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The Politics of Churlishness

Giving George W. Bush his due on democracy.

If George W. Bush were to discover a cure for cancer, his critics would denounce him for having done it unilaterally, without adequate consultation, with a crude disregard for the sensibilities of others. He pursued his goal obstinately, they would say, without filtering his thoughts through the medical research establishment. And he didn't share his research with competing labs and thus caused resentment among other scientists who didn't have the resources or the bold—perhaps even somewhat reckless-—instincts to pursue the task as he did. And he completely ignored the World Health Organization, showing his contempt for international institutions. Anyway, a cure for cancer is all fine and nice, but what about aids?

No, the president has not discovered a cure for cancer. But there is a pathology, a historical pathology, that he has attacked with unprecedented vigor and with unprecedented success. I refer, of course, to the political culture of the Middle East, which the president may actually have changed. And he has accomplished this genuinely momentous transformation in ways that virtually the entire foreign affairs clerisy—the cold-blooded Brent Scowcroft realist Republicans and almost all the Democrats—never thought possible. Or, perhaps, in ways some of them thought positively undesirable. Bush, it now seems safe to say, is one of the great surprises in modern U.S. history. Nothing about his past suggested that he harbored these ideals nor the qualities of character required for their realization. Right up to the moment Bush became president, I was convinced that his mind, at least on matters Levantine, belonged to his father and to James Baker III, whose worldview seemed to be defined by the pecuniary prejudice of oil and Texas: Keep the ruling Arabs happy. But I was wrong, and, in light of what has already been achieved in the Middle East, I am glad to say so. Most American liberals, alas, enjoy no similar gladness. They are not exactly pleased by the positive results of Bush's campaign in the Middle East. They deny and resent and begrudge and snipe. They are trapped in the politics of churlishness.

The achievements of Bush's foreign policy abroad represent a revolution in the foreign policy culture at home. The traditional Republican mentality that was so perfectly and meanly represented by Bush pre and Baker precluded the United States from pressing the Arabs about reform—about anything—for decades. Not Iraq about its tyranny and its record of genocide, not Syria about its military occupation of Lebanon and its own brutal Baathist dictatorship, not Egypt about loosening the crippling bonds of a statist economy and an authoritarian political system, not Saudi Arabia about its championing of the Wahhabi extremism that made its own country so desiccated and the world so dangerous, and certainly not the Palestinians about the fantasy that they had won all the wars that they had actually lost and were therefore entitled to the full rewards due them from their victories. This was the state of U.S.-Arab relations in 2001: The United States was actually more frightened of the Arabs than they were of us. The extraordinary report of the 9/11 Commission about the delinquent reactions to the decade-long lead-up to the catastrophe of September 11 only confirms this impression of official U.S. pusillanimity.

The Clinton administration seized on every possible excuse--from the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, right through the atrocities in Kenya and Tanzania, to the attack on the USS Cole—not to respond meaningfully to Osama bin Laden. This aggressively dilatory approach was set early on, when Bill Clinton's first secretary of state, dead-man-walking Warren Christopher, proposed that a special bureau be set up to deal with drugs, crime, and terrorism in a single office, as if terrorism is a problem for policemen and not for strategists. The 9/11 Commission Report records that only congressional opposition aborted Christopher's concoction. Attorney General Janet Reno always worried about retaliation against any moves by the United States; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, preoccupied with her "push for a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis," was concerned that military strikes against the bin Laden operations in Afghanistan would strengthen the Taliban; National Security Adviser Sandy Berger fretted that a shoot-out might be seen as an assassination, and, always the trade lawyer, he consistently held out hope that some sort of carrot would turn the Taliban against bin Laden; General Anthony Zinni was more concerned about human rights abuses by the Taliban than by its hospitality to Al Qaeda and worried also that a mosque might be damaged in the course of bombing operations; Pentagon officials warned that a missile aimed at bin Laden might kill a visiting Emirati prince instead (but why was a UAE prince hanging out with bin Laden anyway?); and CIA Director George Tenet had so many objections to decisive action that it would be nearly impossible to enumerate them.

