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.
So Bush is right in identifying the problem. Where he is wrong is in understanding its causes -- and in finding a solution.
To his credit, he does not imagine some innate Muslim or Arab incapacity for self-government: he attributes such attitudes to his enemies. But he speaks as if the Arab world became a desert for democracy through some strange act of nature, a freak accident with no rational explanation besides the evil rule of a couple of twisted dictators. What neither he, nor Tony Blair for that matter, ever acknowledges is the West's own culpability.
One does not have to be a placard-waving anti-imperialist to note that for nearly a century the Arab world has been on the receiving end of constant Western meddling. If they have not started to choose their own governments, that's partly because we kept (and keep) stopping them from doing so. Iraq is a case in point, as Britain repeatedly, from the 1920s to the 1950s, ensured that its governments was to our liking.
That pattern has been repeated across the region, from the tiny emirates created by a stroke of a Western pen, to mighty Egypt: first Britain and then America has always plotted and connived to secure a friendly face at the top, even if the price has been the denial of the people's will.
So Bush's rhetoric is all very well, but it would ring truer if it entailed an explicit renunciation of that colonial habit. And this is not ancient history. The US still props up hideous, human rights-abusing regimes so long as the top man remains "our son of a bitch."
Look no further than Bush's closest Arab chums, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. When Bush severs his links with the House of Saud over their beheadings, oppression of women, rank corruption and denial of basic human freedoms, then his words will have meaning.
But he is wrong on the solution, too. Democracy only very rarely flows from the barrel of a gun. Post-1945 Germany and Japan were surely the exceptions in exceptional circumstances. Even putting last year's war aside, the images of abuse in Abu Ghraib alone would disqualify America as a credible bringer of democracy to the Middle East.
Instead, that task will have to be performed by other people and in a different way. That does not mean a new European mandate to meddle, but rather a more creative use of influence. The first move will be a withdrawal of support from offending regimes, Riyadh and Cairo among them.
Next, aid and trade should be tied to democratic performance. A cheaper and less lethal way to create a democratic model in the Middle East than invading Iraq would have been to make Egypt's annual US$2 billion aid package from the US conditional on Cairo sharpening up its act in the liberty department. That would have done the trick, without a shot being fired.
The West could put current Arab and other tyrannies on notice that their only way back into the global community is not simply to arrest al-Qaeda suspects, but to grant basic freedoms to their own people.
Do that and then Bush will have every right to his rhetoric. He can proclaim "Let freedom reign!" at the top of his lungs.
But not till then.
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