Why George W. Bush is the Arab Spring's forgotten man

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 6, 2011 

WASHINGTON — On Nov. 6, 2003, then President George W. Bush gave a major foreign policy address in which he called for the spread of democracy across the Middle East, an appeal that seems to be resonating in this year of Arab Spring revolts.

Yet less than three years after leaving office, Bush's name isn't associated with the uprisings from Cairo to Tripoli, and he gets little credit for having inspired them.

That's in marked contrast with President Ronald Reagan, whose 1987 exhortation "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" in Berlin became the defining cry of a leader now lionized for having ended the Cold War.

In his speech eight years ago, delivered scarcely seven months after he'd invaded Iraq in the face of widespread international opposition, Bush sought to make freedom in the Middle East an extension of Reagan's legacy.

Addressing the National Endowment for Democracy on the 20th anniversary of its founding, Bush said Reagan had established the federal agency with the goal of bringing down the Soviet Union.

The time had come, Bush said, to launch a similar initiative in another critical part of the world.

"Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?" Bush asked. "Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never to have a choice in the matter? I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free."

Castigating his predecessors and allied leaders for "sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East," Bush proclaimed:

"The United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," one that would require "the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before."

But today, even as democratic rumblings shake the region, Bush is the forgotten man.

Analysts cite many reasons why Bush's grand vision isn't broadly tied to the fledging freedom wave across the Middle East.

Their reasons for the disconnect range from Bush, like previous U.S. presidents, having backed some of the region's dictators to an Iraq invasion that felled a despot but became a long occupation with a still-murky outcome.

Murhaf Joujati, a member of the Syrian National Council opposition coalition, said Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric was undermined by his continuing support for some of the Middle East strongmen who've fallen in recent months.

"President Bush was a great friend of (deposed Egyptian leader Hosni) Mubarak," Joujati told McClatchy. "It was under President Bush that bilateral relations between the United States and Libya under (slain dictator Moammar) Gadhafi were restored. Renditions happened in which folks were sent to places like Tunisia to be tortured. So Bush should not be counted as a major factor in the Arab Spring."

Joujati said the Middle East revolts would have happened without Bush.

"There's been an acceleration of grievances throughout the Arab world from Morocco all the way to Bahrain," he said. "They are similar grievances among younger people who have higher unemployment but are more educated than previous generations, facing corrupt dictatorships with mismanagement and nepotism.

"They have been exposed to international events through satellite dishes and the Internet, so it all came to a head early this year in Tunisia and spread like wildfire. Bush was certainly not a major factor."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a military lawyer who's served active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, thinks that's a premature judgment pending the outcome of fast-moving events that may take a decade or longer to play out in the Middle East.

"President Bush deserves credit for creating a spirit that even in the Middle East, where grudges are held forever, things can change and Islamic governments can accommodate the rule of law, tolerance, democracy and other concepts we take for granted," Graham said.

Daniele Pletka, a foreign policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, said the replacement of repressive regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan with democratic governments, however fragile, is a historic triumph for Bush.

"Of course he should be getting credit because he socialized the world to the notion that somehow democracy was possible in the Arab world," she said. "This was an almost ridiculous notion before his presidency. And we shouldn't discount the liberation of 50 million Muslims who'd lived under oppressive Afghan and Iraqi rule."

Pletka, though, added that Bush's actions sometimes contradicted his pronounced aim of spreading democracy in the Middle East.

"Mubarak decided he wanted to anoint his son to be his successor, and sure enough when his son visited Washington in 2006, he got a meeting with President Bush," Pletka said.

"When Gadhafi wanted to pretend that he was reformer, his biggest advocates were in the U.S. State Department, but he remained the same man he'd always been," she said. "If you have a freedom agenda, it can't be just freedom from weapons of mass destruction. It has to also be about open elections and human rights."

In his landmark address eight years ago, Bush made a bold prediction about the eventual impact of his controversial decision to send troops to Baghdad and take down Saddam Hussein.

"Iraqi democracy will succeed," he said. "And that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

Fifteen months later, when he delivered his second inaugural address in January 2005, Bush was still pushing democracy as a universal principle.

"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," he said. "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

But in a striking reversal from his address to the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush didn't mention Iraq. Just as striking, he was silent on the Middle East.

By then, Bush's early "mission accomplished" optimism about Iraq had given way to the sober recognition that establishing even the semblance of democracy there could take years, and would cost billions of dollars and many American lives to see it through.

Gregory Gause, a University of Vermont expert on the Middle East who has advised senior diplomats and intelligence officials in the last three presidential administrations, said the invasion of Iraq had an initial impact on its neighbors.

"Syria withdrew from Lebanon," he said. "In Libya, Gadhafi decided to give up his weapons of mass destruction programs. There were some ripple effects in the region immediately."

Over time, however, as U.S. forces got bogged down in Iraq and Bush backed dictators who weren't much different from Saddam in other countries, the invasion's impact dissipated.

Another key moment came in 2005 when, having pushed for free elections in the Middle East, Bush rejected the results of Palestinian local elections won by Hamas, which the United States views as a terrorist organization.

That decision, Gause said, cost Bush credibility among many Arabs already prone toward skepticism about his freedom agenda.

"I don't think Iraq is really a model for the people who are making these revolutions in 2011," Gause said. "In terms of what many people hope is a democratic wave in the Middle East, I really don't see Bush administration policies as having been all that central."

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