Last Thursday, George Bush took an unequivocal stand on the Arab democracy debate, in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy:
Time after time, observers have questioned whether this country, or that people, or this group, are “ready” for democracy—as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress. In fact, the daily work of democracy itself is the path of progress….The United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results.
I guess he was talkin’ to me, because I’ve been one of those doubting Thomases. I laid out the counter-case to the President’s in an address I delivered last year: Should America Promote a Liberal, Democratic Middle East? My answer: at its peril.
A lot of the press coverage compares the President’s idealism to Ronald Reagan’s. An analysis in the Washington Post called it “Reaganism distilled, the 150-proof stuff.” Frankly, the President’s speech reminded me more of Jimmy Carter’s human rights idealism, with its heavy overtones of missionary purpose. At the end of the day, Carter’s human rights diplomacy in the Middle East undermined only one regime: the Shah’s. The result was not a net gain for human rights or U.S. interests.
I know a few of the new missionaries, and I wish them well. I hope they’ve thought out what the “new policy” means in practical terms, especially regarding countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Their rulers are likely to feel its impact long before the despots of Syria and Iran do. And whatever their “Plan A,” I would urge them to start working now on “Plan B.” They just might need it—sooner than they think.