Paul Pillar

What is the Freedom Agenda?

For the most part, Mitt Romney has lived up to his promise to stick to the tradition of not criticizing U.S. foreign policy explicitly while traveling overseas. His remarks in Israel on the Iranian nuclear issue were restrained and statesmanlike, at least in contrast to a comment by his adviser (and impresario for the Israel portion of his trip) Dan Senor, which sounded like an endorsement of the idea of Israel launching a war against Iran. Perhaps the overhyped kerfuffle in Britain over Romney's comments about the Olympics served as a useful reminder to the candidate of how his every word on this trip would be picked apart and how low would be the threshold for a comment to register on the press's gaffe-meter.

A way to get around the traditional moratorium on criticizing U.S. policy while abroad is to record such criticism earlier, for playback during the trip. Serving this purpose for Romney was an interview with Sheldon Adelson's pro-Likud Israel Hayom, which was published when Romney was already in Britain and on his way to Israel. Amid the expected answers to the softball questions are a number of points that cry out for follow-up questions that never got asked. There is, for example, Romney's expressed belief that “the elimination of Saddam Hussein's government was a positive step” in the “war on terror”—notwithstanding the fabricated nature of the supposed alliance between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda that was a key part of the Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War and the fact that the war itself boosted international terrorism by introducing a previously nonexistent and still persistent al Qaeda problem in Iraq. Then on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there is a denunciation of President Obama referring to the 1967 border, without noting that such references also have talked about land swaps and without Romney giving any hint of an alternative basis for settling, or the desirability of settling, that conflict.

But perhaps the most interesting question—because it raises quandaries about which even experts steeped in the subject disagree—concerns the management of political change as it relates to the upheavals in Arab countries during the past two years. What is the best way for an authoritarian regime to achieve a liberalizing and democratizing soft landing, without jolting a country into some undesirable postrevolutionary alternative that may be little better than what was there before? If we could whisper advice into the ears of Middle Eastern autocrats, what should that advice be? The lack of a school solution to such questions is why I used to pose them to students. When asked in the interview, “How do you view the Arab Spring and the way in which the U.S. responded to the uprisings in those Arab states?” Romney began his reply this way:

Clearly we're disappointed in seeing Tunisia and Morocco elect Islamist governments. We're very concerned in seeing the new leader in Egypt as an Islamist leader. It is our hope to move these nations toward a more modern view of the world and to not present a threat to their neighbors and to the other nations of the world.

Being Islamist thus gets equated with being not only nonmodern but also being a threat to neighbors and other nations. Here the appropriate follow-up questions would ask Romney about his view of the intersection of religion and politics. “What exactly makes an Islamist political leader a threat to other states? Do you believe it is appropriate for a state to define itself in terms of a particular religion? Is that true only for some religions and not for others? If you are concerned about an Islamist being president of Egypt, would you also be concerned about a Christianist being president of the United States—if Rick Santorum had beaten you in the primaries and then went on to win the general election?”

Romney continued his answer as follows:

The Arab Spring is not appropriately named. It has become a development of more concern and it occurred in part because of the reluctance on the part of various dictators to provide more freedom to their citizens. President [George W.] Bush urged [deposed Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner.

So evidently there is something called the “freedom agenda” that somehow, if consistently implemented, would achieve that democratic soft landing—peacefully, without letting those worrisome Islamists into power. Wow—sounds like the long-sought school solution. But what does that “freedom agenda” consist of? “Urging” leaders to reform? Then why didn't it work for President Bush? The authoritarianism involved isn't a situation that arose just with the Arab Spring; Mubarak had been in power since 1981. It seems urging is about all it is. Here's how Romney began his reply to a subsequent question about Syria (before explicitly saying he did not favor military intervention there):