Over the past two weeks, both conservative and
mainstream news outlets have fallen over themselves to attribute the
democratic rumblings in countries from Egypt to Lebanon to the
hard-headed wisdom of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his idealistic
rhetoric about “freedom” in the Middle East. This press coverage, in
turn, has reinvigorated the neocons, giving them renewed confidence
about the rightness of their cause.
The Washington Post’s neoconservative columnist
Charles Krauthammer sounded like a combination of Trotsky and
Robespierre as he proclaimed that now is the time to escalate Bush’s
policies in the Arab world. “Revolutions do not stand still,”
Krauthammer wrote. “They either move forward or die.” [Washington Post,
March 4, 2005]
Other more mainstream commentators who supported
Bush’s Iraq invasion have cited the several small steps toward Middle
Eastern democracy as vindication for their approach toward Iraq, which
included misleading the American people to war with false claims about
Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
“The last couple of years have not been easy for
anyone, myself included, who hoped that the Iraq war would produce a
decent, democratizing outcome,” wrote New York Times foreign policy
analyst Thomas L. Friedman. [NYT, March 3, 2005] Of course, the last two
years haven’t been very easy either for the tens of thousands of U.S.
troops sent to Iraq, for the families of the 1,500 dead U.S. soldiers or
for the Iraqi people.
This new Washington conventional wisdom of an
all-wise George W. Bush also has permeated the news pages.
“A powerful confluence of events in the Middle East
in recent weeks has infused President Bush’s drive to spread democracy
with a burst of momentum, according to supporters and critics alike,”
reported the Washington Post in an awestruck page-one article. [March 8, 2005]
Encouraged by this media acclaim, Bush now appears
ready to ladle more bitter medicine down the throats of the Arab people
and the world community. Abandoning his charm offensive to the world,
widely hailed by the U.S. press just a week earlier, Bush picked
conservative hardliner John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United
The appointment of Bolton, a harsh critic of the
U.N., sends the message that Bush and the neoconservatives are again
full of the self-certainty that infused the run-up to the Iraq War in
late 2002 and early 2003. Bolton can be expected to serve as the point
man for an even-tougher U.S. strategy toward the U.N. and the Middle
But the conventional wisdom – crediting Bush and
his neoconservatives for democratic breezes blowing in the Middle East –
appears to be just the latest case of dangerous wishful thinking, the
kind of rush to judgment that surrounded the erroneous acceptance of
Bush’s WMD claims in fall 2002 and the premature celebration of U.S.
military victory in Iraq in spring 2003.
As this Web site has noted, the Middle East
developments, now getting lumped together as a “confluence” of
democratic changes, can be better explained as local political
developments, with the U.S. role either marginal or potentially
negative. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocon
There is also the danger that this latest
misinterpretation of events – that the Arab world is rallying behind
Bush’s leadership – is already contributing to a backlash that could
undermine democratic advances.
For instance, after demonstrations in Lebanon
turned out thousands to demand withdrawal of Syrian military forces,
Bush put himself out front, bluntly challenging Syria and aligning
himself with the protesters. “Freedom will prevail in Lebanon,” Bush
declared, giving rhetorical assurances that he stands with the
In Lebanon, the pro-Syrian group, Hezbollah,
countered on March 8 by turning out an estimated half million
demonstrators in a central Beirut square. The massive demonstration
represented a powerful rebuff to Bush, a reminder that he remains a
deeply unpopular figure in the Middle East, whose embrace can hurt more
Beyond the political consequences on the ground,
however, the U.S. media commentaries largely have missed a central point
in the Middle East developments: they have their roots in local
political conditions and trends almost completely unrelated to U.S.
intervention in the region.
The anti-Syrian agitation in Lebanon, for example,
looks to have arisen from grassroots Lebanese fed up with decades of
occupation by Syrian troops and angered by the assassination of former
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
But the story is not as black-and-white as the Bush
administration presents it. In the 1970s and 1980s, Syria was only one
of several foreign countries to intervene in a sectarian civil war that
was devastating Beirut and other parts of Lebanon. In 1982, Israel
invaded Lebanon, became bogged down in a guerrilla war and didn’t end
its occupation of the country’s south until 2000.
Reacting to the bloody chaos in the early 1980s,
the Reagan-Bush administration dispatched troops for an ill-fated
peacekeeping mission, which ended after 241 U.S. soldiers and Marines
were killed by a suicide bomber in Beirut in 1983.
By the end of the decade, Syria’s military
intervention had brought Lebanon a measure of stability. Now, however,
with memories of the civil war receding, many Lebanese agree it’s time
for Syria to go. The Hariri assassination – which has not been solved
and has many suspects besides Syria – brought matters to a head. [For an
analysis of the Hariri case, see the Guardian’s “Who
Killed Rafik Hariri?,” Feb. 23, 2005.]
Yet, there is little or no evidence that the
Lebanese protests were triggered by Bush’s invasion of Iraq or his
Another regional development lumped into this
supposedly Bush-inspired rise of Middle East democracy is the renewed
negotiation between Israel and Palestine. But the catalyst to that
development was the death of Yasir Arafat last year, not Bush’s Iraq War
or his Inaugural Address.
