18 July 2007

18 July 2007 - Bush's Middle East summit

President George W. Bush brought new hope to the Middle East this week with a speech announcing that he would soon convene a regional peace summit. Many jaded observers and committed Bush skeptics dismissed or mocked the idea. There have certainly been dozens of failures before. But there are three very good reasons to believe things might be different this time around.

The first reason is that Bush has finally assembled a coalition of Arab states that are ready to move in the direction he wants to take them. The elder Bush achieved the same thing during and after the Gulf War, and the results were the Madrid summit and the Oslo peace process. Here, shared fears of Iran and Shia domination in the region are quietly prodding Arab states in Washington’s direction.

The second reason is that Hamas’s victory has jarred Arab leaders into action. Sarah Kass, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is boldly optimistic about the possible opportunities for peace that might be seized from Hamas’s victory. She may be a bit too optimistic, but it is true that Hamas has reminded Arab states of the potential for Islamist revolution and the urgent need to stop it before it spreads.

The third reason is that both Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert are politically weak within their own respective nations, and may need to achieve something substantial in order to protect their political power. They need peace, and they need each other. All three of these factors have created an opportunity for a renewed American peace push.

The less skeptical observers have made some interesting comments. Michael Oren notes that Bush’s proposals are not only idealistic, but place an unprecedented amount of responsibility on Arab leaders. Shmuel Rosner sees Condoleeza Rice’s influence in Bush’s proposals, and suggests what we are seeing is primarily her vision for the Middle East, with both risks and potential for Israel.

It is worth noting that the Madrid summit in 1991 was a failure, partly because when Israel is surrounded by Arab states at the table, they seem to goad each other into hard-line positions. But the process did indirectly create a side track that led to the Oslo negotiations. And this time, with the Arab peace plan in the background, a summit might be less confrontational and more productive. I’m willing to hope.

There’s a lot one can criticize in Bush’s foreign policy, but one of the elements I support wholeheartedly is its idealism about democracy and human rights. The U.S. has erred in putting democracy before the rule of law, which I think is the main reason Iraq has turned into such a terribly difficult and bloody place. But for the first time since Woodrow Wilson, American policy is promoting American values.

Two years ago, I was invited by a group of students at the University of Cape Town to debate Bush’s foreign policy. They found a professor to oppose it right away, but could not find anyone on UCT’s faculty to support it. Eventually they found me, a graduate student. It was a really fun debate, and I felt I had won the exchange, partly because my opponent refused the opportunity to rebut my arguments.

Below is the text of my speech.


I would like to thank Robert Krause for organising this debate and inviting me to defend George W. Bush’s foreign policies in the Middle East. I understand that only thirty-five people turned him down before he asked me.

I’m also very glad to see so many of my friends here—though it seems many of them have come to support the other guy.

I think we must begin a discussion like this with a few disclaimers.

In defending American policy I am not, as some would have it, cheering for the deaths of innocent bystanders in war, or celebrating the military occupation of foreign lands.

And I accept that my colleague, in criticising American policy, is not praising dictatorial regimes or terrorist attacks against innocent civilians.

I also wish to emphasise that we are confining our remarks to the Middle East, and there are many parts of Bush’s foreign policy—to say nothing of his domestic policies—that we are leaving out.

Some of these foreign policies I support, such as Bush’s unprecedented contributions to aid for developing countries, especially in Africa. And some of these I oppose, such as Bush’s policies in Latin America and his intransigence on global climate change.

I imagine that my colleague’s main objection to Bush’s Middle East policy is the projection of American power across the globe.

In an increasingly interdependent world, in which everyone depends on everyone else in various ways to keep the global economy going, it can be frustrating to think that one country is less constrained than others from taking independent or even unilateral actions.

I also think that many people fear they will be forced to bear the potential negative consequences of US actions over which they have no power or control.

I view these as legitimate concerns.

However, history teaches us that inaction by the United States often has consequences that are far more devastating.

The self-isolation of the US after the First World War remains an important example. America’s failure to intervene in Europe’s struggles created a power vacuum which fascism and Nazism rushed in to fill.

I support Bush’s Middle East policy because it is the first attempt by an American President, or anyone else for that matter, to make human rights and democracy a priority in the region.

I recognise that the US has not always lived up to its own standards, and that it has other priorities in the region as well that it sometimes places above these noble ideals.

Yet on the whole, I believe that Bush’s policy has resulted in positive changes and will pave the road to a better future for the Middle East and the world.

The evolution of Bush’s policy

It is important to remember that Bush’s original policies toward the Middle East were quite different from what they are today. In fact, they were quite isolationist.

When Bush took office in January 2001, he pledged to pursue a hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even supported a partial reform of United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

The attacks on New York and Washington nine months later, on September 11th, shattered the isolationist paradigm, just as surely and completely as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 destroyed the illusion that the US could stay out of the Second World War.

Bush then adopted a new policy: henceforth the US would target terror groups—and would also target states that sponsored or supported terror.

This policy, known as the Bush Doctrine, was clearly an interventionist strategy, one that could and indeed did lead to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But war is only one tool of the Bush Doctrine, and the US has in fact used many different approaches in the Middle East, knowing full well that regime change is difficult, that it is not always legitimate and that it may create as many problems as it solves.

