Bush and the Cedar Revolution

BUSH AND THE CEDAR REVOLUTION….I intended to write more about Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” after my initial brief post on Monday, but then figured I should wait a while to see what more knowledgable people had to say first. To my surprise, though, media reports and expert blogs have had plenty of description but relatively little analysis. What follows, then, is just some rough musings after taking in the news for the past couple of days. Take them for what they’re worth.

To begin with, are events in Lebanon and elsewhere a result of the Bush Doctrine? There are reasons to remain skeptical on this score. For starters, despite a fair amount of breast beating in the conservative blogosphere, the Bush administration itself never considered democratization a primary reason for the Iraq invasion. Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged this last year, telling Sam Tannenhaus shortly after the war that the three main reasons for invading Iraq were WMD, terrorist ties, and “the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people.” What’s more, he specifically discounted the idea that the war would “destabilize” the Middle East.

We also know in retrospect that the administration originally planned a quick turnover of power in Iraq to some reliably friendly chieftan along with a drawdown to 30,000 troops within a few months. Elections were not in the cards, and the Bush administration opposed Iraqi elections as forcefully as it could until it finally caved in to pressure from Ayatollah Sistani and the insurgents.

Other events seem equally unrelated to either the actions or the intentions of the Bush administration. The recent progress between Israel and the Palestinians was made possible by the death of Yasser Arafat, not the invasion of Iraq. Hosni Mubarak’s acceptance of multi-party elections may well turn out to be a cynical sham designed to put his son in power without inflaming public opinion too badly. And the Cedar Revolution itself was kicked off by the Syrian assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Still. All plans go through considerable transformation as they run into events on the ground, and responding to these events is a key part of the president’s job. So even though Bush actively opposed Iraqi elections and had nothing to do with the deaths of either Arafat or Hariri, he deserves credit for displaying the flexibility to take advantage of events as they unfolded. And if he’s truly decided that democratization is something to take seriously ? something of which I’m hopeful but not yet convinced ? then he deserves credit for that too. For better or worse, the invasion of Iraq has set the background against which all these events are playing out, and if things eventually turn out well it will be hard to argue that the invasion didn’t play a part.

(For a more robust defense of Bush’s role in current Mideast events, see Belgravia Dispatch here and here. I think Greg is a bit too dismissive of Bush’s obvious lack of connection ? or outright opposition ? to some of the events in question, but then again, I imagine he feels the same way about me in reverse. In any case, he’s a reasonable analyst and more knowledgable about the Middle East than I am, so it’s worth reading his stuff seriously.)

One final thing: I’ve long had a nagging feeling that the real hero in all this is satellite TV. So naturally I’m delighted to hear an expert agree with me:

Arab satellite television has had an extraordinarily important role in the recent seeming “cascade” of events from Baghdad to Ramallah to Cairo to Beirut. I would argue that Arab satellite television ? including most especially al Jazeera ? might be more important than the American invasion of Iraq in these events.

Part of it is a long term process: al Jazeera, and to a lesser extent to the other satellite stations, have been eviscerating the legitimacy of the Arab status quo for years….There’s also the cumulative effect of the way issues have been framed….Finally, there’s a more immediate and direct effect, driven by the fact that the protests in each individual country are being broadcast live to a vast Arab audience….the televised images of the Lebanese people, seemingly unified against Syria, tapped in to the core narrative of this new Arab identity: a unified, mobilized Arab public protesting against oppression and an intolerable status quo. They identified with this public more than they identified with a “targeted” Arab state.

And that, I believe, is the most fundamental impact of the new Arab media. It’s been developing for a number of years now. It has largely been in opposition to American foreign policy. But it has laid the groundwork for the kinds of democratic changes that we can now begin to envision. Wherever you come down on Bush and the value of the Iraq war, you should also appreciate the essential role played by the oft-demonized Arab media. Maybe you needed Bush to get what you’re seeing today ? I remain skeptical ? but you definitely needed al Jazeera.

This is ironic, of course, since al Jazeera is the b?te noir of conservative hawkdom. But in the end, anti-American or not, they may prove to have been the biggest boosters of American values we have.