenda is over. The project of liberating the Middle East from tyrannical regimes and installing free governments was once a centerpiece of the United States’ post-9/11 strategy, but the latest cables released by WikiLeaks reveal a far different reality.
In his second inaugural address, George W. Bush proclaimed that “the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” Bush was echoing the ideology of neoconservatism. Commentator David Frum and defense analyst Richard Perle wrote in their 2003 book, An End to Evil, that “people all over the world want the benefits of American democracy but they do not always possess the skills to launch a representative government by only their unaided strength. We can help, as we helped in Western Europe and Japan.”
In the years following 9/11, neoconservatives argued against coddling the princes of Saudi Arabia and other autocrats in the wider Middle East. Bush promised to “persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.”
The released cables, however, show a United States that worked closely with autocracies to ensure the success of its aims in Iraq. Gen. David Petraeus worked to build support in Egypt for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Another cable shows U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith was frustrated by Saudi fundamentalism but felt the alliance “has proven durable.” And another document recounts a meeting of U.S. senators with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that was cordial. Instead of demanding intelligence cooperation and political liberalization, senators contented themselves with politely inquiring about collaboration on regional peace talks and Assad’s thoughts on Iran. This is hardly the persistent clarity of pushing a regional democratic revolution. It is diplomatic and foreign-policy realism.
The Wikileaks document release also shows that Arab leaders see the rise of Iran as a problem—one they wish America would solve for them. That revelation now has neoconservatives warming up to the same leaders they formerly labeled feckless and untrustworthy. Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, writing in Commentary, said of the leaks: “You can add to the list of the hawks’ confirmed truths: the enthusiastic support of the Arab states for a more vigorous U.S. response to Iran.” On the Saudi royals’ assessment of Iran—“Cut off the head of the snake”—Rubin confessed, “I’m with King Abdullah on this one.” Formerly considered an untrustworthy ally for its financial support of Wahhabi Islam, Saudi Arabia is enjoying a strange new respect.
There are neoconservatives making similar arguments. David Frum, who complained in 2003 that American policy had been too abject toward Saudi Arabia, now cites Saudi anxieties to make the case for a more aggressive policy toward Iran. He wrote at CNN.com this week: “Public opinion in all U.S.-allied countries can now see that the dread of the Iranian nuclear program is not some artificial emotion whipped up by Israel, but a widespread fear among Arab and European governments. It’s Iran’s Gulf neighbors who have begged most urgently that the United States hit Iran’s nuclear sites.”
Of course, Saudi King Abdullah’s fears of Iranian power are probably justified. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran are taken as political tokens for Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, respectively, in the Middle East, ergo King Abdullah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are natural rivals. Saudi Arabia’s leaders reside in the western part of the desert kingdom, while its oil wells sit nearer to the eastern coast that contains a discontented and significant minority of Shia Muslims. It is easy to imagine the trouble Iran could whip up there. But it is notable that the U.S. has recently concluded a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia. A strike at Iran’s nuclear program or at the regime itself would leave Abdullah the most powerful figure in the Muslim Middle East. This scenario would have horrified democratists just five years ago.
The democracy agenda was already in jeopardy before Assange’s leaks. In 2006, Bush urged Palestinians to have free elections—only to see Hamas take power. In 2007, Israeli legislator Yuval Steinitz urged America to freeze $200 million in foreign aid to Egypt until the Mubarak government had curbed police abuse and passed laws guaranteeing an independent judiciary. But in early 2008, Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, admitted that the congressional hold on those funds was waived by Bush. And America’s war in Afghanistan has meant making deals with unsavory allies such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
But the Wikileaks dump has shown that history is unkind to the demanding visions of ideologues. The democratists once hoped to get out from under the venal Saudis, but a shared zeal against Iran has yoked them together. That’s the comedy of history. The tragedy would be a military strike at Tehran that rallies the Iranian people around its regime and kills as collateral damage the Green Movement, the fitful and reform-minded coalition pushing for a democracy that originates in Iran, not in Washington.