President Obama is far from the first president attempting a tricky rhetorical pirouette with the dictator and his men in Cairo, who are under the impression that Americans need them more than they need us. As the Obama administration considers its approach to the turmoil in Egypt, it might be wise to heed lessons from the approach its predecessor took. The Bush administration’s experience was not exactly a shining moment in the cause of human freedom.
George W. Bush prides himself on being the “dissidents’ president”—a man who has stood courageously to expand the frontiers of freedom across the world. And indeed Bush—particularly early on in his administration—did undertake laudable efforts to aid the cause of dissidents and political prisoners, even taking opportunities to publicly call for their release. But by the end of the administration, his rhetoric had softened notably. And the speechwriters learned that there were limits to how far we would go in that effort. It was easy for U.S. presidents to bash regimes with which America did not have productive relationships—easy marks like Iran, Syria, and Cuba. But when it came to confronting dictatorships with which we shared common interests—China and Russia, for example—the language we used was more careful, our actions more forgiving. This was especially true in the Middle East, where Bush frequently castigated the human-rights abuses in Iran and Syria, but seldom shined a spotlight on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Egypt.
Egypt was a particular concern for Bush. Early in 2008, Bush told an assembly of the presidential speechwriting staff that the Mubarak regime was his biggest disappointment. Bush had hoped that the country, with its educated, productive populace, might lead the way for democratic reform in the Middle East, but a crusty apparatchik stood in the way. Nothing was likely to change in Egypt, Bush said, until Mubarak was gone.
Sympathetic reporters touted Bush’s speech as bold and brave. They had no idea that the Egyptians had cowed the most powerful nation in the world to go against their better instincts.
That year the president was scheduled to deliver remarks at the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and I was assigned to draft his remarks. Knowing of his frustration and his sincere interest in freedom for the Middle East, I thought a historic "tear down this wall" opportunity beckoned—a chance for the “dissident president” to challenge a dictator on his own turf and put America decisively on the side of his restive people. This was the president, after all, who memorably called in his second inaugural for “ ending tyranny in our world.”
Alas, that is not how it turned out.
The first problem was that Bush instructed us to clear any speech we delivered in Egypt with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Usually the ever-cautious stability-loving State Department is to good speechwriting what Carrot Top is to comedy. But Rice surprised. Maybe it was a temporary mood, but Rice was frustrated with Egypt and other regimes who she said were stalling in advancing reforms. “They’ve screwed it up,” she said. She urged us to write a speech with some “edge.”
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• Leslie H. Gelb: Beware Egypt’s Muslim BrotherhoodAnd so we did. To give the speech added credibility, instead of just admonishing the usual suspects, I inserted criticism of Saudi Arabia for the restrictions it placed on women—restrictions I knew Bush thought abhorrent. Noting that friendships required candor, Bush would go on to press Egypt to live up to its promises of political and economic reform, and warn of the consequences if they shirked them. We knew, as well as anyone, that the Egyptian people were not enamored with those who ruled them. “The change the people in the Middle East have been looking for is before us,” Bush would say. “The only question left to be asked by the leaders and intellectuals of this region, and in this room, is this: Will you be left behind by this change—or will you choose to lead it?” And then the great moment: Bush would stand in Egypt and call directly for Mubarak to send a message of “goodwill” to the world by ordering his guards to go to the prison where dissidents were held, open the door of the cell where his nemesis was held, and set free one of the world’s most famous political prisoners: Ayman Nour, an Egyptian reformer whose only real crime was to challenge Mubarak in a “free” presidential election. Previously Bush had irked the Egyptians by calling for Nour’s release, but his name was one of many in a long list of political prisoners from perhaps a dozen countries, and Bush had never called for his release while in Egypt. Egypt seemed especially vulnerable to American pressure on these matters, since its regime was dependent on billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
Nearly everyone at the White House seemed to like the remarks that were drafted—the National Security Council, the president’s various advisers, and Rice, who offered no edits at all. Everyone, that is, except for the Egyptians, who were given a head’s up on Bush’s speech “as a courtesy.” As Bush and his entourage departed for the Middle East, the Egyptians and their friends in the region went to work.
In Saudi Arabia, the softening up of the administration began. Few experiences rival a presidential visit to the Arab world, where every member of the U.S. delegation is treated like a visiting emperor. Staff members are accorded rooms in luxurious palaces or five-star hotels with views of manmade, pristine lakes. They are given unlimited access to a host of delicacies—the freshest fruits, the finest juices, the most delectable desserts. When Bush made his way to Saudi Arabia, for example, the delegation was taken on a trip to a perfumed ranch. Key members of the delegation were awarded lavish gifts—Secretary Rice, for example, received more than $300,000 in jewels from the Saudis—while the first lady and her staff were treated to a luxurious cruise. The hospitality is generous and shrewd: All American presidents end up falling in love with the Saudis.