Clinton, it is true, resolved to eliminate bin Laden, but soon he eliminated his desire to eliminate him. The Clinton administration's true desire was to arrest bin Laden, to indict him, and to put him on trial—to "bring him to justice," as these men and women pompously exhorted each other. Except Berger also feared that bin Laden would be acquitted in a U.S. court of law. CIA personnel trying to cut a deal with the Northern Alliance to capture bin Laden warned that, if the Afghan "tribals"—that's the orientalism of liberals—did not bring him in alive but, heaven forbid, actually killed him, they would not be paid for their labors. The charismatic leader of the Afghan opposition and our best contact with it, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated two days before September 11, thought he was dealing with madmen.

The new Bush presidency also found it hard to wrap its hands around the Al Qaeda phenomenon and preferred to focus instead on Star Wars redivivus—until, of course, a catastrophe in Lower Manhattan concentrated its mind. What the Bush administration gradually came to realize was that fighting the Muslim terrorist international could not be done in a vacuum. If the Islamic and Arab orbits were to continue to revolve around sanguinary tyrannies, there would be no popular basis in civil society to rob the cult of suicidal murder of its prestige. So, rather than being a distraction from the struggle against the armed rage suffusing these at once taut and eruptive polities, confronting their governments was actually intrinsic to that struggle. The Bush administration recognized that removing the effect means removing the cause. The 9/11 Commission seems to have grasped this, too, at least in its citations of Richard Clarke's assertion that bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda and the Iraqi Baath could be natural allies.

HISTORY HAS NEVER traveled in the Middle East as fast as it has during the last two years. In this place where time seems to have stopped, time has suddenly accelerated. It may be true (more likely, it is not) that a deep yearning for democracy has been latent throughout the region for a long time. There certainly was a basis in reality for skepticism about the Arabs' hospitability to the opening of their societies. Whatever the proper historical and cultural analysis of the past, however, the fact is that democracy did not begin even to breathe until the small coalition of Western nations led by the United States destroyed the most ruthless dictatorship in the area.

Democracy in Mesopotamia? A fantasy, surely. But not quite. Iraq was, despite its unbelievably bloody history, a rather sophisticated place. During the nineteenth century, many Baghdadis went abroad to study. Modern nationalism sank some roots. Baghdad itself had a plurality of Jews, learned and mercantile, until they fled to the new state of Israel. An ancient minority of Christians survived into the age of Sunni pogroms and survives—though in lesser numbers—still. The Kurds grew relatively tolerant in the areas they dominated. And the majority Shia, though viciously persecuted from the founding of the Iraqi state after World War I—with the not-so-passive consent of the British colonials—and condemned to near-genocide by Saddam's revolutionary republic, have generally maintained the restraint that piety sometimes allows. After a year and a half of nearly daily Sunni bloodletting among them, the Shia have not wreaked the vengeance they surely could and, equally as surely, some of them long to take.

The U.S. liberation-occupation has now tried to cobble together these diverging Iraqis into the beginnings of a democratic regime. Wonder of wonders, these estranged cousins have shown some talent in the art of compromise; and trying to make this polity work is hardly an effort undertaken without courage. The judge who was killed with his son outside his home on his way to work at the tribunal that will try Saddam knew that danger stalked him, and so did the rest of the victims of Sunni bloodlust. This bloodlust evokes an unmistakable but macabre schadenfreude among many critics of the war, who want nothing of history except to be proved right. It is as if suicide bombings and other sorts of helter-skelter murder were a just judgment on the wrongdoings—yes, there have been wrongdoings, some of them really disgusting—of the Bush administration. And, even if ridding western Asia of Saddam is reluctantly accepted as justified, what blogger couldn't have accomplished what came after more deftly?

In any case, this churlish orthodoxy tells us that the Sunnis need to be enticed into the political game lest it be deemed illegitimate. In this scenario, it is the murderers who withhold or bestow moral authority. John F. Burns, the defiantly honest New York Times journalist in Baghdad, who has consistently reported the ambiguous and truly tangled realities of the war, now sees the Baathist and Sunni warriors in retreat, if not actually beaten. What will probably happen in Iraq is a version of what endured for decades in Lebanon: a representative government rooted in sect—argumentative, perhaps even corrupt, but functioning. Lebanon was never perfect, but it worked reasonably well, until the aggressive Palestinian guests took to commanding Shia turf to establish a "state within a state." (This was a phenomenon that the nimble Thomas L. Friedman did not much report on in the first leg of his journey From Beirut to Jerusalem, confiding that fear for his life and livelihood kept him from deviating too far from the Palestinian story as they wanted it told. Eason Jordan avant la lettre.)

