May 26, 2005
First Lady Laura Bush just finished a goodwill tour of the Middle East, bravely entering hostile territory where her husband is too prudent to tread. As one of the nicest, most gracious people to have taken up residence in Washington for many years, Mrs. Bush could not fail to shed favorable light on the United States. Her sincerity and kindness more than make up for "W"'s sometimes off-putting rustic swagger. True, she did encounter some rude heckling during a stroll in Israeli-occupied Jericho, but she seemed to come out of it just fine. Her visit was more than just a public relations gesture, however, it was part of the long-term Bush agenda of democratizing the Middle East, putting that hot-button issue in sharp relief. Indeed, there are so many intriguing political cross-currents in that part of the world that it takes some effort to get a sense of where things are headed, and at what pace.
Mrs. Bush raised eyebrows while visiting Egypt when she gave high praise to President Hosni Mubarak's plan to hold elections later this year, calling it "a very bold step." Many people doubt that Mubarak is truly serious, however, seeing his planned gradual transition to liberal democracy as tentative half-measures. At present, Egypt is a classic one-party state, a place in which making corrupt deals with government officials is the only sure way to get ahead in life. It is precisely that kind of discouraging, soul-deadening socio-economic system in most Arabic and Islamic countries that gives rise to the pathological mixture of hatred, envy, and admiration for the United States and the Western world. Hence, it's no surprise that short-term democratic impulses are likely to be radical in nature, and groups such as the Islamic Brotherhood might well gain a political foothold in Egypt if Mubarak really intended to follow through with liberalization.
Hopes for a genuine transition to democracy almost vanished yesterday, however, as a national referendum on Mubarak's plan was marred by bloody clashes in Cairo. Mobs led by Mubarak's "National Democratic Party" beat anti-government protesters, targetting women as the police stood by. See Washington Post. Coming so soon after the First Lady's visit, this crude exercise of brutal repression made the U.S. position look either hypocritical or impotent. Until the Bush Doctrine can be given real substance -- by means of a commitment of substantial resources -- most people in that part of the world will regard whatever the United States does with deep suspicion. The point to remember, however, is that the governments of both Egypt and the United States are in a painful dilemma of their own creation. The U.S. has provided massive subsidies to the Sadat-Mubarak regime for a full generation; this was what made possible the Camp David peace accords of 1978. We have been "renting" peace year after year ever since, under the assumption that Egypt is a "keystone" state that serves as a guidepost for the region, but in the process we have become deeply complicit in the illiberal status quo regime in Cairo. Mubarak is in the same position as Mikhail Gorbachev was: Even if he sincerely wants to liberalize his regime, he knows he is doomed to lose power and possibly throw the country into chaos if anything goes awry. Hopes that we might be able to convert all those past "peace rental payments" into equity to purchase a permanent liberal regime change more to our liking are in vain. The United States might be able to exert some positive influence on the regime transition getting underway in Egypt, but not much.
Speaking to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee on Monday, Condoleeza Rice declared that peace between Arabs and Jews is mainly up to Mahmoud Abbas. He is considered the most moderate of the Palestinian leaders, and doesn't have much room to maneuver as he tries to persuade the radical factions to give up their violent tactics. Today Bush met with Abbas at the White House and pledged $50 million to used for new housing and infrastructure projects in Gaza, a rather modest sum for such a monumental problem. (By comparison, it's not nearly enough to build a new baseball stadium.) At the press conference, Bush was full of warm praise for Abbas, but he reportedly put heavy pressure on Abbas to reign in the terrorists. See cnn.com. The U.S. government has been (rightly) skeptical of Palestinian pledges ever since Yassir Arafat reneged on his commitment to peace, and if Bush wants to convince Palestinians that his attitude has changed, he should make sure that more follow-up aid is forthcoming.
Nearly three months after President Bashar Assad promised to do so, the withdrawal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon appears to be virtually complete. U.N. monitors are unable to verify whether any Syrian secret agents remain, but no one doubts that a substantial number did stay behind to maintain leverage with Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. The Syrians will be hard pressed to halt the burgeoning democracy movement in Lebanon, which was galvanized into action by the brutal bombing murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who dared to resist Syrian control. Of all the countries in the Middle East, Lebanon has had the most encouraging news for democracy. Within his own country, Assad has made some token reform gestures in recent months, but his country is even more of a pressure cooker than Egypt is. The regime he inherited from his father Hafez Assad in 2000 derives its political strength from the minority Alawite clan, which has stayed in power by ruthlessly suppressing rival clans. It is much like the way Saddam Hussein used to run Iraq based on his clan centered in Tikrit. The long-term systematized repression by the Baathist party military regimes in both countries crippled civil society, much like the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union under Stalin or Romania under Ceausescu, boding ill for the future growth of democracy. Assad maintains popular legitimacy by appealing to nationalist sentiment, through exerting control over Lebanon, defying U.S. pressure, and giving moral or material support to the Baathist remnants in Iraq.
The political objective behind the terrible recent wave of suicide car bombings in Iraq is all too apparent: to derail democracy before it has a chance to become established. The country managed to overcome its deep internal divisions and form a new government earlier this month, though some Sunni politicians boycotted the negotiating sessions. The recent U.S. offensive against insurgents based along on the border with Syria has implications beyond merely pacifying Iraq, as most of the suicide bombers apparently come from other Arab countries through Syria, possibly undergoing training there. Condoleeza Rice's surprise visit to Iraq underline how important that battle is for turning the the against the extremists. By coincidence, British Labor MP George Galloway testified to Congress about his part in the "oil for food" scandal. He was completely unrepentant and launched a blistering attack on U.S. policy in Iraq. freedom. See weeklystandard.com The fact that so many people share Galloway's point of view and turn a blind eye to the obvious financial incentives that underlay French and Russian opposition to the U.S.-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein shows how far we have to go in this long war over the cause of worldwide freedom. Listen to what many Democrats are still saying about Bush and the war to liberate Iraq, and it becomes painfully clear: The domestic front remains very shaky.
