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Bush's New Arab World

The president's Mideast-democracy project is faring better than you might think.

11:00 PM, Dec 14, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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REMEMBER THE "Arab Spring"? That ephemeral blip of, oh, six or seven weeks last February and March when scattered Bush critics second-guessed their opposition to the Iraq war and the president's Mideast-democracy project? Given that most Americans now deem the war a mistake, it's easy to forget that, only 9 months ago, conservatives and liberals alike were hailing George W. Bush as the 400-pound gorilla of a nascent transformation in Arab politics.

Those were heady days for the administration. During the infant stages of Beirut's "Cedar Revolution," Lebanese Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt--hardly a pro-American stooge--remarked that the January 30th Iraqi elections had torn down a "Berlin Wall" of autarkic sclerosis and midwifed "a new Arab world." Spurred by the killing of their popular prime minister, thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in an astounding spectacle. The stock character in Jumblatt's "new Arab world" was a youthful demonstrator baying for responsive governance. Lebanon's Assad-backed puppet soon resigned, and Syria's occupying troops began packing their bags. Meanwhile, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president-for-life, sanctioned multi-party elections, Iraqi crowds gathered to denounce terrorism, and notable swathes of Palestinians rebuked the Arafat-linked kleptocrats running their affairs.

Amidst the progress in Iraq, the spate of 1989-style "people power" protests, and Mubarak's unprecedented call for a free vote, many American liberals--along with a host of their counterparts in Canada and Western Europe--found themselves wondering if the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent push for Iraqi democracy might have been worth the trouble after all. One by one, like falling dominoes, a veritable "Who's Who" of Bush bashers stepped forward to request a sizable helping of crow.

Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn went first. "It is time to set down in type the most difficult sentence in the English language," Gwyn wrote after watching Iraqis trek to the polls. "That sentence is short and simple. It is this: Bush was right." Well then. The New York Times editorial page gave Bush his due--the administration could "claim a healthy share of the credit" for having "boldly proclaimed the cause of Middle East democracy at a time when few in the West thought it had any realistic chance." Not to be outdone was Comedy Central's philosopher-comic, Jon Stewart. "What if Bush . . . has been right about this all along?" he asked on his Daily Show. "I feel like my worldview will not sustain itself and I may . . . implode." One day, Stewart joked, "my kid's gonna go to a high school named after [Bush]."

Across the pond, Claus Christian Malzahn wrote a remarkable cover story for Germany's Der Spiegel. "Germany loves to criticize U.S. President George W. Bush's Middle East policies--just like Germany loved to criticize former president Ronald Reagan," Malzahn wrote. "But Reagan, when he demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev remove the Berlin Wall, turned out to be right. Could history repeat itself?" Nor were French and British leftists immune to the contagion. "The merit of George Bush is to have held firm to his discourse from the day after 9/11," acknowledged an editorial in Le Monde. "He developed the idea that the Muslim peoples have the right to freedom, to democracy, to prosperity." London's Independent captured the baffled sentiments of many Europeans with its front-page headline, "Was Bush Right After All?"

GOOD QUESTION. Here's another: What exactly has changed since then? The Iraqi political process continues apace. For those keen on "timetables," America has yet to miss a single deadline in managing Iraq's post-Saddam transition. The Sunni Arabs, who now realize how foolish their election boycott proved last winter, turned out in droves to vote in the October 15th constitutional referendum (albeit, in most cases, to cast a "no" ballot) and are expected to vote in even greater numbers in this week's parliamentary poll. After a recent visit to Iraq, Sen. Joe Lieberman wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he "was thrilled to see a vigorous political campaign, and a large number of independent television stations and newspapers covering it."

Elsewhere in the Mideast, Egypt held its first multi-candidate presidential election this past September, which, though tainted by the ruling party's shenanigans, nevertheless marked a watershed. "The country's old authoritarian system has broken apart," reported Washington Post columnist David Ignatius from Cairo. Absent the Bush administration's "nagging," opined the Economist, "Mr. Mubarak would never have considered for a second that he should let himself be challenged at the polls for the top job. However clumsy in its promotion and debatable its motives, America's campaign for democracy in the Middle East is making progress."