In one of his first statements since leaving office, former president George
W. Bush commented on Middle East developments in a May 18 Wall Street
Journal article titled “The Arab Spring and American Ideals.” It is worth
remarking briefly on how his remarks reflect certain American misconceptions
regarding these events, misconceptions shared by almost no one in the Middle
Bush writes: “We do not get to choose if a freedom revolution
should begin or end in the Middle East or elsewhere. We only get to choose what
side we are on.”
While one should not overestimate US influence, one
should not underestimate it either. Consider:
• In the Gaza Strip, by supporting
the inclusion of Hamas in elections in which it was not qualified to participate
(since it had not accepted the Oslo accords), Bush’s own administration ensured
there would be a radical Islamist revolution in the Gaza Strip. This weakened
the already dim prospects for any Israel-Palestinian peace process, has already
caused one war and will almost certainly be the cause of others.
Lebanon, by refusing to give strong support to moderate forces, the previous two
presidents ensured the “freedom revolution” in that country would end in an
• In Egypt, by taking the side not only of
a total overthrow of the regime but also openly and unilaterally supporting the
possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood government, the Obama administration helped
ensure the fundamental transformation of Egypt began with the inevitable end: an
anti-freedom Islamist regime.
• In Iran, by ignoring the upsurge of
protest following the stolen election, the Obama administration ensured that a
“freedom revolution” didn’t get started there.
• In Syria, by refusing
for all practical purposes to help the rebels, the US government ensured that
the “freedom revolution” would be defeated. Equally bad, by giving
disproportionate help to the Islamists, the administration made it far more
likely that if the rebellion succeeded it wouldn’t be a “freedom
• And finally, in Libya, the United States and its European
allies determined pretty much everything, overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi and
determining who would rule the country.
Thus, a simple claim by Bush,
which is also about the closest he and Obama would come to total agreement on
any issue, is easily and demonstrably proven false. One hallmark of those
favoring “neoconservative” positions is their lack of knowledge about the actual
But that’s not all. The most important point of all is this:
“We only get to choose what side we are on.” The underlying assumption here is
that there are two sides: evil dictatorship and noble democracy
In fact, there are three sides:
• Dictatorships of various
levels of repressiveness, some of which are friendly and some sworn enemies of
the United States.
• Moderate democracy advocates who want freedom in the
Western sense of the word.
• Revolutionary Islamists who want a new, and
anti-American, dictatorship run by themselves.
During the Cold War,
American policymakers were very much aware of this three-part distinction (the
third being Communists, in that case). They didn’t always choose correctly, but
tried to evaluate each situation seriously. Sometimes they chose the dictators;
sometimes they chose the democrats and sometimes they even helped nudge the
dictators (usually military juntas and especially in Latin America) into
returning to the barracks and letting democracy resume.
No such careful
process goes on now. In fact, the Obama administration has repeatedly done the
Bush also reflects Obama in using the be-on-
the-right-side-of-history argument, a fatal flaw in a president of the United
States, who should be making choices based on US interests.
Bush’s argument, annotated by me: “The idea that Arab peoples are somehow
content with oppression has been discredited forever.”
question is which kind of oppression we’re talking about. They are either
willing, or can be forced, into getting rid of the old Arab nationalist
oppression and then substituting Islamist oppression for it. Bush argues as if
they can jump out of the frying pan with no danger of ending up in the
“ ...America, they [presumably policymakers] argue, should be
content with supporting the flawed leaders they know in the name of
If you want a list I can easily show that this realist, US
interests-based policy has worked for decades. True, there are times when a
revolutionary situation exists, but these are relatively few and far
For example, Egyptian dictatorships ruled from 1952 to 2010
without facing a single serious internal revolutionary threat. So how America
handles those brief crisis periods help determine what happens for decades into
By the way, Bush speaks of “supporting the flawed leaders,”
so does that imply the alternative leaders aren’t flawed, perhaps even more
flawed? Perhaps the “flawed leaders they know” do not number among their flaws a
tendency to sponsor terrorism, commit aggression against their neighbors and do
everything they can to hurt the United States.
The czar, the Weimar
republic, the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, the regime of Prince Sihanouk in
Cambodia, and the shah, for example, were all deeply flawed. Now what about the
regimes that replaced them? It would be better to make a distinction in setting
policy: overthrow anti-American dictatorships (Iran, Syria, Gaza Strip) and
support indispensable pro-American ones that are less oppressive than their
counterparts (formerly Egypt, formerly Lebanon, and still Jordan and Saudi
Remember that a high percentage of those in the Middle East who
don’t like US policy also hate the United States (and are not assuaged by
America helping them gain power) and want Islamist dictatorship, or at least
will vote for it for various reasons.
“But in the long run, this foreign
policy approach is not realistic...”
Why? Suddenly revolution is
inevitable in every Arab country and nothing is going to stop it?
Consider the following:
• In Algeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia,
Jordan and Bahrain, opposition movements were suppressed with relative ease. The
same would have happened in Libya if not for NATO’s intervention.
Egypt and Tunisia, revolutions didn’t take place not because the people united
can never be defeated but because the armies sided with the opposition. Once you
have the entire armed forces on your side revolution becomes a lot more
“The years of transition that follow can be difficult. People
forget that this was true in Central Europe, where democratic institutions and
attitudes did not spring up overnight.”
Well, actually, in Central Europe
“democratic institutions and attitudes” did “spring up overnight.” Why? It was
because these concepts were deeply embedded in the culture and revived quickly
when given the opportunity.
It’s the difference between humus in which
seeds lie dormant awaiting the first rain and sandy soil that has only ever
The people in Central Europe were not about to vote for
fascist movements as alternatives. And this situation has nothing to do with
Middle Eastern realities.
But what’s most amazing of all on the Western
scene is how thin the arguments made by Obama, Bush, the mass media and most
“experts” are, and how easily they can be refuted by reference to history and
These counter-arguments are censored out of those spheres and
so never get heard by the majority of Westerners. They will, however, be heard
by history and will shape reality in the region.
The writer’s book,
Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. He is
director of global research in the International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a
featured columnist at PJM and editor of The Middle East Review of International
Affairs (MERIA) journal.