The uprisings across the Arab world that began this past December with protests in Tunisia and then Egypt have generated several important debates in Washington and among the foreign policy community more broadly. How should the United States relate to new governments in Tunis and Cairo? Should the United States try to influence transitions to democracy in the Middle East, and if it should, how? What do the revolts mean both for the potential emergence of Islamist political power and for the prospects of extremist organizations? On this last question, the early betting is that, at least in many countries, the uprisings will be good for the former but bad for the latter.
Beyond these questions, which are largely the stuff of policy wonks, development professionals and democracy advocates, there is another intense discussion underway about change in the Arab world. It revolves around a more political question: Do President George W. Bush, the invasion of Iraq and the Bush Administration’s “Freedom Agenda” deserve credit for the current political ferment in the Middle East? It’s easy to dismiss this as a self-interested exercise within the small world of neoconservatives seeking to rehabilitate Bush’s record, and thus their own. The truth is, too, that this question hasn’t really touched off any debate since the uniform answer to this question among those who pose it is a resounding, “yes, of course” and “we told you so.” Yet the discussion over this question does reach beyond Commentary and the Weekly Standard, because these ideas and the people who advocate them cannot be easily dismissed; they remain well-positioned to influence the future trajectory of U.S. policy not only under Republican but also Democratic administrations.
Defenders of various aspects of the Bush legacy offer arguments that come in two forms—in some cases distinct, and in others overlapping. The first form claims that Operation Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent political development of Iraq have had profound effects on the Arab Middle East, making the uprisings in the region possible. This argument is consistent with the notion, widely propagated at the time of the invasion and becoming more prominent as the search for weapons of mass destruction failed to bear fruit, that ousting Saddam Hussein and establishing a democracy in place of his regime would eventually cause authoritarian dominoes to fall throughout the Arab world. At the time, Fouad Ajami likened the Iraq invasion to the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt. It was a dramatic event, he averred, that would shake the Arabs out of their lethargy; nothing would ever again be the same.
The second form of the argument either studiously avoids Iraq or downplays it in favor of a broader claim about the “Freedom Agenda”, defined as the many programs and initiatives launched under its rubric. The claim is that, since September 11, a policy focused on democracy promotion has created an environment conducive to democratic change in the once seemingly politically moribund Middle East. To claim that the Iraq war caused the Arab spring is, to draw an analogy from Isaiah Berlin, fox-like, attributing change to one big event; the second is more hedgehog-like, attributing change to the cumulative product of many smaller efforts.
The first argument makes no sense and is even dangerous, given that the logical conclusion one might draw from it is that democracy promotion at the end of a bayonette is a good thing. The second claim is more plausible, albeit ultimately unprovable.
From Firdos Square
to Tahrir Square?
We cannot criticize the suggestion that there is a causal link between externally imposed regime change in Iraq and the uprisings in the Arab world as an analytic leap, because it is not analysis at all. It is rather an assertion grounded in politics that mostly neoconservative pundits are now using to retrospectively justify a misbegotten war. Somehow, advocates of the war in Iraq, against all evidence, believe that Arabs from Marrakesh to Muscat have observed Iraq’s political development over the past eight years and determined that they want their country to be like that. In his March 4, 2011 Washington Post column, Charles Krauthammer offered the following illuminating assertion:
Now, it can be argued that the price in blood and treasure that America paid to establish Iraq’s democracy was too high. But whatever side you take on that question, what’s unmistakable is that to the Middle Easterner, Iraq today is the only functioning Arab democracy, with multiparty elections and the freest press. Its democracy is fragile and imperfect . . . but were Egypt to be as politically developed in, say, a year as is Iraq today, we would think it is a great success.
Apparently, if you have a column in the newspaper of record in the nation’s capital, you have the privilege of making stuff up. To which “Middle Easterners” is Krauthammer referring? He cites neither poll nor focus group nor even anecdote. The only documented case of an Arab making the argument that the Iraq War stimulated democratic energies anywhere in the region is the remark attributed to Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, back in 2005, that the invasion had had an effect on Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolution.
