by Barry Rubin
In his second inaugural speech, January 20, President George W. Bush focused to a remarkable extent on promoting democracy in the world. While not mentioning specific countries or even regions, this policy is obviously directed mainly at the Middle East. Thus, he has chosen this issue–and not the war on terrorism–as the central theme of his next four years.
Why did he do this and what does this apparent orientation mean for U.S. Middle East policy? For one thing, putting the emphasis on democracy promotion is an easy and “clean” theme. It very much fits with the American self-image of doing good in the world. In large part, too, the U.S. ability to support democracy and reform requires mainly words and small appropriations of money, being far more under direct U.S. control than such titanic tasks–so much dependent on foreign factors as well–as solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, bringing peace to Iraq, or wiping out Islamist terrorists.
What should be apparent but is hidden by the absolutely poisonous political hatreds now prevalent in the United States between “liberals” and “conservatives” is that it is also essentially a liberal policy. Historically, the conservative President John Quincy Adams was the father of American skepticism about promoting democracy abroad; the liberal President Woodrow Wilson is identified with the kind of approach Bush now advocates. Traditionally, liberals emphasized “idealistic” concepts about encouraging reform and more liberty abroad (even in the fight against Communism) while conservatives usually pushed to the fore such ideas as national interest and realpolitik.
If politics were logical, one could more easily imagine many of Bush’s ideas in the mouth of Bill Clinton when he was president; while Bush’s enemies sound more like his own father–former President George Bush–who was a typical conservative in emphasizing efforts to get along with existing governments. Instead we have the nasty but successful propaganda phrase, “neo-conservative,” adopted foolishly even by its targets. This is meant to imply that Bush’s policy is both “conservative” and Jewish, since Jews constituted many of the supporters for a previous–and completely unrelated–political philosophy by that name.
In strictly Middle Eastern terms, three important points should be made about this theme:
Finally, of course, there are four big issues that the Bush Administration must face: Iraq, the war on terror, Arab-Israeli relations, and a nuclear Iran.
To some extent, of course, these can be linked to the democratization issue. Presumably, if democracy succeeds in Iraq that country will enjoy peace and moderation. Supposedly, democracy among Palestinians will bring peace on that front. Real democracy might bring an alternative to Iran’s radical regime and undercut the motive for terrorism. These ideas are not ridiculous but they are not necessarily true either. For example, elections in Iraq could bring to power non-democratic forces, inspire disputes that engender more violence, and further inflame the revolt of a Sunni minority that sees itself permanently out of power. An elected Palestinian leader may be too weak or demagogic to change that movement’s policy. As for Iran and terrorism, the prospect of democratic reform is too distant to change much, at least for many years to come.
Support for democratization, then, may be a proper short-term theme and long-term strategy but is not a comprehensive policy. During the next four years, the Bush Administration is going to have to deal with issues and crises lying outside of its scope:
January 25, 2004
Republished by permission of GLORIA.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. Prof. Rubin’s other columns can be read online at http://gloria.idc.ac.il/columns/column.html.