Presidents have a tendency to turn their back on initiatives championed by their predecessors, however deserving. Thus President George W. Bush came into office with nothing but contempt for “nation building” which he associated with the Clinton administration in the Balkans. Eventually Bush realized he had to engage in nation building too if he was going to achieve American objectives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
His own emphasis was on the “freedom agenda”–i.e., expanding democracy. President Obama, by contrast, has governed for the most part as a Realpolitiker intent on “rebalancing” American commitments and not letting sympathy for human rights distract him from his foreign policy objectives. That American neglect is having dire consequences for dissidents in the Muslim world who champion precisely the liberal values that we would like to see flourish.
Paul Wolfowitz notes in the Wall Street Journal that Obama, while embracing Malaysian President Najib Razak, has ignored the plight of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has been jailed on bogus charges under an archaic “anti-sodomy” law. Wolfowitz, who once served as ambassador in neighboring Indonesia, notes that Ibrahim is “a liberal Muslim who defends the rights of the Christian minority and quotes the Quran alongside Tocqueville, Locke and Jefferson. Now his voice for a tolerant, modern and peaceful Islam will be silenced.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board notes that the American-backed Sisi regime in Egypt is also busy jailing liberal activists. The Post writes that “a court in Egypt sentenced one of the country’s best-known liberal democratic activists, Alaa Abdel Fattah, to five years in prison, along with 20 other activists. The next day, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi issued a new law that will allow his regime to prosecute any protest as terrorism.”
This shows that Sisi’s crackdown extends far beyond the illiberal Muslim Brotherhood. The Post writes that many of those being locked up are “secular democrats who supported the 2011 revolution against the regime of Hosni Mubarak and later protested the autocratic excesses of Mr. Morsi. They include Ahmed Maher and a dozen other leaders of the April 6 movement, and Ahmed Douma, a liberal blogger who was sentenced this month to life in prison.”
And what is Obama doing about it? Not much beyond paying lip service to the need for freedom. At his summit on countering “violent extremism” last week, he said, “When dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.” But as with a lot of the president’s foreign policy (“red lines,” anyone?) this is just hot air that isn’t backed up with any action on the part of the United States.
Obama’s reluctance to intervene is understandable–both Malaysia and Egypt are American allies, so why get into a fight with their leaders over the fate of a few dissidents? Because ultimately it is those who are now being imprisoned who are the best hope of moving the Muslim world in a better direction. If the U.S. abandons them, we will continue to face a Sophie’s choice between secular despots (whose repression breeds terrorism) and radical Islamist regimes. There is a third way, to invoke a term used in the 1950s to describe an alternative to either Communism or colonialism in the Third World, but Obama seems to be ignoring it. The price of U.S. neglect will be paid not only by brave liberal Muslims but also by the United States, which will find the Muslim world increasingly evolving in the direction of ISIS.