[Washington Babylon ]The Washington Post and the “Freedom Agenda” | Harper's Magazine

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Those ever-observant Washington Post editorial writers have spotted the demise of President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” in Pakistan. In an editorial yesterday, the Post bewailed President Pervez Musharraf’s suspension of his country’s constitution and said that the Bush Administration’s timid response “mocks” the president’s freedom agenda.

This isn’t the first time the Post has moaned about the demise of the “freedom agenda,” and one suspects it won’t be the last. A little over a month ago op-ed columnist Jackson Diehl wrote about Egyptian newspaper publisher Hisham Kassem, who had recently “spent nearly an hour in the Oval Office with President Bush,” who had spoken “with feeling about his ‘freedom agenda’ and his intention to pursue it after he leaves office.” But Kassem “could not help but feel a little depressed” since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had recently cracked down on independent newspapers and “hardly anyone in Washington seemed to care.”

On September 3, a Post editorial reported that Bush had complained to Egyptian oppositionist Saad Eddin Ibrahim that he “felt like a dissident because of the State Department’s tenacious resistance to his ‘freedom agenda,’ but the Post said Bush was “not a real dissident” since he had barely reacted to the terrible human rights situation in Egypt. On August 6, Diehl spotted betrayal of the “freedom agenda” after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met “with the Arab autocrats of the Middle East in pursuit of an entirely different agenda: ‘security and stability’ for their unfree nations.”

On June 4, editorial page editor Fred Hiatt referred to “George Bush’s wildly ambitious, and thus far stymied, freedom agenda.” A week earlier, Diehl wrote an op-ed citing another alleged Bush betrayal of truth, justice and the American way headlined “Shortchanging Democracy in Ukraine; The President’s ‘Freedom Agenda’ Is Losing Momentum.”

Two months before that, Diehl warned about the erosion of the freedom agenda based on an earlier crackdown by Egypt’s Mubarak, saying the administration’s baffling timidity had “emboldened the aging autocrat.” Go back another two months, to January 17, and a Post editorial said that a “new U.S. policy” of downplaying human rights “betrays President Bush’s freedom agenda, giving a free pass to dictators who support the new geopolitical cause.”

The list of betrayals to the “freedom agenda” goes on and on. In December of 2006, it was (in a Diehl column) administration officials gathering at “a glittering dinner in honor of Mehriban Aliyeva, the visiting first lady of Azerbaijan;” a month earlier (in an op-ed by Richard Holbrooke) the freedom agenda was “at stake” in Georgia, where the United States was not doing enough to help out President Mikheil Saakashvili; in September of 2006, the administration had sold out the freedom agenda in welcoming to the White House the authoritarian ruler of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev; in May of 2006, a Post editorial wondered why the administration would “continue to give nearly $2 billion each year to a government [Egypt’s] that mocks President Bush’s democracy initiative?”

Indeed, the Post has been spotting the Bush Administration making a mockery of the freedom agenda virtually from the moment the policy was declared. In yet another column on the topic, Diehl (discussing the “de facto reversal of Bush’s freedom agenda”) asked, “Who can make sense of this disaster?”

Listen, Diehl, I know I’m not as smart as you are with your fancypants Yale degree, but let me have a crack at it: There never was a freedom agenda. Bush simply repackaged rhetoric used by past administrations about America’s commitment to democracy abroad, and cut the same deals they did that gave a free pass to dictators willing to support American foreign policy objectives.

Outside of American newspaper editorial pages, the “freedom agenda” is a joke. Pro-American despots across the globe know they’ll pay no consequences for jailing opponents and cracking down on the press, which is why they do it so routinely and scornfully. But rest assured, the next time a Bush-friendly dictator tightens the screws, the Post editorial page will once again bemoan the administration’s lack of action and scratch its collective head and wonder how things went so terribly, terribly wrong.

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