That grim assessment is, of course, not the imagery
favored by the U.S. news media as it resumes its role of courtier press,
lavishing praise on Bush and his neoconservative advisers as heroic
visionaries leading the Middle East to freedom.
But the American press corps again has gone
overboard in its fawning coverage of Bush, much like it did in 2002-2003
when it largely fell for his warnings about an imminent threat from
Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and
the discovery of no WMD stockpiles, the U.S. intelligence community came
under criticism for a “group-think” that had succumbed to pressure from
the White House to hype the danger from Iraq. But the U.S. news media
has been equally guilty of “group-think,” both then and now.
In the latest conventional wisdom about winds of
freedom sweeping the Middle East, both mainstream and conservative
commentators bought into the notion that Arabs were rallying to Bush’s
orations about liberty and finally appreciating his conquest of Iraq.
But the reality is that Bush remains one of the region’s most despised
So when Bush rushed to center stage ostensibly to
urge on thousands of Lebanese demonstrators demanding Syrian military
withdrawal – and implicitly to take credit for the developments – the
U.S. news media missed the other story: that Bush’s grandstanding was
putting those protesters and their cause in danger.
One of the results was a backlash that saw
pro-Syrian Hezbollah stage a counter rally of a half million people in
Beirut on March 8, denouncing U.S. intervention in Lebanese politics and
accusing Washington of regional “terrorism.” This massive outpouring
emboldened Lebanon’s parliament to re-elect pro-Syrian Prime Minister
Omar Karami, who had resigned just nine days earlier in face of the
The twin developments were a stunning reversal for
U.S. policy in Lebanon, putting the country’s political position back
almost where it was when the anti-Syrian protests began following the
assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14. The
heightened tensions also have complicated the United Nations’ strategy
for pressuring Syria to withdraw its remaining 14,000 troops from
Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim party long
denounced by the United States as a terrorist organization, was given a
chance to demonstrate that Syria's military presence, which began in the
1970s during Lebanon's civil war, has the backing of a significant part
of the Lebanese population.
Hezbollah's muscle-flexing also forced another
retreat by Washington. “The United States has basically accepted the
French view, echoed by others in Europe, that with Hezbollah emerging as
such a force in very fractured Lebanon, it is dangerous to antagonize it
right now,” according to a New York Times article by Steven R. Weisman.
[NYT, March 10, 2005]
An alert U.S. press corps might have pounced on the
Bush administration for overplaying its hand, but virtually across the
board the U.S. news media had hailed the pre-March 8 developments as
vindication of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the neoconservative strategy
of using force to smash the Arab political structure. [See
Amorality” and “Bush’s
A wiser course for Bush on Lebanon might have been
to stay in the background and let the French take the lead in helping
Lebanon hold free elections this spring. A new study of Middle Eastern
public opinion by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of
Jordan found that France has a much better image than the United States
and Great Britain, which jointly led the invasion of Iraq.
The survey of opinions in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon,
Syria and Palestine found widespread hostility toward the United States
and Great Britain, which were viewed as “racist,” “morally decadent” and
“imperialistic.” These opinions were not held about France, which
opposed the Iraq invasion
Rather than viewing the Bush administration as
supporting democracy, large majorities of those questioned disagreed,
condemning the United States as a major human rights violator. More than
85 percent in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Palestine called Bush’s war in
Iraq an act of terrorism. In Lebanon, that view was held by 64 percent.
[For more on the survey, see
Der Spiegel’s online edition, March 9, 2005.]
So it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise
that Bush’s attempt to bask in the glory of the Lebanese protests would
have provoked a negative reaction in the Middle East. When Bush boasted
that “clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun,” many Arabs immediately
grew suspicious that the anti-Syrian demonstrations were just the latest
example of U.S. manipulation of politics in a Middle Eastern country.
For more than a half century, the region has
experienced these U.S. covert interventions, such as the Iranian coup in
1953 during which CIA officers spread money around the Tehran bazaars to
encourage pro-Shah demonstrations. Middle Easterners also know how the
United States historically has protected the region’s dictators, such as
the Saudi royal family, as part of a Western strategy to ensure a secure
supply of oil.
This reality should have given Bush pause before he
so publicly embraced the Lebanese protesters. But Bush couldn’t seem to
resist the temptation to present himself as a modern-day Lawrence of
Arabia, the white man bringing freedom to the Middle East.
Though Bush’s high-profile pronouncements gave him
a boost in his political standing at home, his smooch on the cheek of
Lebanon’s demonstrators turned out to be a kiss of death – at least in
the short term – for their protest movement.