Mon, Jul 05, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Meddling in the Middle East

Bush is right about the lack of freedom in the Middle East, but wrong about its causes and solution

By Jonathan Freedland  /  THE GUARDIAN , London


US President George W. Bush may not have read much history, but he likes making it. The recent run of insider accounts of the Bush White House show him as a man with a constant eye on the historians of the future, anxious to lend every moment semi-Churchillian gravitas in an effort to make him look good in the decades to come.

So it was a week ago when he was handed a note that declared "Iraq is sovereign," immediately scrawling on it "Let freedom reign!" -- as if ready for instant display behind the glass case at the future George W Bush presidential library.

Those three words confirm how Bush sees himself and how he wants to be seen -- as a latter-day George Washington leading subject peoples to liberty.

He has in mind not only the Iraqi nation but all the people of what he calls the Greater Middle East. The "liberation of Baghdad" is but the first step toward the transformation of the entire region.

It is not a secret plan, contained only in classified memoranda. On the contrary, Bush has declared it loudly and proudly, returning to the theme again last week in Istanbul. He articulated it most clearly in a speech last November to the National Endowment for Democracy where he set out how, though there were now 120 functioning democracies in the world, the wave of self-rule had barely touched the Middle East. Democracy had made inroads in Latin America and Asia, but had still failed to make a dent in the Arab world. Why not, he asked, "Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism?"

Bush went on to reject such "cultural condescension," insisting that liberty is universal. He called on the Arab states to open up -- to respect the rule of law, recognize the equal rights of women and allow political pluralism and free speech.

For my money, it was the best speech Bush has ever given, because on this fundamental point he is surely right. One has only to flick through the 2002 joint report of the UN development program and the Arab fund for economic and social development to see why.

This document, written by a group of Arab intellectuals, bursts with findings as stunning as they are bleak. All 22 Arab states combined, oozing as they are with natural resources and the black gold that is oil, still have a GDP smaller than Spain's and less than half that of California. Education is in a dire state: the whole Arab world translates around 300 books annually, one-fifth the number translated by Greece alone. Rates of Internet connection, the Arab scholars found, were less than those in sub-Saharan Africa.

What's more, the Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza are not the only Arabs to be denied fundamental democratic rights. Using the widely accepted freedom index -- which assesses everything from civil liberties to government accountability and press freedom -- the Arab states come at the foot of the global league table. The report was especially damning on the exclusion of women, often denied the vote and access to a basic education: "Sadly the Arab world is largely depriving itself of the productivity and creativity of half its citizens."

Bush was right to draw attention to this story of oppression and failure. Nor can he be faulted for placing it in the context of his war against al-Qaeda. For if bin Ladenism feeds off anything it is surely the frustration and despair of those who have to live in such suffocating conditions. If the right approach to the current global conflict is the one advocated by the likes of Bill Clinton -- tough on terror, tough on the causes of terror -- then surely the foremost cause is the desperate state of the Arab world.

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