George W. Bush is a mixed bag in his dealing with the Middle East. On the one hand he follows a long list of American presidents who banked on singular Arab leaders to transform their societies. True to form, George W. has placed his trust in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). While Bush has gambled on these two to deliver stability and domestic peace, he differs from other U.S. presidents in being the only American president who actively worked for democracy in the Middle East.
To his credit, President Bush has sought to change a discriminatory policy on the part of the U.S. State Department that borders on racism- a policy that conveys the assertion that Arabs could not handle democracy. Previous U.S. administrations felt comfortable and in fact preferred to deal with “our friendly dictators” the likes of which included Egyptian dictators Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, or Saudi Kings Feisal, Fahd or Abdullah. Jimmy Carter, who speaks a good human rights story, legitimized and coddled the most oppressive regimes in the world. George W. on the other hand wants to bring genuine change, albeit with individual characters that are a reflection of their troubled societies rather than agents of change.
I recall a Baptist minister friend of mine who once called me (during the Clinton administration) following a State Department briefing in Washington to relate how the spokesperson regaled the audience with tales of American successes in bringing democracy to Latin America, Asia, and Africa. My friend then raised his hand and asked, “Sir, I did not hear you say the Middle East, did I miss something?” “There was silence” my friend added, the spokesperson simply ignored the question.
September 11, 2001, revealed that of the 19 al-Qaeda terrorists that attacked America, the majority were Saudis, and Egyptians. Muhammad Atta, the leader of the 19 was a member of an upper middle-class Egyptian family. This may have prompted President Bush to seek changes in the U.S. policy of accommodation with Arab dictators. And, while Jimmy Carter pampered unelected dictators and terrorists such as King Khalid (Saudi Arabia), Gaddafi (Libya), Sadat (Egypt), and Arafat (Palestinian Authority), President Bush shunned Arafat, prodded Mubarak to engage in democratic reform, and strove to remove the Syrians from Lebanon. Unfortunately, Bush has placed his credibility and American prestige on democratically elected but ineffectual leaders such as Abu Mazen and al-Maliki.
It would take more than elections in Iraq and Palestine to bring about real democracy and societal change. For democracy to succeed, a civil society needs to emerge and the rule of law to be established. Neither of these elements currently exists or are rooted in Palestinian or Iraqi societies, much less in a constrained and dictatorial society such as Saudi Arabia. Elections are meaningful only when the above conditions are already established. In the current climate in the Arab Middle East, election alone, might very well pave the way for an Islamist takeover.
President Bush invested his political capital and personal prestige in the successes of al-Maliki and Abbas. Neither however is capable of changing the grim realities in their societies. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her recent trip through the Middle East to sell America’s Sunni Arab allies on Bush’s new Iraq strategy, expressed just how much hostility exists among Sunni-Arabs towards P.M. Nouri al-Maliki, administration officials said. “What she heard” according to administration officials was that “Maliki has failed completely, both politically and personally, and that they do not trust him to crack down on his fellow Shi’ites.”
Newsweek magazine reported that according to conservative U.S. Senator Craig Thomas, R-WY, many GOP senators expressed doubts that America could depend on Maliki. They pointed out his failure to quell the sectarian violence that claimed the lives of 34,000 Iraqis in 2006, as well 600 American soldiers. Furthermore, Thomas said, “The president expressed doubts about Maliki too.” The president’s fortunes now depend on two foreign leaders with dubious loyalties.
The bipartisan skepticism about the administration’s Iraq policy is based on mistrust in Maliki. Nouri al-Maliki became Iraq’s prime minister with the support he received from the Shi’ite radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s political block, and as a result Maliki prevented the U.S. military attempts to deal with Sadr’s Mahdi army militia. Last fall, when the U.S. attempted to stabilize Baghdad, Mailiki failed to provide enough Iraqi troops to make the plan work.
Senator George Voinovich, R-OH, does not think Maliki “is up to the challenge” and is worried that Maliki wants to turn Iraq into “a Shi’ite theocracy like the one in Iran.” The Maliki government recently demanded that the U.S. release captured Iranian intellegence agents, this reinforced the perception that Maliki is closer to the Ayatollah’s in Tehran than to his American protectors who hitherto sacrificed 3000 of the best young American in an effort to bring peace and democracy to Iraq.
Mahmoud Abbas has failed to deliver on all fronts. He has been unable to stablize the security situation in Gaza, and his lack of leadership and charisma has led to the clashes between his Fatah faction and Hamas gunmen. His promise to bring the role of law is hollow in view of the lawlessness that reigns supreme in the Palestinian territories. Abbas willingly or through incopetence did nothing to stem Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror against Israel, as demanded by the Bush administration Road Map. Abu Mazen cannot control his own Fatah faction let alone the Palestinians as a whole. Is that the person president Bush seeks to empower by providing him with military, political, and economic support?
Neither Abbas nor Al-Maliki are agents of change, they are unable to transform themselves let alone their societies.
George W. needs to understand that democracy requires proper institutions to sustain it – not individuals who shy away from responsibility rather than risk their relative political comfort. In Iraq as in the Palestinian Authority, America must carefully seek out and support legitimate non-governmental groups or political parties who understand the value of a free and democratic society. Wahington must invest in those who would provide an educational system in Gaza, Ramallah, Basra and Baghdad, that encourage freedom of thought, the value of democracy, tolrance, and human rights. Media outlets in the U.S. and European Union need to recognize their role in serving as vehicles that foster democracy, not incitement and hatred.
President Bush could indeed make his mark on history if he persevers in his quest for democratic change in the Middle East. It must, however, be accomplished through societal changes and not by individual agents lacking the will, talent, charisma, and belief in their society’s ability to tranform.
Click Here to support Frontpagemag.com.