No one knew exactly what, if anything, the Saudi king—a longtime friend of the Bush family—may have said to Bush about his upcoming remarks in Egypt. But the speculation went something like this. At some point, when the president was feeling charmed and comfortable, the Saudi king offered Bush, or Rice, or both in tandem, a friendly warning: “I hear you are going to have some tough words for Mubarak. Don't push him too hard. He is keeping his government from being taken over by radicals." This of course is the perennial argument that the Saudis, the Chinese, and others use with the Americans: George, or Barack, or Jimmy, you may not like us, but you will hate the alternative.
Meanwhile the Egyptians sent word to the U.S. delegation that President Mubarak himself would be on stage for Bush's speech. Their intent was obvious to all of us: They gambled that Bush would have misgivings about challenging his host so directly while he sat a few seats away. Then a story appeared in the Egyptian press that Mubarak was planning to release Ayman Nour within weeks—adding to the sense that there was no need for Bush to say his name publicly and embarrass his host.
Whatever the reason, Bush became notably unhappy with his “edgy” Middle Eastern speech. Rice went to work helping to revise and improve the remarks. More praise for Arab leaders and less direct criticism was ordered. Aboard Air Force One, the most intense debate ensued over whether to mention Ayman Nour in front of Mubarak. The administration knew the Egyptians were trying to intimidate the leader of the free world. As I heard it, for that reason and because it was the right thing to do, National Security Adviser Steve Hadley and Counselor to the President Ed Gillespie counseled Bush to keep the line in. Condi Rice stood opposed. She had called for Ayman Nour’s release a few years earlier when she was in Egypt—and received unrelenting criticism from the Egyptian leadership, whose help Rice needed on Iraq and her cherished, ultimately illusory, goal of a Arab-Israeli agreement. Worse in Rice’s mind, Ayman Nour—who remained in prison where he was tormented and beaten—had not sufficiently thanked her for her efforts. In any event, Rice made clear she was done with the Ayman Nour business.
The speech Bush ended up delivering was nothing like the original draft. There was no overt, bracing challenge to the Arab elites in the room. All direct criticism of the Saudis was excised. A call for broad democratic change in the Middle East became a tutorial on the benefits of democracy that the leaders had heard before. Demands for reform in Egypt became a mere "hope" that Egypt might "one day" lead the way for political reform. “I applaud Egypt,” Bush ended up saying. “Egypt is a model for the development of professional women.” Of greatest importance to Mubarak, the name Ayman Nour was never uttered.
Sympathetic reporters nonetheless touted Bush’s speech as bold and brave. They had no idea that the Egyptians—like so many others “strategic allies” in the region—had cowed the most powerful nation in the world to go against their better instincts. Predictably, the behavior of the Mubarak regime only worsened. The Egyptians’ promise to release Nour by a scheduled date was not kept, and he spent nine more months in prison. (When Nour did walk out of the Egyptian gulag, after Obama took office, I don’t think he thanked Condi Rice then, either.)
More dissidents were imprisoned, including a 69-year-old scholar named Saad Eddin Ibrahim, sentenced to two years of hard labor, as The Washington Post reported, for the crime of “tarnishing” Egypt’s image. The Bush White House responded with a tepid expression of “disappointment.” We looked, rhetorically at least, to be on the regime’s side.
In response to withering media criticism, the Bush folks finally figured out that they had been hoodwinked. Bush’s former chief speechwriter Bill McGurn expressed a view shared by many of us at the White House—that the administration was paying the price for pulling our punches with Mubarak in that speech.
In the coming month, the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan will be celebrated with events across the country. Reagan’s image is somewhat glorified these days—as an unapologetic, unswerving opponent of tyranny. But Reagan also was pragmatic; he knew America sometimes had to deal with nations whose governments we didn’t particularly like. Still, dissidents trapped behind the Iron Curtain during his tenure were never confused about which side America was on.
The Obama administration seems to think the pragmatic, prudent approach is warranted in response to the mass protests in Egypt. But think how different George W. Bush might look to many Egyptians today if he had given the speech he probably wanted to give three years ago. Today, as President Obama looks upon what might be a history-altering event in the Middle East, he might similarly want to consider on whose side he wants America—and his administration—to appear.
Matt Latimer is the author of The New York Times bestseller, Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.