Better Lucky Than Good
Sometimes you just have to give credit where credit is due. Like Chauncey Gardner in Being There, right now everything in the Middle East seems to be coming up roses for George W. Bush - and the United States.
But like Chauncey, Bush the born-again democratic idealist has a series of happy accidents to thank for his success. The combination of the death of Arafat, Viktor Yushchenko's dioxin-tainted soup, bungling Syrian intelligence agents, and an all-powerful Shi'ite cleric may have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for Bush. In large part, it appears to be fate, not foresight, that has been the engine of democratic reform in that part of the world.
The administration and its fellow travelers are understandably feeling vindicated about the turn of events in the Middle East. Hamid Karzai is now the popularly elected president of Afghanistan. Eight million Iraqis braved insurgent threats to go to the polls in an election watched throughout the Arab world. The Palestinians gave Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) a mandate - at least for now - to pursue a peaceful resolution with Ariel Sharon and the Israelis. In Lebanon, the Cedar Revolution brings hope for true democracy in Beirut and the end of Syrian occupation and influence. And while the Saudis have allowed men to participate in municipal elections, in Cairo American friend and $2 billion aid recipient Hosni Mubarak has spoken of the need for democratic reforms. No wonder President Bush proclaimed Saturday that "freedom is on the march."
Unfortunately for the United States, progress does not reflect prescience, and vindication does not necessarily mean victory. Saved by Sistani, prodded by Putin, urged by Ukraine, assisted by Arafat and aided by Assad, Bush shows once again that it is better to be lucky than good.
Perhaps more than anything else, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was the key catalyst in the building momentum of democracy. The success of Victor Yuschenko comes no thanks to George W. Bush. It was the bungling Ukrainian secret police and the ham-fisted tactics of Bush's Russian soulmate Vladimir Putin that turned Yushchenko from near-martyr to national hero. While administration outsider Colin Powell was outspoken in support of Yuschenko, it was the Ukrainian people in the streets of Kiev who created a democratic reality on the ground.
In Palestine, the timely death of Yassir Arafat saved the Bush administration from a failure of historic proportions. Afraid and unwilling to commit his prestige to the Clinton peace process, Bush sat on his hands as the intifada festered, thousands died, and the Israeli-Palestinian powderkeg threatened to explode. Bush's refusal to deal with Arafat constituted not a policy, but a temper tantrum. Luckily for all of us, the passing of Arafat and new elections have given Mahmoud Abbas a window - perhaps only briefly - to take the Palestinian people on a different course towards nationhood.
In Iraq, it was Ayatollah Sistani, and not Paul Bremer or Ahmed Chalabi, who saved Bush's bacon. Sistani rejected the plan advanced by Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority for regional caucuses, demanding instead a direct vote by the Iraqi people as quickly as possible. Ironically, it was Sistani's mobilization of massive street demonstrations in the spring of 2004 that ensured the credibility of the U.S. run elections in January 2005. It was his support and the intervention of UN envoy Lakdar Brahimi that made the June 30, 2004 transfer of power to the Interim Iraqi Government of Iyaad Allawi possible. Left to his own devices, Bush would not have seen any purple fingers in Iraq on January 31, 2005.
And in Lebanon, the United States was and has been a non-factor since Ronald Reagan withdrew with his tail between his legs following the Marine barracks bombing in 1983. Democratic reform there was simply not an issue for the Bush administration. Not, that is, until the Syrians blew up former Prime Minister Hariri and, as a result, their domination over Lebanon. Perhaps the greatest example of blowback since the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 and Nixon's build up of the Shah in the 1970's, Syria in that single act likely destroyed its control over Beirut. It was Bashir Assad, and not George Bush, who inadvertently created the Cedar Revolution and "planted the flag of liberty" in Lebanon.
Little discussed, of course, is the lost opportunity in Iran. Late in the Clinton years, the rise of the popular and relatively moderate Khatami offered prospects for a thaw between Tehran and Washington. After September 11, unfortunately, Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric effectively ended those hopes.
Sadly, revisionist history from conservatives has led to a triumphalist tone from the Bush administration and its sycophants. Former psychiatrist and current Bush apologist Charles Krauthammer trumpeted in a Washington Post column that:
We are at the dawn of a glorious, delicate, revolutionary moment in the Middle East...It is our principles that brought us to this moment by way of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Krauthammer has it half right. For while there can be no denying that democracy is on the march in the Middle East, it is more serendipity than strategy that brought us to this point. George W. Bush may be on a roll, but unfortunately for him and America, the dice could still come up snake eyes.