Posted by: Shaun | May 19, 2008

Can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

President Bush recently wrapped up a Middle Eastern foray meant to pay homage to Israel’s 60th year of statehood, prod along the Palestinian peace process, and beg Saudi Arabia for oil. So what did he choose for a grand finale? Another insipid call for Arab democracy, devoid of any comprehension of the enormous challenges such a project entails nor the consequences for public diplomacy of such an exhortation when viewed along side his laudatory address to the Israeli Knesset.

Leaving aside the practical and philosophical problems of Bush’s democracy crusade for a moment, let’s first consider how his remarks played in the Middle East. After one journalist pressed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the likely perception of Bush’s words as further evidence of a pro-Israel bias in administration policy, she responds:

SECRETARY RICE: […] I haven’t heard how they’re viewing it. I know that these allies know they have a very strong ally in President Bush. You know, it would have been interesting to see if that was a view from Iraqis, for instance, who’ve been liberated from Saddam Hussein. […]

And these are discussions that the President and I and all of us have with Arab leaders all the time. The Middle East needs change. It needs reform. This is not the first time the President has said it. It’s not the last time that he’s going to say it. We do it in a spirit of respect for them and for their traditions, but also in an understanding that when you have a region that’s producing fewer patents than South Korea alone, you have a problem. But it’s not just something the United States has said. You remember, the Arab Human Development reports that talk about the need for change.

But, you know, the President isn’t pro-this or pro — the President is pro-democracy and pro-peace — and pro-peace. And he has stood for a Palestinian state, he’s pressed, through Annapolis, to bring together the coalition of states that can support it, and now he’s pressing both sides to come to an agreement. And that’s being in favor of both sides, because both sides need a say.

There are some in the Arab world who beg to differ with Secretary rice:

“The president was himself, finally. Maybe because this is the end of his political career,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister and now a lecturer at Birzeit University. “This is actually him. This is George Bush the human being, not the politician. . . . I always thought he was a Christian Zionist and a fundamentalist ideologue.” […]

Hani Masri, a Palestinian columnist for the newspaper Al Ayyam, said, “Bush is trying to wash his hands from his promise. All his Middle East policies have failed, in Iraq, Lebanon and now here. So he tries to appear that he is fighting for democracy just for the sake of his legacy.”

Once more, the President has shown himself to be oblivious to the impact of his words on Arab, and especially Palestinian, public opinion; something that will have to change if he really expects to make progress in brokering a settlement between Israel and Palestine.

Bush has also once more demonstrated a profound historical ignorance in pressing for the rapid democratization of the Middle East. This is not because “Arabs aren’t ready” for democracy; it is because Arab states are not ready for democracy. The legal, social, and political institutions upon which liberal democracy is dependent, by and large, do not yet exist in the Near East. Oft forgotten are the centuries of accumulated common law, civil liberties, and gradual enfranchisement that led to democracy in the English speaking world.

The Middle East has yet to experience this process, or rather its own indigenous version of such. Consequently, when democracy is imposed prematurely, the result is a country in which majority political factions use the levers of government to bolster their own power and repress their opponents, just as the ruling Shia factions have done in Iraq. And, of course, there is the old problem of democratic outcomes that aren’t in line with American interests, such as the victories of Hamas in the Palestinian elections and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s 2005 vote. Strange how there’s been so little White House criticism of the virtual repudiation of those results…

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