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On Bush’s ‘March of Freedom’: Answering My Critics

Is the Middle East really destined to remain hopeless?

By 3.2.11

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I expected my last piece, "Bush's Middle East 'March of Freedom,'" to draw some fire, and it certainly did. One emailer, a publisher who I respect, wrote: "While I yield to few in my admiration for the work of Paul Kengor on Ronald Reagan, I would urge restraint to anyone drinking this Kool-Aid with respect to freedom and democracy in the Middle East." He called my essay "delusional," adding that "most of these [Middle East] countries are tribal in nature; in most of them the median IQ is in the 60s-80s range, creating easy prey for demagogues; few of them have any rational, liberal mediating institutions or traditions which restrain violent passions." He concluded: "Elections, should the turmoil in the Middle East lead to them, will result in 'one man, one vote, one time,' as the old saying about African elections in the 1960s predicted. Oligarchy, or perhaps benign autocracy, is the best form of government we can hope for from the countries of this region, for the rest of this century."

I disagree. But I would like a chance to clarify and expand upon my comments, which I think is necessary and might be helpful. This really is a difficult subject, with as much division among conservatives as between conservatives and liberals. I've grappled with it for a long time.

First, consider what George W. Bush -- in his National Endowment for Democracy speech that was focus of my essay -- referred to as "cultural condescension." Bush stated:

In many nations of the Middle East… 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?… I, for one, do not believe it….

Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to representative government. This "cultural condescension," as Ronald Reagan termed it, has a long history. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a so-called Japan expert asserted that democracy in that former empire would "never work." Another observer declared the prospects for democracy in post-Hitler Germany [were], and I quote, "most uncertain at best."... Seventy-four years ago, The Sunday London Times declared nine-tenths of the population of India to be "illiterates not caring a fig for politics."... 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.

Bush saw the Islamic nations of the Middle East as no exception, even given their obvious "freedom deficit." Bush insisted that the Middle East had to be changed; doing so would change not just the region but the world.

Importantly, he added, democratic governments in the Middle East "will not, and should not, look like us." Equally significant, he urged that "working democracies always need time to develop -- as did American democracy." America must be "patient" with those nations at different stages of the journey.

That said, I'm not gung ho on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East. I'm somewhere between skeptical and cautiously optimistic. I'm certainly no Kool-Aid drinker when it comes to this highly complex unknown.

I teach Middle East Politics. I've read the Koran many times. I know this region's history. And I know that George W. Bush embarked on an unprecedented democracy project in the part of the world where democracy has been most absent, most immune to freedom's march. The Middle East is the least democratic region on the planet.

Consider these numbers: The final pre-9/11 survey by Freedom House found that while 63% of the world's nations were technically democracies, an astonishing zero of the 16 Arab countries in the Middle East were democratic. In other words, President Bush sought to sow the seeds for a democratic transformation in the most barren region in the world. More than that, he chose to start the project in the Middle East's two most repressive states: the Taliban's Afghanistan and Saddam's Iraq. It was in those countries that Bush hoped to re-commence Ronald Reagan's "march of freedom."

And yet, to Bush's credit, we quickly witnessed at least four major elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, where millions of people who never voted before braved bullets and bombs and turned out in percentages of 60 to 80% to participate in democracy.

I will never forget two news stories I keep on file:

One was a December 15, 2005 AP piece on the third major post-Saddam Iraqi election. It reported that several rocket explosions were heard in Baghdad throughout the day; that a mortar shell hit near a polling station in the northern city of Tal Afar; that a bomb exploded in Ramadi; that another bomb was detonated at a voting site in Fallujah; that a mortar round struck about 200 yards from a polling place in Tikrit; and that a grenade killed a school guard near a voting site in Mosul. Tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police guarded polling centers. Bomb-sniffing dogs searched everywhere. And still, Iraqis walked miles to vote, forced to walk because vehicles were banned due to threats of car bombs.

Not only did Iraqis persevere, but did so in droves. Election officials were forced to extend voting due to long lines.

Second was a New York Times piece on the first Iraqi election the previous January. It reported how maintenance workers swept up charred chunks of human flesh from around the feet of Iraqis who refused to leave their spots in line as they waited to cast ballots, and then fearlessly stained their fingers with ink that would mark them as targets for terrorists. In another incident, Iraqi terrorists suited up a Down syndrome man with a suicide vest; anything to halt what al Qaeda ringleader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (now dead) deemed "the evil principle of democracy." In all, 44 people in Iraq literally died to vote in the January 2005 election, the victims of 38 separate attacks on polling stations, in a voter turnout that exceeded the U.S. presidential election two months earlier.

In short, George W. Bush -- who the Left told us was stupid -- was vindicated in his belief that Iraqis would embrace the ballot box. In fact, in terms of directly choosing their own representatives, Iraqis far surpassed 18th century Americans and French following their revolutions and new constitutions.

In his National Endowment for Democracy speech, George W. Bush gave numerous examples of nations that have travelled this road unexpectedly but successfully, including unappreciated great strides in the Middle East itself. People should read the speech (click here). Bush made his case very, very well.

Still, even then, with all of that said, I understand painfully well that democratic elections in the Middle East can elect the likes of Hamas, perhaps Hezbollah, maybe the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, in some places, democratic elections may produce only one election one time. They could produce not Muslim democrats but theocrats. No question.

And yet, there's also no question that discontent against Gaddafi, Mubarak, Ahmadinejad, is rooted, to some degree, in some meaningful yearning for freedom -- i.e., real freedom fighters alongside (yep) Muslim Brotherhood types. The big question, of course, is to what degree. No doubt, they're rejecting some nasty characters: Gaddafi and Mubarak and Ahmadinejad now, Mullah Omar and Saddam in the past. There is a desire here -- in some capacity -- for some form of human liberation.

Many times, George W. Bush insisted that God has placed a longing for freedom in all human hearts. Do we, as conservatives, believe that? Do we apply it to all humans, or only some? Do we believe that Islam has perverted that sense?

I suppose that's the crux of the debate. Time will tell. As George W. Bush once said, he doesn't expect to see the results in his lifetime. Actually, he may see them sooner than he thought.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.