Also, despite early optimism, the Israel-Palestine
peace talks seem to be foundering over the practical difficulties of
reaching an agreement about Palestinian independence while more than
200,000 Jewish settlers are living in West Bank communities.
Minor political openings in Egypt and Saudi Arabia
also are cited as evidence that Bush has sparked a surge of democratic
change in the region. But there is little proof that these steps by the
two U.S. allies are much more than cosmetic gestures aimed at
relieving mounting political pressures against longtime autocratic
Even in Iraq, the widely praised Jan. 30 election
was primarily an affirmation by the Shiites and the Kurds of their new
dominance over the Sunnis, who have long ruled Iraq and are leading the
resistance to the U.S. military presence. Some Shiite leaders now see
the U.S. military as a handy means of pounding the Sunnis into
Indeed, the question little asked by the U.S. press
corps is what realistically happens if the Sunnis refuse to accept their
virtual exclusion from the new Iraqi government and their new
Since the Bush administration has rhetorically
merged the Sunni insurgency with al-Qaeda and terrorism, the logic is
that U.S. forces will spearhead an increasingly ruthless campaign to
crush this minority population, either through destruction of cities –
as happened in Fallujah – or through the kinds of mass arrests that have
jammed thousands of suspected insurgents into Iraqi prisons.
Either way, the strategy courts the real
possibility of actions than could spill over into what much of the world
might deem war crimes, including genocide, the mass slaughter of an
ethnic or religious group.
The al-Jazeera Factor
The U.S. news media also appears to be missing an
important point about what’s really behind the broader trend toward
freedom in the Middle East.
While eager to give credit to Bush and his
neoconservatives – the likes of deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz
and deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams – the U.S. press
corps has largely ignored a far bigger factor, the emergence of
independent Arab satellite news networks, most notably al-Jazeera.
Over the past decade, Qatar-based al-Jazeera has
led the way in shattering autocratic control of information by Middle
Eastern dictators. Relying on a staff built from BBC-trained Arab
journalists, al-Jazeera gave viewers across the Arab world a taste of
what freedom looks and sounds like, with diverse opinions presented and
the claims of government spokesmen challenged.
Al-Jazeera also has highlighted stories of
government corruption. As a New York Times profile noted, “There was a
long list of offended powers: Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority; the
Jordanian government, which closed the Amman bureau and recalled its
ambassador from Doha; the Algerian, the Moroccan, the Kuwaiti and the
Israeli governments, all separately offended. The Saudi government to
this day operates a crippling advertising ban against the station.”
Some Arab governments accused al-Jazeera of
disloyalty to the Muslim cause by allowing Israelis to state their views
directly to Arab audiences, but the station responded by defending the
need for open debate. Al-Jazeera also contributed indirectly to media
diversity in the region, when a Saudi sheik started Al Arabiya as a
rival network in 2003. [NYT,
March 6, 2005; or see the book Al-Jazeera by Hugh Miles.]
While arguably a far more significant force for
democratic change than any Bush initiative, al-Jazeera has faced
hostility from Washington.
U.S. officials have accused the station of anti-U.S.
bias for showing graphic scenes of death and destruction inflicted on
Afghan and Iraqi civilians by the U.S. military. The Bush administration
has argued that al-Jazeera should follow the lead of the U.S. news media
in censoring disturbing images of war that may provoke anti-American
Al-Jazeera officials have countered by arguing that
it is the duty of professional journalists to present reality as it is,
not to sugarcoat images of war to make them more pleasing to politicians
or more palatable to viewers. The al-Jazeera position is that it is the U.S.
news media that has acted unprofessionally by sanitizing the horrors of
war – and thus making war an easier choice.
Still, the Bush administration has treated al-Jazeera
as part of the enemy infrastructure. During the Afghan war, the U.S.
military obliterated al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Kabul with a 500-pound
bomb. After initially claiming the attack was an accident, the Pentagon
later admitted that the bombing was deliberate and justified by alleged
al-Jazeera ties to al-Qaeda terrorists.
To muzzle al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq War,
the Bush administration has put intense diplomatic pressure on the
government of Qatar to eliminate subsidies that allow the network to
function. The U.S.-backed Iraqi government also shut down al-Jazeera’s
bureau in Baghdad in 2004.
The Bush administration’s heavy-handed tactics
aimed at silencing one of the region’s most independent journalistic
voices have created another dilemma for the U.S. news media. While U.S.
news outlets have relied on al-Jazeera’s on-the-ground video of the war
– minus scenes of civilian casualties – American media has mostly fallen
into line with Washington’s hostility toward the network for supposedly
lacking the high professional standards of U.S. journalists.
So, the U.S. news media – unwilling to give al-Jazeera
much credit for spreading the seeds of democracy and seemingly ignorant
of local political trends in the region – has defaulted to the preferred
Washington narrative: that George W. Bush and his neoconservative
advisers are the new liberators of the Middle East.
Beyond whether this analysis is utterly sophomoric,
an even more pressing question may be whether this new conventional
wisdom opens the gates to more bloodshed, more devastation and possibly
more shame for the United States.