In fact, a variety of polls conducted since the invasion of Iraq demonstrates that large majorities of Middle Easterners do not regard Iraq as a shining example for their societies. In a 2004 Pew poll, 70 percent of Arab respondents believed that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was better off than it was after the war. In 2006, 60 percent of Egyptians and Jordanians polled did not believe that Iraq would become a stable democracy. A Zogby poll from 2008—after the surge—found that 81 percent of Arabs polled believed that Iraq was worse off than before the war, and 59 percent expressed fear that Iraq would foster not democracy but rather “instability in the region.” In an October 2010 International Republican Institute survey, 57 percent of Iraqis themselves believed that the country was going in the “wrong direction.” Now, all these respondents may be wrong on the facts, but they clearly believe the opposite of what Krauthammer says they do. Indeed, for many Arabs, Iraq is a sectarian cauldron fated to live under Iranian influence and largely held together through the force of American arms.
Krauthammer is correct that Iraq has held multiparty elections, but so did Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia and an array of Middle Eastern countries that he would never consider to be democracies, such as Algeria, Yemen and the Palestinian areas. One can only be confident of Iraqi democracy if one’s threshold for what actually qualifies as a democracy is very low. As far as press freedom is concerned, Human Rights Watch recently concluded that “Iraq remains one of the most hazardous places in the world to work as a journalist”, where government and party officials, as well as militias, have targeted reporters in order to silence them. In 2010, Freedom House determined, based on data collected in 2009, that Iraq was “not free” in terms of press freedom. Also in 2010, Reporters Without Borders ranked Iraq 130 out of 178 in the organization’s press freedom index. And of course Iraqi political power has not yet changed hands as a result of an election without there being a massive U.S. military presence to ensure the process.
Proponents of the argument that the Iraq War made the Arab uprisings possible conveniently forget that many of the same people who were at the forefront of the disparate groups that brought Mubarak down were inexorably opposed to the invasion of Iraq. Egypt’s opposition, especially the tens of thousands who descended upon Tahrir Square on March 20, 2003, believed that Mubarak had either quietly enabled Operation Iraqi Freedom or was too weak to oppose the invasion. They believed, and some of them said, that only a democratic Egypt could resist Washington’s predatory policies in the region.
Of course, Egyptian activists and their counterparts elsewhere in the region may have ultimately changed their minds about Iraq, but there is no evidence that they have, or that they sought to throw off decades of dictatorship because the U.S. military crushed Saddam Hussein’s regime. Still, this has not deterred the ideologically committed. Writing on Commentary magazine’s blog “Contentions”, former Bush Administration staffer Peter Wehner ritually intones his acknowledgment that there is legitimate room for disagreement on whether the Iraq War was worth it, but then more or less reneges on that concession because, he writes, “it appears as if the Egyptian people, and not only the Egyptian people, are longing for what the people of Iraq have embraced: self government” brought to them courtesy of the 4th Infantry Division.
The suggestion that Iraq was somehow an inspiration for Egypt and the rest of the Arab world betrays how little Wehner and his colleagues actually know about the Middle East. As this season of Arab uprisings has clearly demonstrated, the desire for freedom from tyranny and indignity is indeed universal, but freedom is not the same as democracy. There are lots of reasons for Egyptians and other Middle Easterners to be angry enough to take to the street; wanting the sort of procedural democracy enjoyed in the West is only one of them. More than that, it is odd, to say the least, to believe, against the backdrop of the region’s tortured history of foreign domination, that genuine Arab democracy activists sought inspiration from what many regarded as an illegitimate invasion and destructive occupation.
Libya furnishes another example. To be sure, the Libyan rebels practically begged for the international community (read: NATO) to establish a no-fly zone over their country and attack regime forces, but they have not once asked for foreign ground forces to help them overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. The rebels of Cyrenaica are perfectly capable, in theory at least, of wanting to be free of a despotic regime without also wanting to establish thereafter a democracy that includes the denizens of the tribes of Tripolitania. This is not what George W. Bush meant by freedom in 2003.