The fine fruits of the Bush administration's indifference to international opinion may be seen now in Lebanon, too. What is happening there is the most concrete intra-Arab consequence of the Iraq war. Nothing could be done in Lebanon without Syria's sanction, no government decision without the approval of Damascus, no business without a hefty Damascene percentage. Syrian troops and spies were everywhere. Lebanese of all sects and clans have been restive for years. But they lived in the fearful memory of their mad civil war, the civil war of the daily car bombs in the marketplace. Suddenly, the elections in Iraq, Bush's main achievement there, exhilarating and inspiring, sprung loose the psychological impediments that shackled the Lebanese to Syria. Even if the outcomes will not be exactly the same, this was Prague and Berlin at the end of the long subjugation to their neighbor to the east. More immediately, this was Kiev only a few months ago. The first mass protest against the Syrians and their satrap prime minister drew tens of thousands. Then there was the much larger crowd of pro-Syria Shia from the south, a disconcerting moment. But, after that, a multitude so huge that it defied counting, and so diverse. This was the true cedar revolution, a revolution of the young, for independence, for freedom from the failing but always brutal Damascus regime next door. Will Vladimir Putin be so stupid as to invest credit and arms in the stiff and callow son of Hafez Al Assad?

NONE OF THIS happened by spontaneous generation. Yes, there were lucky breaks: Yasir Arafat died, Syria conspired somehow to have former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri assassinated. And yes, the new directions are young, and the autocratic-theocratic political culture of the Middle East is old, and it is once again too early to proclaim that the mission has been accomplished. As the ancient Israelite king observed, let he who girds his harness not boast as he who takes it off. But the mission is nonetheless real, and far along, and it is showing thrilling accomplishments. It is simply stupid, empirically and philosophically, to deny that all or any of this would have happened without the deeply unpopular but historically grand initiative of Bush. The hundreds of thousands of young people in Martyrs' Square knew that they had Bush's backing. The president seems even to have enticed Jacques Chirac into a more active policy toward Lebanon: For him, too, Syria had to go. If this satisfies Chirac's yearning for la gloire, so be it. (But it will not be so easy to maintain such alliances: Already, Security Council members are said to be working up plans to put the future of Lebanon under the protective care of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, when nothing in unifil's past—nothing—should provide confidence that it is able, or even disposed, to act decisively against Arab brutality.)

What is occurring in Saudi Arabia and Egypt is also heartening, if more than a bit tentative. Under pressure from the Bush administration, the Saudis have allowed the first local elections in the country's history: an election to bodies that cannot make big decisions, and an election limited to male voters, naturally. But infidels (that is, Shia) may also vote. By Saudi standards, this is the revolution of 1848. In Egypt, responding to the insistence of the Bush people, President Hosni Mubarak has allowed that he will permit opponents to run in the presidential elections against him. Mubarak has no chance of losing ... this time. Maybe, however, the son will not be the father's inevitable successor, and maybe the Arab custom of turning dictatorships into dynasties will also come to an end, at least in Cairo. And, in the brave figure of Ayman Nour, the world now has a hero of the anti-Mubarak forces to celebrate and to support. In both countries, to be sure, what we are seeing are the bare beginnings of a democratic process, the very bare beginnings. It will be years, maybe decades, before these become democratic polities. And there is always the chance—as was the case in Algeria, once the jewel in the shabby crown of the "nonaligned"—that the vox populi will vote wrong. In the Algerian instance, it had to vote wrong: The choice was between national fascists and pious fascists. Take your pick.

