George W. Bush’s place in the pantheon of celebrated American presidents is far from secure. Nevertheless, the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya sheds new light on President Bush’s vigorous support for democratic values across the entire Middle East.
An Obama administration starved of good news will likely seek and receive credit for helping topple the dictatorship, but his predecessor deserves substantial credit for envisioning and perhaps even helping instigate the Arab Spring – of which the events in Libya constitute only the latest chapter – as a whole.
During the course of his presidency, Bush was ridiculed for possessing a supposedly simplistic worldview that viewed foreign powers in a Manichean fashion as either good guys or bad guys. The bad guys, of course, were invariably anti-democratic forces. In a speech given at the National Endowment of Democracy in November 2003, President Bush highlighted the democratic potential of the Middle East:
Our commitment to democracy is also tested in the Middle East, which is my focus today, and must be a focus of American policy for decades to come. In many nations of the Middle East – countries of great strategic importance – democracy has not yet taken root. And the questions arise: Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom, and never even to have a choice in the matter? I, for one, do not believe it.
He was also prescient in his analysis of the societal ills that would eventually be the impetus for the Arab Spring:
In many Middle Eastern countries, poverty is deep and it is spreading, women lack rights and are denied schooling. Whole societies remain stagnant while the world moves ahead. These are not the failures of a culture or a religion. These are the failures of political and economic doctrines. As the colonial era passed away, the Middle East saw the establishment of many military dictatorships. Some rulers adopted the dogmas of socialism, seized total control of political parties and the media and universities. They allied themselves with the Soviet bloc and with international terrorism. Dictators in Iraq and Syria promised the restoration of national honor, a return to ancient glories. They’ve left instead a legacy of torture, oppression, misery, and ruin.
Ultimately, the president did not utilize only rhetoric to advance his so-called freedom agenda. As The Economist pointed out, Bush was an an “active champion” of democracy:
The Bush administration nagged, scolded, bribed and bullied its allies towards greater democracy. The Americans leant on Egypt to hold more open elections in 2005, and in 2006 they talked an astonished Israel into letting Hamas contest Palestinian elections in the occupied territories. Even the Saudis were prevailed on to hold some (men only) local elections.
Furthermore, the administration did manage to pull off relatively legitimate democratic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq – with greater emphasis on “relatively” in regard to the former. Some of Bush’s diplomatic initiatives thus actually resulted in tangible dividends, which in part helped inspire democratic activists throughout the region. “I was cynical about Iraq,” Walid Jumblatt, a leader in the Lebanese Cedar Revolution, noted in 2005. “But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world…The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”
To be sure, President Bush was unable to remake the Middle East during his presidency and his time as the leader of the free world was marked by many other failures. He has nonetheless lived to see in the Arab Spring the rise of a region that is decidedly more democratic — something skeptics thought impossible in his lifetime, if ever.
The lion’s share of the credit for forcing chance in the region undoubtedly goes to the many courageous citizens on the ground, but Bush deserves some recognition for helping point the way. As such, the emergence of a new government in Libya, amidst sustained uprisings in Syria and Yemen and in the aftermath of the fall of authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, bestows much-needed validation to at least part of his presidential legacy.