Two years ago, George Bush stunned and outraged virtually the entire Arab world by warmly describing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace" at the height of the brutal Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank. Last week, Bush did it again, endorsing Sharon’s demands to end the right of Palestinian return and legitimizing decades' worth of illegal West Bank settlements. He did so even as Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders and the bloody American campaign in Iraq had Arab anger at an almost unprecedented pitch. And he did so without any coordination with moderate Arab leaders or any attempt to explain himself to Arab audiences. When the final damage is calculated, the greatest victims of Bush’s latest episode of public non-diplomacy may well be a group which Bush himself claims to most want by his side: Arab moderates.
The impact of the furious humiliation of Arab moderates has already begun to surface. King Abdullah II of Jordan—probably the most friendly of all Arab leaders—postponed a scheduled meeting at the White House. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned that Arab views of the United States had plummeted to unprecedented depths. Even more ominously, independent Arab moderates who had tentatively embraced Bush’s calls for democratic reform—often at great personal and political risk—spoke with one voice about their humilitation and outrage. The Arab media now routinely equates the American occupation of Iraq with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and it has become a consensus view that America has lost all credibility in the region.
These outbursts of fury from America’s few remaining friends epitomize one of the greatest ironies of the Bush administration’s policies towards the Middle East. While Bush has waxed eloquent over the need for democracy in the Arab world, his policies can only be described as a systematic campaign of alienating and humiliating any Arabs who attempt to speak out on behalf of the United States. It has never been clear how the Bush administration has reconciled its rhetoric about empowering Arab publics with its policies which drive the hostility of those publics to ever greater heights. And even on its own terms, Bush’s promotion of democratic reform in the region has been a dismal failure: even if some Arab regimes have begun to relax the extraordinarily high levels of control imposed during the dangerous days of the Iraq war, not a single Arab country can be honestly described as more democratic today than it was four years ago.
The Bush administration has never been especially serious about promoting democracy in the region. Despite Bush’s highly publicized speeches, funding for democracy-promotion initiatives remains miniscule. Few Arabs failed to notice that in Libya the Americans happily bargained away democratic reform in exchange for Moammar Qaddafi’s abandonment of an already-moribund WMD program, or that Bush officials have avoided real criticism of allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The much-ballyhooed Greater Middle East Initiative is little more than a patchwork of existing programs, underfunded and ill-conceived. While the furious response from Arab regimes might be dismissed as driven by their own feelings of insecurity, the lack of enthusiasm from Arab civil society reformers suggests the extent to which an association with America has become poisonous.
The problems with Bush’s approach to democratic reform in the region run deeper than a lack of seriousness or poor execution. The core problem lies in the administration’s clear contempt for Arab public opinion, a contempt which is keenly felt by those Arab moderates who actually share the goals of political, economic and cultural reform. The administration is divided between hawks, who believe that Arabs respect force and can be either browbeaten into submission or else easily repressed by friendly dictators; and neoconservatives, who believe that greater democracy will naturally produce pro-American attitudes. Both theories have been painfully disproven over the last few years, as repeated demonstrations of American strength combined with soaring democracy rhetoric have produced only ever-greater levels of anti-American sentiment. But faced with clear evidence of failure, the administration refuses to change course.
While the administration’s policies toward Iraq and Israel generate the most headlines, its hostile approach to the independent Arab media might be the clearest window into its contempt for the Arab public. Satellite television stations such as Al Jazeera have been the most powerful and potent voices demanding democratic reform in the Middle East since the late '90s, long before the Iraq war. But the Bush administration has chosen to treat these stations as enemies, echoing the worst Arab dictators in its denunciations. Its heavy investment in its own Arabic-language state media—Radio Sawa and the satellite television station Al Hurra—suggests to Arabs a preference for carefully controlled propaganda over genuinely open and critical free media. It certainly sends a message to Arab leaders about how they should deal with their own critics.
The Bush administration speaks often of the need for a war of ideas in the Middle East. With his embrace of Ariel Sharon’s vision, Bush came one step closer to losing that war.
Marc Lynch is assistant professor of political science at Williams College and the author of 'State Interests and Public Spheres: The International Politics of Jordan's Identity'
Copyright 2004 TomPaine.com.