Iraq stages a successful election. Tens of thousands of Lebanese take to the streets to demand Syria withdraw from their country. More troubling for Bush, hundreds of thousands showed their support for Hezbollah and Syria. Egypt, hardly a democracy but a U.S. ally all the same, proposes opening its presidential elections to more than just one party. Conservatives boast about how President Bush’s policies are almost single-handedly responsible for this “spring of democracy.”
It’s as if people on the left never, ever wanted to see a freer society take root in the region. Well, of course we did. Given past U.S. policy in the region, however, we had little faith that our government would make the right decisions. Just check this publication’s shaky but serviceable Website search-engine for these words from yours truly back in March 13, 2003, weeks after President Bush added the spread of democracy to his larger search for Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction”: “We can’t stop the war. We can hold Bush accountable for his promises to bring democracy to the Middle East.”
As it turns out, the people of Iraq held Bush accountable. Most Americans cling to the conviction that Ronald Reagan single-handedly destroyed the old Soviet Empire, rather than a fall in the price of oil or Russian disillusionment after the debacle of Chernobyl. If the Middle East continues to transform, most Americans will give Bush similar credit. All this is fed by the myth that history is forged by “great men” and leaders alone, and that people in the streets are mere pawns. Well, recall the early days of our occupation, when Bush proconsul Paul Bremer shut down the Shia newspaper Al Hawza, and put democracy on a slow track that involved seven arduous steps before Iraqis had any say. Remember January of last year, when Shia cleric Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani issued his fatwa condemning plans by the Coalition Provisional Authority, and demanded elections in January 2005. Remember how in March 2004, Bush let a U.N. envoy—yes, the evil U.N.—meet with al-Sistani to arrange for January’s elections.
For all his blunders in Iraq, Bush should get full credit for his rhetoric, specifically these words from November 2003: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe … because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
Amen. But words won’t undo our nation’s record of supporting Middle East tyrants. The CIA’s first-ever successful coup dismantled democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh from power in 1953, which fed that nation’s Islamic revolution and led us down our current path of enmity with Iran. We’ve seen footage of then Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983 and 1984, even as Saddam was murdering Shias, Kurds and Iranians. In 1997, six years before Bush found similar inspiration, Arab journalist Said K. Aburish wrote: “Ignoring or subordinating the interests of the Arab people and relying on small groups of traditional or new dictators to accommodate Western political and economic interests, even if successful for long periods, produces an untrue picture and a consequent inability to cope with the real and continuing problems of the Middle East.”
Aburish and al-Sistani, of course, are just men from the street. Bush is president.