Remember the Arab Spring?
"Just recently we have had the Lebanese revolution, the Egyptian announcement about electoral changes, the Iraqi elections, the Afghan elections," wrote Charles Krauthammer in the spring of 2005. "Kuwait has just extended suffrage to women, and Syria has announced, however disingenuously, that they are moving toward legalizing political parties, purging the ruling Baath Party, sponsoring free municipal elections in 2007, and formally endorsing a market economy." He concluded: "What we have seen in the last six months has been simply astonishing -- well, astonishing to the critics."
Now, to be clear, Krauthammer is very possibly the worst journalist working in America today, a relentlessly pernicious force, never right about anything, who feels his commentary should not be shackled by the small-minded bonds of accuracy or logic. He was, however, hardly alone in his unabashed enthusiasm for Bush's Arab Spring. "There is a pathology, a historical pathology," explained New Republic editor in chief Martin Peretz, "that [Bush] has attacked with unprecedented vigor and with unprecedented success." That pathology was "the political culture of the Middle East, which the president may actually have changed."
And, indeed, things have changed. As Sabrina Tavernise reported in Monday's New York Times about the centerpiece of the U.S.-orchestrated Mid-East transformation, "after months of apparently random sectarian violence the pattern has become one of attack and counterattack, with Sunni militants staging what commanders call 'spectacular' strikes and Shiite militias retaliating with abductions and murders of Sunnis."
Welcome to the long, dark Arab winter.
It's hard to believe that so recently, the American mainstream's enthusiasm for the "successes" of Bush's democracy-promotion endeavor was so intense that liberals were overwhelmingly cowed into silence. What the successes were, exactly, was always hard to say. Iraq was, at the time, already being torn asunder by violent sectarian divisions that were merely re-inscribed by an election in which everyone voted for a sectarian party. Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution," meanwhile, didn't actually change the country's electoral system at all. Reforms in the pro-American Arab states proved to be chimerical -- Kuwait let women as well as men vote in elections for powerless offices, Saudi Arabia let people vote for powerless offices, and Mubarak promised to hold a fair election but then didn't, you know, hold one. Cruelest of all, however, was the treatment of the long-suffering Palestinians. For years, Bush had informed them that no pressure would be brought to bear on their Israeli occupiers to settle the territorial issue until the Palestinian Authority reformed its internal procedures and ended the corrupt and authoritarian rule of the Fatah Movement. Eventually, Yasser Arafat died, elections were held, and the main Palestinian opposition movement, Hamas, won. Palestinians were then informed that there would be no negotiations. Having been ordered to vote, you see, they voted for the wrong party.
Then last summer, Lebanese Arabs found that the United States' enthusiasm for their new government didn't extend to protecting it from wide-ranging Israeli military strikes on their civilian infrastructure or efforts to strangle their economy. Lebanon, it seems, faced a mandate not only to restore democracy, but to initiate a new round of civil war by somehow disarming Hezbollah. Meanwhile, about Iraq itself, of course, in many ways the less said the better.
But still, something must be said. Indeed, the editors of The New Republic have convened a "special issue" dedicated to pondering that sad country. It features, among other things, an unsigned editorial observing that "at this point, it seems almost beside the point to say this: The New Republic deeply regrets its early support for this war." And, well, so do I regret my support for it. But what is one to do to make up for it? Mostly, nothing can be done. At least, however, when surveying a fiasco one can attempt to learn something about what went wrong and change one's thinking in the future. Such a change in thinking is precisely why I, at least, having fallen for the Iraq boondoggle one time, was not seduced by the siren song of the Arab Spring. Those of us who chose not to get fooled again were, of course, heartily condemned by a March 2005 TNR editorial that espied a "certain grudging quality" to liberal takes on events in Lebanon. "So far," they sniffed, Daily Kos "has featured only two short posts on Lebanon's equally stirring Cedar Revolution -- and both were notable mostly for their pessimism." This was, perhaps, the measured version of the April 11, 2005, take offered by the magazine's owner and editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz. He analyzed "The Politics of Churlishness" in a cover story dedicated to the proposition that "if George W. Bush were to discover a cure for cancer, his critics would denounce him for having done it unilaterally, without adequate consultation, with a crude disregard for the sensibilities of others." And, about sixteen months later, of course, these voices so eager to condemn liberals for not celebrating the new freedom of the Lebanese were the loudest in clamoring for Lebanese blood.
"As we pore over the lessons of this misadventure" in Iraq, explained the magazine in last week's reassessment, "we do not conclude that our past misjudgments warrant a rush into the cold arms of 'realism.'" Given what else is said in the editorial and in the special issue, it's fair to interpret this as meaning that, in surveying the scene, they conclude nothing in particular. For my part, at a minimum I've concluded that it's a mistake to entrust the cause of American idealism and Arab reform to a movement led by people who plainly loathe Arabs (Palestinians "behave like lemmings" wrote Peretz two weeks ago before observing last week that Iraqis now lack "even the bare rudiments of civilization") and couldn't care less about their well-being except insofar as pretense to caring is a useful club with which to batter domestic political opponents.
As an approach to intra-punditocracy one-upsmanship this seems to work out okay, but as an approach to foreign policy it's moronic. In that realm, what actual foreigners actually think actually does matter, whether or not you care about them or agree with their opinions. And what Muslims think about the United States is that we don't give a damn about their interests or welfare. They are, therefore, very skeptical of schemes that involve giving the United States more control over the fate of the Muslims -- be it conquering Iraq, strong-arming Arab regimes with economic pressure, or efforts to maintain the principle that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is sacrosanct when Iran wants to break it but not when the United States or Israel or India wants to.
Under these circumstances, democratization -- the shared passion of many Republicans and Democrats alike -- is doomed to fail. Any political opening will only bring to power forces we don't like and will try to bat down, further increasing resentment of the United States and only ensuring things will be even worse the next time around. This is not to say that we should be blithely unconcerned with internal political developments elsewhere. Rather, the point is that, whatever we hope to accomplish, the only way we can do anything constructive is to begin draining from the American approach to the Middle East the overwhelming stench of imperialism that's surrounded it for decades. We need to operate through legitimate mechanisms, establish rules of the road that we and our allies will actually follow and, most of all, operate with a sensitivity to the actual desires and priorities of people who live in the region. Faced with a disaster the scale of our current policies, saying "sorry" and then trying the same thing over again isn't good enough.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.
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