by Barry Rubin
In one of his first statements since leaving office, former president George W. Bush commented on Middle East developments in a May 18 Wall Street Journal article titled “The Arab Spring and American Ideals.” It is worth remarking briefly on how his remarks reflect certain American misconceptions regarding these events, misconceptions shared by almost no one in the Middle East.
Bush writes: “We do not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East or elsewhere. We only get to choose what side we are on.”
While one should not overestimate US influence, one should not underestimate it either. Consider:
• In the Gaza Strip, by supporting the inclusion of Hamas in elections in which it was not qualified to participate (since it had not accepted the Oslo accords), Bush’s own administration ensured there would be a radical Islamist revolution in the Gaza Strip. This weakened the already dim prospects for any Israel-Palestinian peace process, has already caused one war and will almost certainly be the cause of others.
• In Lebanon, by refusing to give strong support to moderate forces, the previous two presidents ensured the “freedom revolution” in that country would end in an Iran-Syria-Hezballah takeover.
• In Egypt, by taking the side not only of a total overthrow of the regime but also openly and unilaterally supporting the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood government, the Obama administration helped ensure the fundamental transformation of Egypt began with the inevitable end: an anti-freedom Islamist regime.
• In Iran, by ignoring the upsurge of protest following the stolen election, the Obama administration ensured that a “freedom revolution” didn’t get started there.
• In Syria, by refusing for all practical purposes to help the rebels, the US government ensured that the “freedom revolution” would be defeated. Equally bad, by giving disproportionate help to the Islamists, the administration made it far more likely that if the rebellion succeeded it wouldn’t be a “freedom revolution.”
• And finally, in Libya, the United States and its European allies determined pretty much everything, overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi and determining who would rule the country.
Thus, a simple claim by Bush, which is also about the closest he and Obama would come to total agreement on any issue, is easily and demonstrably proven false. One hallmark of those favoring “neoconservative” positions is their lack of knowledge about the actual Middle East.
But that’s not all. The most important point of all is this: “We only get to choose what side we are on.” The underlying assumption here is that there are two sides: evil dictatorship and noble democracy advocates.
In fact, there are three sides:
• Dictatorships of various levels of repressiveness, some of which are friendly and some sworn enemies of the United States.
• Moderate democracy advocates who want freedom in the Western sense of the word.
• Revolutionary Islamists who want a new, and anti-American, dictatorship run by themselves.
During the Cold War, American policymakers were very much aware of this three-part distinction (the third being Communists, in that case). They didn’t always choose correctly, but tried to evaluate each situation seriously. Sometimes they chose the dictators; sometimes they chose the democrats and sometimes they even helped nudge the dictators (usually military juntas and especially in Latin America) into returning to the barracks and letting democracy resume.
No such careful process goes on now. In fact, the Obama administration has repeatedly done the opposite.
Bush also reflects Obama in using the be-on- the-right-side-of-history argument, a fatal flaw in a president of the United States, who should be making choices based on US interests.
Here is Bush’s argument, annotated by me: “The idea that Arab peoples are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever.”
Again, the question is which kind of oppression we’re talking about. They are either willing, or can be forced, into getting rid of the old Arab nationalist oppression and then substituting Islamist oppression for it. Bush argues as if they can jump out of the frying pan with no danger of ending up in the fire.
“ …America, they [presumably policymakers] argue, should be content with supporting the flawed leaders they know in the name of stability.”
If you want a list I can easily show that this realist, US interests-based policy has worked for decades. True, there are times when a revolutionary situation exists, but these are relatively few and far between.
For example, Egyptian dictatorships ruled from 1952 to 2010 without facing a single serious internal revolutionary threat. So how America handles those brief crisis periods help determine what happens for decades into the future.
By the way, Bush speaks of “supporting the flawed leaders,” so does that imply the alternative leaders aren’t flawed, perhaps even more flawed? Perhaps the “flawed leaders they know” do not number among their flaws a tendency to sponsor terrorism, commit aggression against their neighbors and do everything they can to hurt the United States.
The czar, the Weimar republic, the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, the regime of Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia, and the shah, for example, were all deeply flawed. Now what about the regimes that replaced them? It would be better to make a distinction in setting policy: overthrow anti-American dictatorships (Iran, Syria, Gaza Strip) and support indispensable pro-American ones that are less oppressive than their counterparts (formerly Egypt, formerly Lebanon, and still Jordan and Saudi Arabia).
Remember that a high percentage of those in the Middle East who don’t like US policy also hate the United States (and are not assuaged by America helping them gain power) and want Islamist dictatorship, or at least will vote for it for various reasons.
“But in the long run, this foreign policy approach is not realistic…”
Why? Suddenly revolution is inevitable in every Arab country and nothing is going to stop it? Ridiculous.
Consider the following:
• In Algeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain, opposition movements were suppressed with relative ease. The same would have happened in Libya if not for NATO’s intervention.
• In Egypt and Tunisia, revolutions didn’t take place not because the people united can never be defeated but because the armies sided with the opposition. Once you have the entire armed forces on your side revolution becomes a lot more likely.
“The years of transition that follow can be difficult. People forget that this was true in Central Europe, where democratic institutions and attitudes did not spring up overnight.”
Well, actually, in Central Europe “democratic institutions and attitudes” did “spring up overnight.” Why? It was because these concepts were deeply embedded in the culture and revived quickly when given the opportunity.
It’s the difference between humus in which seeds lie dormant awaiting the first rain and sandy soil that has only ever known drought.
The people in Central Europe were not about to vote for fascist movements as alternatives. And this situation has nothing to do with Middle Eastern realities.
But what’s most amazing of all on the Western scene is how thin the arguments made by Obama, Bush, the mass media and most “experts” are, and how easily they can be refuted by reference to history and evidence.
These counter-arguments are censored out of those spheres and so never get heard by the majority of Westerners. They will, however, be heard by history and will shape reality in the region.
This article was also published in the Jerusalem Post.Barry Rubin
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