President Bush's inaugural speech was delivered on the day Muslims around the world celebrated Eid Ul Azha, the festival marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. But, as soon as it was over, the state- run news media of authoritarian U.S. allies in the Middle East were quick to criticize it. Egypt's Al Ahram lamented that Bush made no reference to either Iraq or Palestine, the two most important issues in the region Bush hopes most to democratize. In the same vein, Saudi Arabia's Al-Watan noted, "'To end tyranny in our world,' as Bush said in his speech, is a highly rhetorical statement and titillating lyrics. ... Will Bush ever grant Palestinians their rights and return their land?"
Khaled Al Maeena, editor of the Saudi daily Arab News, matched Bush's rhetoric with rhetoric of his own: "No right-minded Arab man, woman, or child would like to live under tyranny. ... We also have a dream—like the American Dream—of upward mobility, of bettering ourselves, of providing a better future for our children. For all this we need peace." But then, turning Bush's words against U.S. support for Israel, Al Maeena wrote, "President Bush said: 'No one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.' And we want to hold him to his words. The Israelis cannot be masters of a land they occupied in June 1967, and the Palestinians cannot be slaves in their own land."
Coming as they did from the press organs of decidedly undemocratic states, such responses could be written off as self-serving and hypocritical. But pro- Western intellectuals and democracy activists in the Arab world were even more dismissive of Bush's speech. They focused not only on U.S. support for Israel and occupation of Iraq, but also on support for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other authoritarian governments. "How can one talk of democracy when Washington protects many tyrannical regimes for the sake of its own interests?" asked Rafiq Khouri, a columnist for Beirut's Al Nahar newspaper, questioning Bush's declaration that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. " And the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi wrote, "The Arab hates America for two main reasons: first, for its support of repressive, barbaric and backward regimes; and secondly, for its support of the Israeli aggression. As long as US policy remains the same, all US speeches about democracy and freedom will only be pretentious and meaningless."
THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION professes bewilderment at this skepticism and hostility. It apparently feels that people living under the region's authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes should greet its rhetoric with the same enthusiasm that cold war dissidents in Eastern Europe once greeted Ronald Reagan's calls for freedom and denunciations of evil. But, during the cold war, the United States openly opposed the communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain. At no time did the United States embrace or prop up Walter Ulbricht's German Democratic Republic or Gustav Husak's Czechoslovakia. At no time were such states treated with the deference accorded critical allies. American officials did not offer false praise for East European rulers, describing incremental political restructuring as "progress toward democracy," in return for specific policy favors.
By contrast, in the Middle East, the United States is seen as the principal backer of rulers like Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi royal family. In Central Asia, America is seen as supporting dictatorships in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. In South Asia, Muslim democrats can derive little comfort from the praise Washington heaps upon Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, purged the country's Supreme Court, arbitrarily amended its constitution, and has never stood for election in a contested campaign.
Indeed, the gap between Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric and his pro-status quo policies was illustrated during a White House meeting the president had with Musharraf in December, during which he called for "a world effort to help the Palestinians develop a state that is truly free: One that's got an independent judiciary; one that's got a civil society; one that's got the capacity to fight off the terrorists; one that allows for dissent; one in which people can vote." Ironically, most of those criteria are not met in Pakistan.
Zayn Al Abidin Al Rukabi, writing in the London-based Al Sharq Al Awsat, suggests that Bush's inaugural address gave his administration "a unique chance, the best ever, to restore trust in true US values, as well as improving an image which has been distorted by its mistakes." But, to seize that chance, Bush will have to find a way to match his words with deeds. He might begin by refusing to allow America's Muslim allies to define democratic progress as cosmetic political changes, such as the creation of rubber-stamp parliaments and the holding of fixed elections. Mubarak, for example, claims that Egypt has been engaged in a gradual transition to democracy for over two decades. As a result, his country receives considerable aid for civil society projects despite little true reform. Muslim liberals understand that temporary alliances with autocrats are sometimes necessary even for democracies. But a friendly dictator should be called just that, and not described as the builder of a future democracy.
Another practical step could be active U.S. engagement with opposition leaders and parties in Islamic countries. The United States could bolster Egypt's conservative Al Wafd party, the newly formed liberal Al Ghad party, and the Islamic democrats in the officially unrecognized Al Wasat party—as well as the popular civilian parties in Pakistan that Musharraf accuses of misgoverning the country before he took power. Since the days of Iran's shah, authoritarian Muslim rulers have demanded that the United States shun their opposition as the price of their alliance, and the United States has obliged them. Administration officials and diplomats try to avoid high-profile meetings with opposition leaders in Washington and abroad for fear of antagonizing U.S.-friendly dictators. Furthermore, democracy-promotion assistance is almost never extended to political parties or media that might threaten existing regimes. Changing this policy would allow U.S. nongovernmental organizations, such as the National Democratic Institute, to use money from the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide logistical help for political party- building activities similar to those undertaken in Eastern Europe and Latin America. To be sure, it would provoke the occasional heated exchange between the regimes and American diplomats. But it is unlikely that regimes like Mubarak's and Musharraf's would withhold cooperation from the United States (and forgo the benefits in economic and military aid) because of increased U.S. engagement with their opposition. And engagement might eventually give Washington's democrats an alternative to dealing with the world's dictators.
This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.