A mistake I frequently make as a political observer is believing conservatives mean what they say. Not that I often agree with them…but the things they put forth as policy are framed in such passion and earnest self-righteousness, I just can’t help thinking they must be sincere this time. And all too often, my faith turns out yet again to be naïve and misplaced.
In 2005 during the inaugural address for his second term, George W. Bush delivered these stirring words:
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.
As early as 2003, George Bush had apparently envisioned this powerful grass-roots democratic movement starting in Egypt. Speaking to the National Endowment For Democracy in November of 2003, Bush said:
The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East. Champions of democracy in the region understand that democracy is not perfect, it is not the path to utopia, but it is the only path to national success and dignity.
This was not just Bush’s personal vision, but the stated policy of his administration in 2006:
More broadly, the Bush Administration has viewed democracy promotion as an instrument for combating terrorism. Both the U.S. executive and legislative branches of government support democracy promotion in other countries. The Bush Administration has implemented both bilateral and multilateral programs to promote democracy, such as the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), and requested about $1.5 billion for democracy promotion in FY2008. Also, it has identified governing justly and democratically as a key objective of its foreign aid policies.
And, of course, the value to our security and prosperity of “promoting democracy” in the Middle East was repeated incessantly during the course of the Bush administration by conservatives everywhere as a completely viable justification for the costly war in Iraq, even absent Weapons of Mass Destruction or any overt threat to America from Saddam Hussein’s régime.
But then two things happened and everything changed, seemingly overnight. The first was Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States, and the second was a spontaneous, grassroots uprising across the Middle East, an “Arab Spring” in nations seeking to throw off the yoke of authoritarianism and begin to govern themselves.
Suddenly and inexplicably, western conservatives began to lose their enthusiasm for democracy in the Middle East. It was no longer a joyous event to be fervently desired, resulting in Americans being showered with candy and flowers by grateful liberated peoples. Instead it morphed into something dark, sinister and threatening to western interests.
We began to see many articles like this one from right-wing commentators and bloggers, mocking Barack Obama’s gullibility for believing in the Arab Spring:
Despite the fact that the Islamists are widely expected to win a majority in the Egyptian elections, Barack Obama is preparing a speech praising the Arab Spring. Obama intends to make the point that shooting Bin Laden in the eye and the uprisings and overthrow of several pro-American regimes will usher in a new era of political change in the Middle East. Seems a bit foolish, doesn’t it?
Or this one, telling us that Muslims are neither historically, culturally nor ideologically capable of functioning within a true democracy:
Most people like the idea of democracy, it’s the idea that the people you hate get just as many votes as you do, that they don’t like. That’s why Muslims will play the game of democracy, but only until they score enough goals that they can take the net home with them. Tolerance was only a virtue in Islam, when Mohammed and his handful of followers needed to rely on the goodwill of people who didn’t like them. But once the sandal was on the other foot, the swords really began to fall. And so did the heads. That’s why the Arab Spring is fated to end in a Muslim Winter.
Or this one by former neoconservative hawk Andrew McCarthy, in which he sounds both angry with the media for promoting democracy, and more than a bit nostalgic for deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak:
Why is the situation in Egypt so dangerous? Because the “Arab Spring” is not the Arab Spring. It is the Islamist ascendancy. Like good democracy fetishists, though, the media is seeing the Egypt it wants to see. To the contrary, in the real Egypt, Islamist ideology is the mainstream, coursing from the beating heart of Al-Azhar University through every part of the country. Without the much-derided Mubarak around to clamp down on it, Islamists have Copts and secularists paralyzed by their habitual unrest and clashes.
Most recently we have had the shocking and embarrassing spectacle of Republicans openly siding with the leader of another nation, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who lectured the President of the United States, in public, for expressing a view on Mideast peace negotiations that has been the settled policy of the United States for decades.
So there you have it. Forget all that rapturous support of George W. Bush’s dream to bring democracy to the Middle East, with Egypt leading the way. When people in that part of the world rise up to bring democracy to their own nations, it is no longer a noble and necessary development; it is something to be feared. The residents of those countries are Islamists and terrorists whose freedom now poses a threat to the West and to Israel. They cannot be trusted with democracy, because they are too primitive and unstable to handle it. What’s more, they’ve always been that way, and Barack Obama is gullible and naïve to think otherwise.
So which is it? Are conservatives lying now because the Arab Spring is happening under a different president…or were they lying for all those years when they supported democracy in the Middle East, which was advanced by George Bush as a primary justification for the Iraq war?
It’s a difficult question. I leave the answer up to you.
- The Struggle For Middle East Democracy (3quarksdaily.com)
- Ted Koppel: Scrap the Notion of Arab ‘Democracy,’ It’s Not Happening Any Time Soon (papundits.wordpress.com)
- Ben Stein: “Arab Spring” is a fraud (cbsnews.com)