Conservative Credits Bush Agenda For Revolutions

Conservatives have been noticeably split on how the U.S. should respond to the revolutions in the Middle East. Some suggest the U.S. stands to lose stability in the area if longtime allies in the region are unseated. Elliott Abrams served in foreign policy positions in the governments of both President Reagan and George W. Bush. He tells host Guy Raz that this is a vindication of a policy of democratization in the Middle East.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now in recent days, some former staffers of President George W. Bush have argued that the so-called freedom agenda pushed by the administration is now starting to bear fruit across the Middle East.

Elliot Abrams, the deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy under President Bush, is one of those people who's been making that case.

Mr. ELLIOTT ABRAMS (Senior Fellow, Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations): What the president began to say after 9/11 was that there was no special exception for the Arab world, that we had supported stability in the Middle East at the cost of liberty, and that we weren't going to get stability, either. And of course, this is at a time when most of these regimes look completely stable. So the point I was making is, he had it right in saying that these were not as stable as they appeared to be.

RAZ: Do you acknowledge that there could be a messy period? There could be a long period, even, where many of these countries won't just have deposed pro-American leaders, but may actively become anti-American.

Mr. ABRAMS: I don't think they'll become anti-American. But messy period, sure. I mean, every country that has become a democracy has had a messy period. The thing is, we're in favor of democracy. We're Americans. We're supposed to be supporting democracy not just at home. We believe in it for every people around the world. How could we not be thrilled and excited by what we're seeing in the streets of Tripoli and Manama and Cairo and other places?

RAZ: What would you propose the United States do? I mean, you say that, you know, that the United States should support this and should actively support it, but how?

Mr. ABRAMS: We have a number of ways of helping countries in transition - through AID, through the National Endowment for Democracy, through the Republican and Democratic Party institutes, and through a lot of NGOs - training people who are setting up a party for the first time in, how do you organize a party; how do you communicate with voters; how do you reach out? We know a little bit about this. So do the Europeans. So, especially, do people who've been through it a lot more recently than we have: the Poles, the Czechs, the Chileans. And we ought to try to organize and make sure that people, especially with more recent experience, get over to these new democracies - or countries trying to be democracies - and give them whatever help they can.

RAZ: Many, many people - fairly or unfairly - argue that, you know, the Bush administration pushed the freedom agenda at the point of a gun, and Iraq and Afghanistan were sort of their primary examples. If, in fact, this is the result of an ideal or values that were proposed by President George W. Bush, or going all the way back to Woodrow Wilson, what happens now? I mean, should the United States actively back other movements in other Middle Eastern countries?

Mr. ABRAMS: I'm not arguing that the United States should have a policy of overthrowing everybody's government. We had nothing to do with the uprising in Tunisia or Egypt or in Libya. These are spontaneous moves on the part of the people of those countries.

The question really is: When they make that move, how do we react? And I'm just suggesting that we should react favorably. We should react by saying, you know, it's your country, but anything we can do to help freedom expand, we want to do. We believe in it, and it's in our interests.

RAZ: In a few moments, we're going to hear from Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett. They are former National Security Council staffers under President Bill Clinton. They argue that Iran will be the big winner out of all these uprisings throughout the Middle East. Do they have a point?

Mr. ABRAMS: I think they have half a point. I think there are two sides to this coin. And one side is there's turmoil, you know; there's instability. That offers opportunities for people who like to sell instability, who are going to support extremist groups. There's no question that there are many more opportunities for Iran, let's say, in Egypt or Tunisia now than there were when they were dictatorships.

But the other side of the coin is that Iran is a dictatorship. Nobody in the streets of Tunisia or Libya is asking for ayatollahs and stolen elections, and Revolutionary Guards throwing you in prison. They're asking for freedom.

And I think that in a matter of one year, two years, this will look very different for Iran, because the Middle East is turning democratic. I think, therefore, that it hurts Iran, particularly in the area of soft power, reputation, influence that's so important.

RAZ: That's Elliott Abrams. He was a foreign policy adviser to President Reagan and President George W. Bush. He's now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Elliott Abrams, thank you.

Mr. ABRAMS: You're very welcome.

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