In search of a lasting legacy

In search of a lasting legacy

The National : Just as it is a time of expectation – much of the world is riveted by America’s new president to be – is it also a time of reflection. President George W Bush, a lame duck if there ever was one, has tried to beat the rest of us to it, engaging in a series of somewhat myopic ponderings on what the last eight years meant and, perhaps more importantly, what they might still come to mean.

I am, in some sense, torn. Most American analysts look back at the era of Bush and feel a mix of sadness and anger. I have been both sad and angry but my view is coloured by another emotion, that of betrayal. It is not so much that the last eight years, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, were a failure. What troubles me more is that it needn’t have been so. Something, here, was lost.

It is difficult to remember it now, but there was a time when the Bush administration, for all its other faults, held some promise in the Middle East. The weekend of December 12, 2004, the day the opposition Kifaya movement held the first anti-Mubarak protest Egypt had ever seen, I participated in a workshop for Arab reformers at the Dead Sea in Jordan. One night, a group of us were eating dinner, discussing the future of the Egyptian opposition. I sat back and listened as two opposition giants – secularist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Muslim Brotherhood leader Esam el Erian – talked strategy. They went back and forth, sparring, disagreeing, joking and laughing as they exchanged thoughts on how to unite liberals and Islamists behind a bold vision for democratic reform. Watching them, I saw something that was usually hard to find in the Arab world. I saw hope, optimism, and a sense of possibility.

The “Arab spring” had begun. In his second inaugural address, Bush declared, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” He continued, “the road of providence is uneven and unpredictable, yet we know where it leads: It leads to freedom.” It would soon become difficult to establish the causal arrows. What did these words mean on the ground? Either way, they captured a moment, and, for a short while, the administration did seem intent on putting pressure on Arab autocrats. On Feb 28, 2005, President Hosni Mubarak announced that for the first time Egypt would hold multi-candidate presidential elections. That same month, nearly one million Lebanese took to the streets of their war-torn capital, demanding self-determination. Not long after, 50,000 Bahrainis – one-eighth of the country’s population – rallied for constitutional reform. The opposition was coming alive. It did not last. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood performed surprisingly well in parliamentary elections later that year. In January 2006, Hamas surprised even themselves by winning the polls in Palestine. In the halls of Washington, the democracy “backlash” erupted. Be careful what you wish for, they said. Too much of a good thing – in this case, democracy – can be bad. The ghosts of Algeria had come back to haunt us, and the Bush administration backed away. To believe and to act were different things. In the administration’s revised calculation, they were even contradictory.

There was, after all, another, more important war raging in the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah and Mosul. As the country plunged into horrific sectarian violence, the Bush administration’s resources and attention were increasingly focused on stabilising Iraq. To do so, it needed the full co-operation of repressive Arab dictatorships, in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. And, as in so much else, Bush’s fortunes would rise and fall with Iraq’s. For the remainder of his presidency, they would fall, along with his approval ratings.

The path Bush chose to take in Iraq was not entirely of his own doing. He fell into a trap. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, America was consumed, understandably, by rage and a desire for vengeance. This was our first and most consequential mistake. It would be too easy to blame Bush for acting upon what so many of us, as Americans, felt. The objective of the terrorist is to compel the target country to do something it otherwise wouldn’t. In this, sadly, Osama bin Laden and his associates succeeded. For an administration that already had a predilection to see the world in Manichean terms, the attacks of September 11 aggravated this tendency further.

Self-righteousness is the enemy of both reason and compromise. Ultimately, we needed to do two things: to understand the adversary, but, more importantly, to understand ourselves. We had, however, begun to lose our capacity for introspection.

The revelations regarding the Bush administration’s sanction and support of torture in Guantanomo Bay and through the practice of rendition continue to leak out. The hypocrisy was stunning. Here was a president supposedly staking his fortunes on freedom and democracy in the Middle East. But both far and not so far from home, we were acting the same way autocrats in the region always had. This was not lost on the dictators themselves.

It wasn’t lost on the reformers, liberal and Islamist alike, struggling bravely against their regimes. There was a Muslim Brotherhood reformer, Khaled Hamza, who I came to know well over the course of several trips to Egypt. He was unusual for a Brother. He would always suggest we meet at City Stars, Egypt’s biggest mall. He would call it ma’bad al ‘awlama, or “the temple of globalisation.” It was the one place where he “could lose himself.” It was like America “in your room,” he told me another time, his eyes lighting up. Where many Brotherhood leaders I met seemed genuinely angry at America, Hamza expressed, instead, a deep sadness. I would later learn that Hamza had had a giant American flag up on his wall when he was a teenager. I wasn’t surprised. I knew why he had it up. It always seemed to me that the way some Arabs “hate” America was partly a function of the fact that they held us to a higher standard, a standard we had failed to meet. During the Bush years, this failure had become, in a way it never had before, nearly complete.

I wonder how Bush administration officials were able to withstand so much dissonance between words and deeds, between what was and what it was they wanted. On Monday, after a meeting of the Quartet (remember them?), the outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opined: “we didn’t talk much about democracy in the Middle East. As a result, we probably contributed to what the Arab Human Development Report called a ‘freedom deficit’ in the Middle East.” At least she didn’t use the passive tense. In trying to reinterpret the past, and expressing mild, detached regret, Rice has continued a long tradition of world leaders acknowledging grave mistakes only when it is too late.

Bush, as is his wont, has been less forthcoming. “How do you want to be remembered, and what are you most proud of?” The interviewer, in this instance, was his sister Doro Bush Koch. His reply that “I came to Washington with a set of values, and I’m leaving with the same set of values,” reflects a tendency toward both cliché and stubbornness. But it is worse than that. Unable to point to any great accomplishments at home (Katrina, economic crisis) or abroad, Bush has chosen himself as the point of reference. He can never fail because the only measure of success is his own. Indeed, he may have come to Washington as a “good” man. He will most certainly leave Washington a small one.

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.