SO THE SITUATION is certainly complex. But complexity is not a warrant for despair. The significant fact is that Bush's obsession with the democratization of the region is working. Have Democrats begun to wonder how it came to pass that this noble cause became the work of Republicans? They should wonder if they care to regain power. They should recall that Clinton (and the sanctimonious Jimmy Carter even more so) had absolutely no interest in trying to modify the harsh political character of the Arab world. What they aspired to do was to mollify the dictators—to prefer the furthering of the peace process to the furthering of the conditions that make peace possible. The Democrats were the ones who were always elevating Arafat. He was at the very center of their road map. After he stalked out of a meeting room in Paris during cease-fire talks in late 2000, Albright actually ran in breathless pursuit to lure him back. It was the Democrats who perpetuated Arafat's demonic sway over the Palestinians, and it was the Democrats who sustained him among the other Arabs. And so the cause of Arab democracy was left for the Republicans to pursue. After September 11, the cause became a matter also of U.S. national security.

The great diversion from the real politics of the Arab countries, and from the prospect of political reform, was the Palestinian grievance against Israel. In the early years of their conflict with the Zionists, the Palestinians thought that these countries would fight their battles for them, at the negotiating table and on the battlefield, which they did. But what happened in reality was that the various Arabs exploited the Palestinians as pawns in their own ambitions to pick off pieces of Palestine for themselves. That is why there was no Palestinian state in the West Bank or Gaza after the armistice of 1949, as one might have expected from the Partition Plan of 1947. The West Bank was annexed to Jordan. Gaza was not annexed but administratively attached to Egypt. Syria's armies won no decisive battles against the Jews; otherwise, they also would have taken a piece of Palestine. In any event, until the Six Days War, the Palestinian groan against the Jews was focused on the very existence of Israel within narrow and perilous borders, without strategic depth, without old Jerusalem, without the West Bank, without Gaza.

And Arab governments deflected the ample internal plaints of their own peoples with mobilized hysteria against the Jews. Every domestic grievance was dispersed with rousing rhetoric against Israel. The sun of Gamal Abdel Nasser rose and set with Cairo's failures in its wars with Israel. Hatred of the Zionists levitated the Baath dictatorships of both Iraq and Syria. In the end, after five wars and two intifadas, the Palestinians still seethed. But it had all come to nothing. And, finally, the angel of death unilaterally attacked Arafat. Bush had had the good sense to pay no attention to him, despite the urgent imprecations of the usual apologists: the European Union, the United Nations, France, Russia, and the editorial page of the Times. Had Bush made even a single accommodation to Arafat, Arafat's way in the world would have been enshrined in Palestinian lore for yet another generation as the only way.

But Bush didn't, and Ariel Sharon didn't, either. Now that there is some real hope among both Israelis and Palestinians about the future, let us examine the reasons for it. The first is that Bush made no gestures to the hyperbolic fantasies of Palestinian politics. He gave them one dose of reality after another. The second is that he gave Israel the confidence that he would not trade its security for anything—which means that Israel is now willing to cede much on its own. (Israeli dovishness for American hawkishness: This was always the only way.) The third is that Bush is holding Sharon to his commitments, and everyone who is at all rational on these issues now sees the Israeli prime minister as a man of his word and a man of history. After all, Sharon has broken with much of his own political party. Not for nothing is he now the designated assassination target of the Israeli hard right. Still, holding Sharon to his word also means holding Mahmoud Abbas to his. So far, the record is mixed. The serious shutting down of the terrorist militias has not yet begun, but the Palestinian Authority did run reasonably free local elections, and they were not accompanied by killing. It is true that Hamas won more of these races than makes either Sharon or Abbas comfortable, and its strength may even increase in the coming parliamentary voting. But this, too, is a part of the gamble of democracy; and, to the extent that the Palestinians are taking this gamble and following the newest fashion among the other Arabs, it is a tribute to the inked purple fingers of Iraq, which is to say, a tribute to Bush and his simplistic but effective trust in the polling place.

It has been heartening, in recent months, to watch some Democratic senators searching for ways out of the politics of churlishness. Some liberals appear to have understood that history is moving swiftly and in a good direction, and that history has no time for their old and mistaken suspicion of American power in the service of American values. One does not have to admire a lot about George W. Bush to admire what he has so far wrought. One need only be a thoughtful American with an interest in proliferating liberalism around the world. And, if liberals are unwilling to proliferate liberalism, then conservatives will. Rarely has there been a sweeter irony.