Saturday, January 29, 2011

George W. Bush Was Right

Given that the above title is likely to annoy or amuse all 20 of my readers, I'll quickly explain why I believe it: part of the "Bush Doctrine" included efforts to reform authoritarian governments in the Arab world and to get them to grant more freedoms to political opposition in their countries. He was specifically targeting Egypt, the nation that now finds itself embroiled in large-scale demonstrations by its citizens.

The argument runs this way: America has involved itself in the affairs of the Middle East because of our need for the petroleum there. Political stability = economic stability because uprisings, terrorism, and the like make the price of oil head for low-Earth orbit. To ensure this stability, administrations both Republican and Democrat have tolerated "strong men" like Mubarak (or, once, Saddam Hussein) if they kept the oil flowing. This toleration has been especially important in Egypt because they are the only Arab nation to officially recognize the State of Israel. They're a major military power in the region. And, like Mubarak after him, Anwar Sadat for the most part kept the more radical elements in his nation under control. The fact that that control included a lot of very harsh prisons and torture was overlooked. Those who cling to a Wilsonian view of foreign policy believe that the U.S. should not just protect its own interests, but be a force for good, making the world "safe for democracy." As such, we should insist on good conduct from our allies--that they should behave like us.

Furthermore, there has been a view in some circles (especially just after 9/11) that the reason "they hate us" is that we have supported repressive regimes like Egypt or Saudi Arabia or (the pre-1979 Shah of) Iran. The first nation to take Bush's rhetoric about reform seriously was Lebanon, which had its "Cedar Revolution" in 2005, throwing out the repressive Ba'ath regime sponsored by Syria. Admittedly, it was another five years before another similar uprising occurred, this time in Tunisia, but happen it did, and the calls for freedom have been expanding elsewhere in the Middle East, most recently Egypt.

This will be an interesting and difficult test case for the Obama administration. Despite campaign rhetoric to the contrary, Obama has continued George W. Bush's foreign and anti-terrorism policies, albeit under a different "brand." American troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan to support legitimate, if tenuous, elected governments. Perhaps lovers of freedom in the Arab world have gotten the message that the U.S. is not leaving anytime soon. This is why Iraqis started helping American troops openly: they didn't fear that they'd be killed by their enemies as soon as America left, as happened in Vietnam, because we aren't leaving. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had the lead on this one. She has, probably wisely, taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the demonstrations, calling on restraint from the protestors and Mubarak alike. Tanks are in the streets as I type this, so odds are that Mubarak will take some sort of direct action soon. A violent crackdown is likely, as happened in Iran in 2009. However, unlike Iran, Egypt is a major--if not the most important--American ally in the region. Mubarak's actions reflect on the U.S., as the "Arab street" believes, perhaps rightly, that he does whatever America allows him to do.

But going back to my title here, George W. Bush had good reason to press for moderate reform among our regional allies after 9/11. We did not and do not need another radical state like Iran in the region, especially right next door to Israel. If moderate freedoms are not granted to the citizens of our allies, America will continue to be seen as a conquerer and tyrant, regardless of the freedoms now enjoyed in Iraq. Governments that continue to resist reform ultimately face revolution. We will see what happens next, but the lessons of history are there to be learned, from Louis XVI to Czarist Russia to the Shah's Iran to Tunisia. Whether authoritarians learn them or not remains to be seen.

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