Prominent supporters of George W. Bush's foreign policies have been out in full force in the media, joyous over the current wave of uprisings and protests in the Middle East. William Kristol, Elliott Abrams, and Paul Wolfowitz, among others, have pushed the message that these events vindicate Bush’s push for democracy in the Middle East. In their view, it is now clearly demonstrated that people around the world, especially those who live in repressive and tyrannical regimes, desire all of the political and economic freedoms and liberties associated with modern-day liberal democracies. To the Bush II Team, there is a group of critics who–at one point or another in the last ten years–doubted this inherent yearning for freedom in all people. This is preposterous. Sure, there have been voluminous critiques of Bush’s policy of militarized democracy promotion, and rightfully so. But only the fringes of the American political discourse expressed skepticism about whether people in the Middle East preferred democracy over authoritarianism.
I am quite surprised that the Bush II Team did not invoke a different, much stronger argument to defend their boss. Put simply, it is difficult to imagine mass protests, let alone revolutions, in the Middle East had the Iraqi state not been pried open by the U.S.
Yes, Iraq has been characterized by violence and instability since the invasion in 2003, and those facts have fed into specific, usually highly critical, narratives voiced by American and foreign opponents of the Bush II administration and U.S. foreign policy in general. But at the same time, the idea of democracy has not been tarnished. Contrary to conventional wisdom, America’s militarized efforts at democracy promotion in Iraq have not dampened the thirst that people in the region have for openness and transparency and free elections. The main worry, in the U.S., Europe, and among reformers in the Middle East, was that publics would see a dichotomy between safety and security and order on one hand and democracy on the other, and in the end opt for security, even if that meant a return to repressive rule. But this has not come true. Political reform is in the air and democracy is the goal. Why?
People in the region have watched Iraqis create a new constitution and electoral laws, organize political parties, and vote in elections. In this narrow sense, Iraq has served as a model for the Middle East, an unlikely source for inspiration and political empowerment. For events in Iraq have heightened expectations of freedom in the region. Freedom is not only something desirable but something that is attainable–thoughts that were rarely publicly expressed before Iraq’s (forced) transition to democracy. And as a result, people now want and demand political reform–that is, the ability to have a say in the direction of their state and a stake or sense of ownership in the politics of their country. This is a reality that dictators were going to face once the first authoritarian state in the Middle East substantially opened up. In this case, for better and worse, it took an exogenous shock to the regional order to produce that opening.
Clearly, the protesters across the region (in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Algeria) want democratic reforms implemented through their own efforts and on their own terms, without outside interference. So they do not wish to emulate how Iraq got to the point of political reform. But they do seek to get to and surpass Iraq’s current level of openness and freedom. That is the measuring stick for pro-democracy reformers in the region.