Arabs may one day miss George W. Bush

The Middle East cheered the Republican defeat in the recent American congressional elections. The official Syrian daily Al-Baath labeled the elections a “painful blow,” while the Saudi daily Al-Watan called for a “wise” policy from Washington “to bridge the gulf in confidence between the United States and the regional peoples and governments.” The Iranian press gloated, while the Turkish Islamist daily Yeni Aafak argued that the election rebuke was “punishment for Bush’s neocon policies.” Such reactions do not surprise. President George W. Bush’s policies have not been easy for many in the Middle East to digest.

Different segments of Arab societies dislike Bush for different reasons. Many Arabs outside government believe Bush tilts too much toward Israel. Lebanese cite with particular disdain Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s characterization of this summer’s violence as “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” Others see the US veto last November 11 of a United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning Israel for its military operations in the Gaza Strip as abdication of Washington’s role as an honest broker. They accept Palestinian UN observer Riyad Mansour’s characterization of the veto as evidence that Washington backs Israel as it “commits crimes and acts of outright aggression with impunity.”

That US policy tilts toward Israel has nothing to do with Bush or any single party. While Arab commentators may find comfort in blaming a Jewish lobby, the real reason is more straightforward. To Americans, Israel is a democracy and, for decades, has been a consistent ally. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, administrations favored Arab states for the practical reason that Arabs outnumbered Israelis and had oil; it was in US interests to seek partnership in the Arab world. Hence, Washington sided with Cairo against Tel Aviv in the 1956 Suez crisis, handing Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser his greatest victory. But while Arab states attacked the US, Israel stood by it. Any comparison of UN votes – especially on issues having nothing to do with the Middle East – underscores this pattern.

Bush is not anti-Arab, though. He went farther than any predecessor to support Palestinian statehood when, on June 24, 2002, he declared: “It is untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation … My vision is two states, living side by side in peace and security.” Certain Palestinian groups, often with foreign support, squandered their opportunity by re-embracing violence. Bush’s belief in liberty extended beyond the Palestinians, though. While his father’s advisers sacrificed Lebanese freedom for the stability of the Syrian military presence until 2005, Bush sought actual Lebanese independence.

Autocrats across the region distrust Bush for entirely different reasons. To leaders in Cairo, Damascus, Tehran and Riyadh, the Palestinian cause is little more than a useful rhetorical tool to distract their own citizens from failures closer to home. These leaders do not blame Bush for his policies toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, but rather dislike him for his rhetoric of democratization and reform.

The US occupation of Iraq may not be popular anywhere in the Arab world, but scenes of Iraqis celebrating Saddam Hussein’s downfall infused Arab regimes with particular unease. Many Arab leaders surround themselves with sycophants. Delegates at Egypt’s National Democratic Party conference in September, for example, repeatedly interrupted President Hosni Mubarak’s speech to inform him of their admiration for him and the love of ordinary Egyptians. But, outside the posh convention center, ordinary Egyptians cursed their president for corruption, stagnation and his desire for a royal succession. Arab leaders may try to convince themselves that such adoration in sincere, but their reliance upon multiple security services signals their recognition of reality. 

White House pressure for reform antagonized these leaders, as the whining nature of editorials in state-run newspapers demonstrated. Previous US administrations, both Democrat and Republican, spoke of human rights, democracy and transparency, but did not push the issue. Bush did. Mubarak did not expect Washington to withhold $134 million in aid to win Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s release. Mubarak’s subsequent acquiescence to allow contested elections was the result, in part, of Western pressure.

Bush’s reform push was as unpopular among the US foreign policy establishment as it was in Arab capitals. Many “realists” criticized the White House for pressuring such long-standing allies. But Bush, at least initially, refused to accept that the only choice in the Middle East was between the rule of autocrats and theocrats. Against the advice of many career diplomats, he directed the State Department to help build a platform upon which liberals and reformers could thrive.

Bush’s initial success is best seen in juxtaposition to his subsequent failure. As critics condemned the effectiveness of his push toward reform and questioned the wisdom of pressuring allies, leaders in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen began de-prioritizing democratization, closing newspapers, arresting opposition leaders, torturing bloggers, cancelling elections and abandoning pledges to retire from office. Because of this, many Arabs may come to regret their hostility toward Bush and his policies.

As the realists again rise triumphant, stability will trump reform. The same figures who Bush now embraces backed Syria in Lebanon, and ensured Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s grip on power after ordinary Iraqis heeded President George H.W. Bush’s February 15, 1991, call for “the Iraqi people [to] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” These realists did not blanch as Saddam massacred tens of thousands of civilians.

New policies may revive old dictatorships. European governments find it easier to trade with the Revolutionary Guards-operated companies in Iran than press for economic opportunities for ordinary Iranians. Former US ambassadors to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey would rather cash in on their connections to ruling parties than see old faces disappear upon the whim of the electorate.

Nor will Arab civil society organizations be able to rely on their “progressive” counterparts in the West to defend liberalism and reform. Hatred of Bush trumps declared principles. Because Bush made democratization and reform the centerpiece of his Middle East strategy, many Western progressives dismiss them as priorities or even as desirable. After all, in progressive rhetoric how can Bush be both an idiot and correct?

Instead of democracy, many progressives have come to romanticize “resistance.” They have become attracted to the same rhetorical motifs projected by liberation movements of a generation past and Islamists today. Embrace of multiculturalism has morphed into a cultural relativism that justifies oppression in the name of culture.

The majority of Arab civil society may celebrate Bush’s election rebuke and welcome the end of the Bush years but, as anger fades and Washington re-embraces realism, Arab reformers from Rabat to Riyadh may find they have missed their best opportunity, while dictators and theocrats seize theirs.

Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

Other Topics:

A dampened outcome for meetings on Mideast democracy
International Herald Tribune – France
Pressures Bush To Revise Tactics
Wall Street Journal (subscription) – New York,NY,USA