Bush Urges More Democracy in Middle East

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Bernhard Zand 


US President George W. Bush was in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, where he accused Iran of supporting terrorism and urged the region to strengthen democracy. But was anybody listening?

He could have held his great Middle East speech in Iraq, the country that he freed from tyranny. Or in the Palestinian Territories, where voters headed to the ballot boxes en masse two years ago. He could even have delivered his comments in Lebanon, where the Cedar Revolution three years ago seemed to bring his dream of a democratic Middle East within reach.

But instead, US President George W. Bush chose a country that doesn't even try to give the impression that it is a Western-style democracy -- yet, nevertheless is among the region's most advanced states. The American president spoke on Sunday at the invitation of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, a government-friendly think tank in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. And at the beginning, about the only thing noteworthy about his talk was the location: The Emirates Palace Hotel, the largest and most expensive in the world and a temple to enormous wealth.

Soon, however, Bush hit his stride, blasting Iran for supporting worldwide terrorism and once again urging the region to fully embrace democracy as a counterbalance to radicalism and hate. And in the process, he revealed that two terms in the White House have changed his approach to foreign policy.

'Only 12 Months Left'

Prior to his arrival, the anger directed at the US president was difficult to ignore. Furious open letters appeared in regional dailies, many of them cynical commentaries about his visit late last week to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He spent, the writers pointed out, a day and a half in Israel, while managing to find just six hours for the West Bank. Before Bush took to the stage, a listener in the first row passed around a button in Arabic reading: "Only 12 months left until the end of Bush's presidency."

It took Bush only a couple of minutes to arrive at his favorite topic, the ongoing war on terror. Two groups, he said, represent the greatest threats to peace in the Middle East: al-Qaida and the government of Iran, which he called "the world's leading state sponsor of terror." Seldom has Bush drawn such a close parallel between bin Laden's terrorist network and the Iranian leadership in Tehran. "They hate freedom and they hate democracy -- because it fosters religious tolerance and allows people to chart their own future," he said. "They hate your government because it does not share their dark vision. They hate the United States because they know we stand with you in opposition to their brutal ambitions."

The audience -- made up of Arab dignitaries, intellectuals and economic leaders -- was rapt. It was rhetoric that reminded one of the 2003 incarnation of George W. Bush, the war president. "The new Axis of Evil," a Syrian in the auditorium whispered.

Bush, though, had his antidote ready: freedom, equality and prosperity. Initially, he spent the most time on the latter -- the topic offers little controversy in a region swimming in petrodollars. Democracy only came up toward the end of his speech, but he then used the word 15 times in quick succession. And the historical parallel he chose to use is not, as it was with Iraq, the democratization of post-war Germany. Rather, he picked Japan, pointing out that many doubted whether Shintoism was compatible with democracy. "The results are now in," he said with a trace of irony in his voice.

"Today, the people of Japan have ... a working democracy."

But Is Anyone Listening?

The message was clear. "This transformation (of Japan) would not have been possible without America's presence and perseverance over many decades," he said. "And just as our commitment to Asia helped people there secure their freedom and prosperity, our commitment to the Middle East will help you achieve yours."

Bush has long shown a fondness for using anecdotes, to illustrate both his good foreign policy ideas and his bad ones. But they often end up being overly simplistic. If it worked more than half a decade ago in the Far East, why shouldn't it work in today's Arabic world? With Iraq, it quickly became apparent that Saddam wasn't a neo-Hitler at all. At most, he was more of an Al Capone. His Baathist party was brutal career insurance for an increasingly meaningless dictator than a reincarnation of the Nazis.

The results are in here as well: The Iraqi parliament on Saturday passed a law allowing former Baathist officials to return to public life. Bush praised the decision, which reversed a 2003 decree supported by his White House.

Indeed, it looks more and more as if seven years of directing America's Middle East policy -- six of those years coming after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- have changed Bush. And that change could also be heard in his Abu Dhabi speech. Toward the end, he emphatically appealed to both Israelis and Palestinians to make the "tough choices" necessary to make Middle East peace possible. Indeed, his entire tour through the region, Arab observers have noted, is the kind of shuttle diplomacy that he considered a waste of time when he first took office.

But does he have enough credibility left to move the Middle East toward openness? His next stop is Saudi Arabia, likewise hardly a model democracy. "Bush has made too many mistakes in the Middle East," says Ibrahim Mukaitib, a Saudi Arabian human rights activist. "Even if he says it like it is, people only listen to him out of politeness. Only 12 months left, and then it's over."


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