Money, Meet Mouth….Reading through the Washington Monthly contributions, I see that Democrats continue to struggle with how to respond to Bush’s democracy rhetoric. Attack the idea of spreading democracy (and maybe point out the flaws in motherhood, apple pie, baseball, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while you’re at it), or attack Bush’s shortcomings in actually doing it? Me, I agree with Tomasky and Biden and some of the others in this collection. Democrats should embrace the idea of spreading democracy to the Middle East, and point out that once you separate out words from deeds, Bush hasn’t really done much to promote democracy. And invading Iraq was a really inefficient, if not counter-productive, way to do it.
The real problem with Bush isn’t the nice words about democracy and freedom, it’s the flagrant shortcomings and contradictions in practice. Bush hasn’t put much money into democracy promotion programs, and the programs he’s got ? such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative ? are deeply dysfunctional. His grand public diplomacy initiative, the Arabic language satellite television station al-Hurra, is a costly and irrelevant white elephant, treated as a joke in the region on those rare occasions when anyone actually notices it exists. The administration’s hostility towards al-Jazeera makes it look terribly hypocritical when it starts talking about media freedoms (which, to be fair, the administration almost never does). And don’t get me started on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
There’s also some big double standards problems. Most Arabs are deeply cynical about American intentions, and they can’t help but notice when “useful” Arab countries get a pass. Tunisia invites Ariel Sharon to come visit, and the Bush administration has not a word to say when a human rights activist is sent to jail for publishing an article on the internet describing torture in the Tunisian prisons. Heck, the administration doesn’t even seem to consider it a problem that the regional office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative is based in a country which the State Department describes as having an extremely poor human rights record, where “members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees… [and] arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals.”
Nor did the Bush administration have a word to say about Jordan, where King Abdullah’s regime spent much of the last year getting more and more repressive. It got bad enough that Abdullah finally sacked his prime minister and appointed a new “reformist” PM a month ago, but ? amazingly ? no Bush official has yet said a single word in public about it (you can read all you want, and more, about Jordan here). Wesley Clark, who wants more behind the scenes work and less chest-thumping, might actually like this. I don’t, because it’s such an easy target for the very large number of Arabs who think that the US democracy talk is a bunch of hypocritical hot air ? a weapon to use against our enemies, but not for our friends. Places like Tunisia and Jordan really hurt America’s image as a credible democracy promoter among Arabs, who pay attention to such things.
It got worse last week. The pictures of Bush kissing Crown Prince Abdullah and walking hand in hand with the Saudi leader reinforced this impression for Arabs. The op-ed pages of the Arab press have been filled to the brim the last week with pieces extolling (or damning) the return to normal American-Saudi relations. Whatever the Realist reasons for cozying up to the Saudis ? oil prices, their newly helpful attitude on terrorism ? it’s got nothing to do with Arab democracy, and Arabs see that. Remember, they already don’t trust this administration, so there’s a big hurdle… and scenes like the Crawford love-fest raise it even higher.
The point of all this is that the “Arab spring” was a beginning (or rather a second act), not an ending. Arab regimes are tough, nasty creatures which won’t easily surrender real power. They’ve got lots of experience in engineering elections, dividing the opposition along ethnic or religious or class lines, cynically deploying violence to disrupt the flow of events, and buying off potential opponents. Seeing Iraqi elections on Arab television, or Lebanese protestors defying Syria’s occupation, or Egyptian protestors shouting “enough,” inspired a lot of Arabs and gave a shot of enthusiasm. But after that thrill wears off, the hard work of politics remains. That’s where we are now, and that’s where this administration has been weakest.
Condi Rice bought the US a little credit by dressing down the Egyptians over Ayman Nour, but you can only keep dining out on the same story so many times.