With bombs going off in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and skirmishes raging in Afghanistan, George W. Bush is championing democracy for Muslims as an antidote to terrorism. But, as usual, he tells only half the truth.
His promise of an "age of liberty" for Arabs has been welcomed by Americans. But Arabs are not impressed. He has little credibility with them.
But first, what he got right.
The president shot down two favorite post-9/11 themes: that Arabs (many of them Christians) and Muslims are not ready for democracy, and that Islam is incompatible with it.
"Cultural condescension," he called it, quoting Ronald Reagan.
"Time after time," said Bush, "observers have questioned whether this country, or that people, are `ready' for democracy ... It should be clear to all that Islam is consistent with democratic rule. Democratic progress is found in many predominantly Muslim countries — in Turkey and Indonesia, and Senegal and Albania, Niger and Sierra Leone. Muslim men and women are good citizens of India and South Africa, of the nations of Western Europe, and of the United States.
"More than half of all the Muslims in the world live in freedom under democratically constituted governments. They succeed, not in spite of their faith, but because of it. A religion that demands individual moral accountability, and encourages the encounter of the individual with God, is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government."
That's what Iranian president Mohammed Khatami says, too. But let's continue with Bush.
"Modernization is not the same as Westernization. Representative governments in the Middle East will reflect their own cultures. They will not, and should not, look like us...Working democracies always need time to develop, as did our own. We've taken a 200-year journey toward inclusion and justice. Other nations are at different stages of this journey."
Sounds like Khatami again. But back to Bush.
He also told the biggest home truth of the American foreign policy: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
Are we to assume that Bush will no longer support authoritative Arab regimes?
Or, that he thinks it was wrong of the CIA to have toppled democratic governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973)? Or that Washington made a grave error by going along with the Algerian military junta's overturning of the 1993 elections?
Leaving a trail of such questions, Bush continued: "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. With the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo."
It suits Bush to connect weapons of mass destruction to his war on terror. But 9/11 and other terrorist acts have been carried out with box cutters, crude bombs and human sacrifices.
Second, the anti-American sentiment of Arabs, some of it channeled into terrorism, is only partially driven by the American support for their repressive regimes. It springs mainly from the American support for Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.
Israel is not the sole cause of Arab problems. Far from it, as the recent Arab Development Report showed. But just because Bush chooses to be silent about Ariel Sharon does not mean that Arabs, or the rest of the world, would oblige.
Bush showed similar selectivity when referring to Palestinians and Egyptians.
"The Palestinian leaders who block and undermine democratic reform, and feed hatred and encourage violence are not leaders at all. They are the main obstacles to peace."
True, as far as it goes. Ending Yasser Arafat's corruption and tolerance of terrorism will not, by itself, solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Invoking Egypt's pioneering role in forging peace with Israel, Bush urged Cairo to "show the way toward democracy in the Middle East." What he did not say is that the warmth generated by Anwar Sadat turned long ago to cold peace and that Hosni Mubarak is keeping the lid on current anti-Israeli fury with oppression and torture — with Washington's approval.
Bush praised the reformist baby steps taken by Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Good. But he invited mockery by holding them up as "the stirrings of democracy," while bearing down hard on Iran.
Iran has held more elections than any Arab nation. Imperfect elections, yes, leading to an ineffective parliament and a toothless president, both overruled by unelected centers of power. But Iran is the most advanced in the debate on Islam and democracy. Iranian women are the most empowered in the region.
Yet Bush, as Bill Clinton before him, has taken a pass on a historic chance to help democracy by helping Iranian moderates.
On Iraq and Afghanistan, too, Bush presents a distorted picture. "The failure of democracy in those two countries would convince terrorists that America breaks down under attack, and more attacks on America would surely follow."
Yet, the use of American force in Iraq has attracted terrorism where it did not exist.
War on terrorism, yes. But not the Bush way.
A drive for democracy, yes. But not couched in dishonesty.
Haroon Siddiqui writes Thursdays and Sundays.
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