Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Bush's legacy and Arab democracy

Secretary of State Rice is in Egypt today, and the New York Times reports one topic not on the agenda is Egyptian democracy. That's sad news, but not surprising.

For all the mistakes made by this president, he deserves credit for being the first American president to seriously confront the possibility of democracy in the Middle East. Jimmy Carter promoted human rights, but his public record is slim in promoting democracy in the region. In fact, as Anwar Sadat became a hero for his peace initiatives, American leaders prominently overlooked his decaying record on the democratic front. And since then all administrations, both Republican and Democrat simply didn't raise the issue in any significant way.

In fact there is a strong tradition in American diplomacy that assumes the region just isn't ready or will ever be ready for democracy.

That is a canard, proven by the many struggles of democracy activists in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, everywhere. There are many reasons why democracy isn't flourishing in the region; but a lack of intellectual and political tradition isn't one of them.

Now Rice's silence suggests the game is up. The president will repeatedly refer to democratic hopes in the region, but it won't extend beyond that. The true tragedy of this is that by attempting to achieve Arab democracy through war in Iraq, he may have actually killed all hope and possibility for democratic change for at least another decade.

There was never any possibility that war in Iraq would bring democracy. The forces of war are simply too strong to bring anything but chaos, except in those rare examples where civil society to strong enough to withstand the war. After decades of Saddam Hussein crushing all facets of civil society other than religion, there was never any hope that this would occur in Iraq. It was a case of the tactics being at odds with the goals.

Whether President Bush ever recognized the democratic potential in the Arab world, whether he actually knew the names of the people who were doing the work he promoted, isn't clear.
But I presume he was sincere in promoting that vision. I look at the region now, and I still see activists maintaining heroic efforts against great obstacles. But more and more they are on the defensive -- defending themselves, defending democracy as a possibility, defending themselves from charges of Western and American influence.

And I fear it won't just be Condi Rice who maintains a silence on Arab democracy. I fear the lesson American politicians will learn is that there is no hope. And if that is the case, then that will be one of the worse legacies of the Bush administration.

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