A wave protests throughout Central Asia was touched off by the bogus report early this month in Newsweek over the alleged descreation of the Koran; see May 18. This came in the midst of a general upsurge in anti-government protests in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, and two weeks ago President Islam A. Karimov ordered troops to fire on would-be insurrectionists, killing at least 300 people, according to official U.S. estimates. In terms of sheer numbers, it may rival the May 1989 Tien An-Men Square massacre in Beijing. The confluence of various chains of events makes it difficult to trace exactly what precipitated the bloodbath. Even though the turmoil there has not exactly grabbed the attention of most Americans, such events are a real cause for alarm, however, because that country hosts U.S. air bases that are used in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. (Now that Afghanistan is relatively secure if not entirely pacified, why do we still need bases in Uzbekistan?) The problem is that the U.S. has sought to cooperate with Karimov's government out of strategic necessity, even though that conflicts with the principles underlying the Bush foreign policy that rejects the old preference for stability at the cost of freedom. Gregory Djerejian writes of "Bush's long shadow" in that former Soviet republic, challenging those critics who charge that the United States is hypocritical in soft-pedaling democracy in Uzbekistan for strategic reasons. This will be a do-or-die test case for the Bush Doctrine. Interestingly, President Karimov just met with Chinese leaders, who showered him with praise. With a large Turkic Muslim minority (the Uighurs) in its western regions, Beijing has just as much to fear from Islamic militants, if not more, than Washington does.
The deadly violence touched off by Newsweek took many lives in Afghanistan as well. That country is making slow but certain progress in consolidating its new democratic regime, though regional warlords and Islamic extremists -- funded by narcotics traffickers -- still wield much power. The visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Washington this week was expected to be another one of those touchy-feely photo ops heralding a newly democratic state, but it turned out to be rather interesting. President Bush declined recently Karzai's request to have a greater role in overseeing operations by U.S. military forces in his country. U.S. officials criticized Karzai's weak approach to dealing with poppy growers and drug traders, but Karzai downplayed the differences between the two countries, saying "We are happy with what Washington is doing in Afghanistan." See Washington Post Karzai gives every appearance of being a serious, competent, resourceful leader, and it is hard to imagine anyone better suited for his extremely difficult job than him. Afghani civil society is emerging, and popular support for Muslim extremists is weakening.
In a breathtakingly sudden fashion, a popular uprising ousted President Askar Akayev in March, in what has become known as the "Tulip Revolution." He was one of the last leaders from the Soviet era who took over as the U.S.S.R. crumbled in 1991, and wrongly calculated that he could nullify the results of parliamentary elections. He fled to Moscow and, like Alberto Fujimori of Peru, submitted his resignation in absentia. Many Uzbek refugees took shelter in Kyrgyzstan during the crackdown against protest in their country two weeks ago. [x] It is too early to say whether a stable democracy will emerge there, but Kyrgyzians have clearly taken a big step in the right direction.
President Bush's recent visit to Georgia highlighted that country's welcome but still-shaky transition to real democracy. There is broad, popular support for the new government, and a strong awareness of the very real threat to the freedom they have so recently won. Georgia used to be run by former Soviet foreign minister Edward Shevardnadze, who was ousted two years ago in a popular uprising known as the "Rose Revolution." New President Mikhail Saakashvili has withstood Russian pressure [aiming to halt the Transcaucasion oil pipeline, which just opened today. Oil from Azerbaijan and the Caspian Basin no longer has to be pumped through Russian territory or loaded onto tankers at Russian ports. Cynics will sneer, of course, but the new pipeline significantly enhances the energy security of Western world. Saakashvili is also] cooperating with the United States in hunting for terrorist organizations that have bases in his country. Russians have denounced wealthy financier George Soros for his role in aiding the Georgian opposition, which is ironic because Soros is a bitter enemy of President Bush.
There are clearly signs of hope in most of these countries, especially in Lebanon and Georgia, but the enemies of freedom continue to resist fiercely. For example, the mullahs in Iran seem to have subdued the nascent liberalization movement there, using national pride in the country's nuclear program to deflect criticism. Saudi Arabia held local elections for the first time recently, and the strong showing by Islamic extremists there does not bode well for continued liberalization. If we are to accomplish President Bush's grand vision, therefore, we must accept the fact that there will be frustrating delays and occasional tactical defeats along the way. Democratization will take place over the course of decades, not months. In the May 16 Washington Post, Henry Kissinger called for a balance between the pursuit of democratic values and the heeding of geopolitical realities: "The United States has made clear its conviction that a democratic evolution reflecting popular aspirations is a long-term necessity. But it has not yet defined what it means either by that phrase or an appropriate evolutionary process." Realists such as Kissinger face a paradoxical challenge at this historical moment, which is to harmonize interests and values, rather than emphasize the former at the expense of the latter, as is their normal preference. To his credit, President Bush has urged caution and patience in the long pursuit of a more democracy in the Middle East. (See Washington Post.) Such words must be matched by a more realistic actions, however. Otherwise, the Bush Doctrine stands in danger of becoming another Carter Doctrine -- a vain, universal, idealistic appeal lacking due respect for either U.S. national interests or the interests of the other countries.