Instead of having Iraq as their model, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis, Yemenis and Syrians have taken to the streets to demand change because of internal problems in their own societies. In the absence of appealing ideological visions or prosperity, Arab leaders relied almost exclusively on force and repression to maintain control. Even to the extent that Arabs have risen up against these brutal conditions in an effort to build free and democratic political systems (as opposed to liberating themselves from tyranny and worrying about what comes next later), it has nothing whatsoever to do with Iraq.
If there was an inspiration for the Arab uprisings, it came from the town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia in mid-December 2010—Tunisia, not despite the fact that it is so small, unusual and marginal but because it is so small, unusual and marginal. When other Arabs saw what happened in this country of relative quiescence and insignificance, they seemed to ask themselves, “Why not us?” It was the Tunisians’ success in driving their dictator of 27 years from power that provided the rest of the region with a sense of hope and possibility. It was Tunisia, not Iraq, that ran like a livewire through the 18 days of Egyptian protests. Tunis’ November 7 Square was the prototype for Tahrir Square and Pearl Square, as well as the Omari Mosque in the Syrian town of Dara’a, not Firdos Square, where a contingent of U.S. soldiers pulled down an imposing statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003.
Try as the hawks might, the Iraq War is just not linked to the Arab uprisings. Moreover, their argument also reveals an underlying, patronizing view of Arabs as having neither the ability to calculate their own interests nor the agency to carry them out without help from an American expeditionary force of 150,000 soldiers to show them how they should want to live.
The Freedom Agenda
Although the Iraq War had nothing to do with the present unrest in the Middle East, a more sophisticated and ultimately more plausible argument can be made that George W. Bush’s worldview and the Freedom Agenda programs it spawned may have had an effect on Arab politics. It is hard to prove this, however, and it is even harder to argue that these were principal causes.
When the Bush Administration launched the Freedom Agenda in Washington, dated from President Bush’s February 2003 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, continuing through his major November 2003 address to the National Endowment for Democracy, and culminating in his Second Inaugural, most of its supporters seemed to be under the strange impression that because they had suddenly discovered the idea of democracy in the Arab world, so did Middle Easterners. In truth, to the unknown and probably unknowable extent to which Bush’s “forward strategy” influenced regional politics, it did so primarily because there were at least some dedicated activists in every Arab country who were already working toward a more democratic future.
There is no question that the President’s forthright call for freedom and democracy in the Middle East had a dynamic effect on the political environment in which most of these activists operated. But its effect may not have come in any simple or direct way; indeed, it might have even worked in some cases by mobilizing regime opponents of domestic liberalization to overplay their hands. In many cases, developments appeared to unfold in three phases.
First, Bush’s call for change put regional leaders on notice that Washington was for the first time paying close attention to domestic political developments in their countries. Although Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah publicly rejected what Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal called “neo-imperialism”, Arab leaders were forced to position themselves as reformers, if only to relieve American pressure for change. This tactical accommodation of U.S. demands in turn allowed activists, who for so long had worked on the periphery and at the mercy of the Arab world’s well-developed national security states, to pursue their agendas in new and more meaningful ways. For example, Bush’s forthright support for democracy and freedom in the Arab world helped alter the prevailing public discourse in the region, which suddenly seemed to focus on political reform.
Second, the defenders of the regimes in the region, concerned about the new narratives they had been forced to let loose on their societies, redoubled their efforts to balance against the new rhetoric. Almost by reflex, they tried to change the subject, declaring that reform could not take place until the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was resolved. When that did not work, Arab leaders sought to appropriate the language of reform. Only the most committed regime supporters were willing to buy into such charades, characterized, for example, by government-controlled pretend nongovernmental organizations that were established to control genuine, independent NGOs.
Third, when this too failed, state security services stepped in to stifle increasingly bold calls for change. Many journalists, editors, bloggers and activists suffered—in some cases, more than ever. But perceptions had changed. The gap between what the regimes felt obliged to say and what they actually did grew ever larger. Arab authoritarians could neither roll back the new discourse nor stop the growing recognition of their rank hypocrisy. It was this new perceptual reality that arguably set the stage for the awakening.
