ARABS MAY ONE DAY MISS GEORGE W. BUSH
By Dr. Michael Rubin
Different segments of Arab societies dislike George Bush for different reasons. Many Arabs outside government believe Bush tilts too much toward Israel. Lebanese cite with particular disdain U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's characterization of this Summer's violence as "birth pangs of a new Middle East." Others see the U.S. 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 U.S. policy tilts toward Israel has nothing to do with President Bush or any single American political party. While Arab commentators may find comfort in blaming a Jewish lobby, the real reason is more straightforward. To Americans, Israel is a constitutional democracy and, for decades, has been a consistent ally. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, U.S. presidential administrations favored Arab states for the practical reason that Arabs outnumbered Israelis and had oil; it was in the national interest of the U.S.A. to seek partnership with states 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 U.S.A., 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:
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 Middle Eastern 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 U.S. 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, 2006, 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 is sincere, but their reliance upon multiple security services signals their recognition of reality.
U.S. White House pressure for constitutional democratic reform antagonized these Arab leaders, as the whining nature of editorials in state-run newspapers demonstrated. Previous U.S. presidential administrations, both Democratic 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 U.S. foreign policy establishment as it was in Arab capitals. Many socalled "realists" criticized the White House for pressuring such longstanding allies. But Bush, at least initially, refused to accept that the only choice in the Middle East was between the rule of autocrats and the rule of theocrats. Against the advice of many career diplomats, he directed the U.S. State Department to help build a platform upon which constitutional democrats and political 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," or "pragmatists," 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 U.S. 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 constitutionalism, democracy, and political reform. Hatred of Bush trumps declared principles. Because Bush made democratization and reform the centerpiece of his Middle East strategy, many Western Liberal Leftists dismiss them as priorities or even as desirable goals. After all, in Liberal Leftist rhetoric, how can Bush be both an idiot and correct?
Instead of constitutional democracy, many Liberals have come to romanticize "resistance." They have become attracted to the same rhetorical motifs projected by armed liberation movements of a generation past and by 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 advocates 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.
Israel -- The Israeli-Arab Conflict
The Middle East & the Problem of Iraq
Page Two Page One
The Problem of Rogue States:
Iraq as a Case History
National Strategy for Victory in Iraq
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
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International Politics & World Disorder:
War & Peace in the Real World
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Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
U.S. National Security Strategy
Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr Rubin is author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) and is co-author, with Dr. Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Rubin served as political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003-2004); staff advisor on Iran and Iraq in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2002-2004); visiting lecturer in the Departments of History and International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2001-2002); visiting lecturer at the Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan (2000-2001); Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1999-2000); and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University (1999-2000). He has been a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University, and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
The foregoing article by Dr. Rubin was originally published in The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon), December 1, 2006, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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