War Stories

Was George Bush Right About Freedom and Democracy?

Maybe. Maybe Not.

Man with a plan?

A question is haunting the blue states of America: Could George W. Bush be right? Is freedom indeed “on the march”? Did the war in Iraq uncork a white tornado that’s whooshing democracy across the region and beyond?

In just the past two months, free elections were held in Palestine and Iraq; a rigged election was overturned and an honest one re-held in Ukraine; the Egyptian president pledged to hold competitive elections soon, too; and a popular uprising against Syria’s occupation of Lebanon forced Beirut’s puppet government to resign—all this, amid President Bush’s proclamation that the main aim of American foreign policy is to advance the cause of global freedom.

It’s a huge stretch to view these uprisings as a seamless wave of democracy; but it would go too far in the other direction to see them as strictly discrete events, each unrelated to the other. The evidence suggests that we’re seeing at least a stream of wavelets; that the participants in one country have been inspired to take action, at least in part, by the example of participants in other countries. And therefore, the inference can be drawn, still others, elsewhere, might be inspired to take similar actions, or make similar demands, in the weeks and months ahead.

Finally, while it’s absurd to think that Bush set the upheavals of ‘05 in motion, it’s churlish not to grant him any credit at all. If nothing else, it’s an inspiring thing to see the United States standing on the side of national self-determination. It hasn’t happened very often in the past 60 years, unless anticommunism was at stake. John Kerry would be commended for it if he were president; George W. Bush should be, too.

But Bush’s partisans seem not to realize that we are witnessing, for the most part, the mere beginnings of a long, uncertain process. Elections mark the first step of a fledgling democracy, not its endpoint. Rallies can sire repressions. Freedom itself is a thin reed without the security, laws, and institutions to uphold it.

Where is all this going? What will President Bush do—what can he do—to nudge the process in a direction that’s consistent with our interests?

Take the developments in Lebanon. Syria has long been promising an end to its 30-year occupation. Last fall, when the six-year term of Lebanon’s Quisling president, Gen. Émile Lahoud, was about to expire, the Syrians forced an amendment to the constitution, allowing a three-year extension. That’s what set in motion the broad-based opposition movement and led Rafik Hariri, the popular prime minister, to resign in protest. Hariri’s assassination last month stirred that opposition into outright revolt. Did the election in Iraq, or Ukraine, embolden the protesters? Many of them say it did. But the combustion’s ingredients were already well-packed.

In any case, what happens next? If the Syrians do withdraw (and they’ve reduced their forces from 40,000 to 14,000 the past few years), some abstract concept called “freedom” won’t take over; flesh-and-blood Lebanese people will—and that’s where the troubles began. The terrorist organization Hezbollah represents a substantial portion of Lebanon’s population and will almost certainly play a strong role in any new government. (If it’s somehow kept out, expect civil war.) Will its leaders be interested in integrating Lebanon into some new Middle Eastern order that involves peace with Israel? Is there a package of sticks and carrots that might cajole and lure them into an accord? Will Bush (and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) be interested in negotiating such a deal? Then there are the ethnic conflicts—Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Maronite Christians, and the Druse. They’re unified now in the cause of pushing out Syria, just as they were unified back in 1943 in the cause of pushing out France. In the intervening 60 years, divisions reigned, at times sparking chaos, which motivates the various occupations. (See Juan Cole’s blog on Tuesday for a succinct summary of this history.)

It’s hard to know how to read Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s announcement that he will hold real national elections sometime soon. Will he impose restrictions on who can run against him? Still, it cannot be a mere coincidence that he issued this declaration shortly after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a trip to Cairo to protest the arrest of Ayman Nour, the country’s opposition leader. The arrest also set off some domestic protest, though nothing as massive as the rallies in Beirut. It is reasonable to infer that even Mubarak—who has ruled Egypt like a modern pharaoh but couldn’t last long without the billions of dollars in American aid—is realizing that Bush might just be serious about this talk of “freedom.” And it’s worth wondering if he might be worried about whether the elections in Palestine and Iraq are contagious.

The election of a new Palestinian Authority—and the subsequent appointment of an entirely new Cabinet—was a dramatic, potentially transformative event. The peace talks are back on, and the chance of a settlement is as great as at any time in the past decade. This has been the result of two developments: the death of Yasser Arafat; and the indisputable hawkishness of Sharon, which permits concessions that more moderate leaders could not make.

The ultimate significance of the breakthrough will be determined by whether a peace treaty can be pulled off—which will be shaped, to a large extent, by the Bush administration’s (or any American president’s) willingness to participate in the talks and pressure the parties.

Could a new type of Palestinian leadership have emerged had Saddam Hussein still been ruling Iraq and sending money to terrorists and their families? Probably not. Could it have emerged had Saddam been boxed in by U.N. weapons inspectors and surrounded by U.S. and British armed forces? Maybe, maybe not. This question may serve as the wedge for a new debate over whether the war was justified, given the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the skyrocketing costs of the war (in money and lives), and the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s latest forecast that the insurgency (and, therefore, the U.S. military presence) will probably persist for another decade.

It is ironic, then, that, of all the new and aspiring democracies, Iraq—the alleged prime mover—is in the most desperate condition. The fact that 8 million Iraqis voted, at the threat of gun point, is certain enthralling—and almost certainly had an inspiring impact on the region. But the election does not, by itself, address the fundamental conflicts: the Sunnis’ powerlessness (which fuels much of the insurgency), the Kurds’ appetite for independence (which could strain the nation’s fissures), or the Shiites’ yearning to impose Muslim law (which would alienate the more secular citizens, especially the Kurds). These disputes might be hammered out in the composition of a new government or in the negotiations over a new constitution—or maybe not.

Saddam Hussein locked Iraq in a deep freeze. Political history—as the playing out of social, economic, and tribal interests—was suspended for decades. Now history has resumed, and it’s not a pretty picture. Iraq was a ramshackle contrivance of British imperialists who tried to redraw the map of the Middle East in the aftermath of World War I. The place has been a nightmare to govern ever since.

The elections, at the very least, supplied a thaw, a glimmer of confidence and pride, perhaps a chance at self-rule. But they didn’t eradicate the difficulties.

It’s worth noting that the Bush administration’s original plan for Iraq’s postwar reconstruction was to hold elections after an interim assembly drafted a constitution. It was the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who insisted that elections be held first, who declared that a constitution would not be valid otherwise. Seeing no alternative, Bush gave in.

So who is—who will be seen as—the real facilitator and emblem of Middle Eastern-style democracy: the president of the United States or the grand ayatollah? That’s the scary question that sums up the challenges ahead and, even more, the ambiguity underlying the concept of “freedom.”