Within this general dynamic, did the actual programs of the Freedom Agenda make a difference? Did the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a refocusing of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) projects on good governance and democracy promotion, and broad multilateral efforts like the (unfortunately named) Partnership for Progress for a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa have any measurable impact, let alone a decisive one, on Arab politics? Perhaps, or perhaps not. We really don’t know. An internal USAID study of the agency’s democracy and governance programs in Egypt found that many did not achieve their objectives. Hosni Mubarak resisted these efforts, which of course made their proximate failure more likely, but if the Egyptian government had not opposed reform in the blundering way that it did, the government would not have discredited itself, angered so many people and rendered itself as vulnerable to protest as it became.
Ironically, now that Arabs have risen up to demand change there may be major opportunities for MEPI, USAID and the Partnership for Progress to help them build new, decent political systems. This is after the fact, of course, but better after than not at all. The proponents of the Bush Administration’s Freedom Agenda want people to believe that this policy made the Arab uprisings possible. That is highly dubious, but with any luck at all the programs might now help them succeed. In politics it is alright to be proven correct for the wrong reasons, and at a much later date. That’s just how things work sometimes.
Beyond U.S. government initiatives, an array of organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and, within it, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) have long been dedicated to promoting democratic change around the world. These groups became more active in the Middle East with Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom.” Among other things, they have offered on-the-ground training for activists in election monitoring, party organization and political advocacy. In April 2011, there were a few breathless articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times suggesting that NDI- and IRI-sponsored programs must have been effective because some of the activists involved in uprisings around the region had participated in them.
I wouldn’t suggest that these efforts are unworthy, but the argument that democracy promotion programs worked because democracy activists rose up to demand democracy is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (“after this, therefore because of this”). The fact remains that there are no good metrics for determining how effective democracy promotion programs, whether governmental, quasi-governmental or private, have been in the Middle East. That’s not a reason to stop funding them. After all, they are cheap by virtually any measure, they might have been valuable, and they might prove to be very valuable in the future. Still, assertions that these efforts have been critical to the present political ferment in the region are like those linking the invasion of Iraq to the uprisings—inherently political. The best that one could say for them is that the Freedom Agenda and the work of groups like NED, Freedom House and others may have helped create an environment more conducive to change. Even that is a tough argument to make, however, because the democracy promoters themselves were working under the assumption that, in President Bush’s words, theirs was the “work of generations.”
It is time to put the Bush boosters’ arguments where they belong: in the trash heap of discredited ideas. There is no connection between the invasion of Iraq and Arab efforts to throw off generations of dictatorship. Other than helping to shape the Middle East’s discourse about political change, the effects of the Freedom Agenda are inconclusive at best. It is entirely possible that the uprisings would have happened without George W. Bush, or if he had been more like his father. Bush 41 placed a premium on international order rather than democratic change and, let’s not forget, presided over massive pro-democratic change anyway.
It is hard for Americans—neoconservatives, liberal internationalists, members of Congress of all stripes, and the post-WWII generation, which was weaned on the positive use of American power—to come to grips with the fact that Washington actually has a limited capacity to drive events in other parts of the world. This is not to suggest that America is in decline or that we should not try to do the right thing when we can make a positive difference. It is to suggest that any objective review of U.S. efforts to promote democratic change in the Middle East over the past decade would conclude that they produced very little. President Obama’s apparent embrace of a pro-democracy policy in his May 19 State Department speech presages more of the same.
Many have marveled that no American flags were burned during the 18 days of demonstrations in Tahrir Square, drawing from this fact the conclusion that the protesters were not anti-American. The fact remains that many Egyptians distrust the United States, but that is besides the point: There were no American flags burned in Tahrir because the reasons Egyptians were in the streets had everything to do with Egypt and nothing whatsoever to do with the United States, or Israel, or Iraq, or any other country. It’s a wonder that this simple truth should be so hard for some to accept.