Two years after 9/11, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, Bush embraced a new policy, which he called the “Strategy of Freedom”. This strategy aimed at promoting democracy and human rights in addition to fighting terror and maintaining security in the Middle East.

It grew from the realisation that, as former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky pointed out, governments that do not honour the human rights of their own citizens will always have the need to create external enemies and sow hatred as a way of maintaining their own power.

As Bush said in November 2003: “As long as the Middle East is a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export”.

Obstacles and successes

Bush’s new strategy, in which security would go hand-in-hand with human rights, represented a profound new direction for the US and for the region.

But it faced two major obstacles from the start.

The first was the continued violence and terror that challenged the new democratically-elected governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, which suggested that democracy might not easily take root in societies that are at once highly authoritarian and socially fractured.

The second obstacle was the embarrassment of America’s own human rights failures in the Middle East—not just its continued support for autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but also its torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and its extralegal imprisonment and interrogation of “enemy combatants” at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

However, the Bush administration also achieved a steady stream of successes—not just in its Strategy of Freedom but also regarding the security goals of the Bush Doctrine.

On the security front, Bush helped persuade Libya to abandon its programmes and plans for developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and to submit to UN inspections. He also successfully pressured Syria to end its military occupation of Lebanon.

Bush became the first US President to endorse a Palestinian state; in return he saw the rise of a Palestinian leadership that renounced terror. Finally, he helped Sudan end its 30-year civil war between the Khartoum government and rebels in the south of the country.

On the democracy and human rights front, Bush’s new policy encouraged and assisted popular revolutions against corrupt and autocratic governments in Georgia, the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

In January this year, Palestinians and Iraqis voted in the first fully democratic elections in the Arab world. A month later, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens took to the streets in an unprecedented show of “people’s power” to demand an end to Syrian domination.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia held its first-ever municipal elections, and Egypt promised to allow opposition candidates to contest upcoming presidential elections.

These are great achievements indeed.

No doubt there were some local causes that contributed to this unprecedented stirring of freedom, such as the emergence of semi-independent satellite news networks such as Al-Jazeera.

But the catalysts for these changes were undoubtedly the actions of the US—first, in toppling Saddam Hussein, and showing how weak the authoritarian governments of the region really were; and second, in holding democratic elections to replace them.

Enduring contradictions

There are some persistent contradictions in Bush’s Middle East policy. The most glaring of these is America’s continued close relations with Saudi Arabia, despite the Saudi government’s still largely autocratic rule and its continued support for extremist ideologies.

There are many reasons for these enduring ties, the most salient of which is that the US remains dependent on Saudi oil.

In addition, the US is building a stronger relationship with Pakistan, which is a military dictatorship, and Uzbekistan, which is governed by a regime that is not afraid to shoot its own citizens in their hundreds to maintain power.

In both of these cases, as well as in the Saudi case, the US sees these authoritarian governments as bulwarks against extremist Islamic groups. Pakistan and Uzbekistan have also been important military allies in the war against Al-Qaeda.

These contradictions are a warning that we should not view Bush’s Strategy of Freedom uncritically or in an overly idealistic fashion.

Put another way, we might say that the fight against terror is clearly Bush’s first priority. The Bush Doctrine is fundamental and the Strategy of Freedom is secondary.

At the same time, we must acknowledge some of the long-term changes that Bush is pursuing in order to resolve these contradictions.

One is the shift away from Middle East oil as an energy souce, and the shift towards other oil-producing regions (such as West Africa) and eventually towards alternative energy sources.

Another is the gradual but steady pressure that the Bush administration is applying to autocratic regimes, including those that are US allies.

Bush has withdrawn American troops from Saudi Arabia, for example, where they had previously provided protection to the Saudi government from its belligerent neighbours.

In addition, the US has tied a free-trade agreement with Egypt to the promise of political reforms, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently told Egyptian officials, in public, that her government expected to see further democratic changes.


What we are witnessing today in the Middle East is a slow and fretful awakening of human energies in a region that has failed to participate in the most progressive political changes of the second half of the twentieth century.

Many Arab states, for example, sided with Hitler during the Second World War. But unlike Germany, these countries did not go through a process of “de-Nazification” or a conscious introduction of liberal principles and democratic ideals.

Previous US administrations coddled the dictators of the Middle East for the sake of Cold War geopolitics. Yet the end of the Cold War did not bring about changes in those relations, or new constitutional processes within those states, as occurred here in South Africa.

And those countries that fell into the embrace of the Soviet Union never experienced a Berlin Wall moment. The end of Soviet control did not bring an end to human rights abuses or authoritarian government.

Until today.

The emergence of democracy and human rights as a central theme—even if it is not the only theme—in US policy towards the Middle East is a fundamentally positive change.

What is missing at the moment is a coherent strategy for advancing and strengthening the cause of democracy even further.

The Middle East needs a vision like Africa’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), and new leadership able and willing to drive the changes.

It is likely that this new leadership will arise from small Arab states like Bahrain, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Whereas Saddam Hussein gave 10 000 US dollars to the family of every Palestinian suicide bomber, the UAE is contributing millions of dollars to building new Palestinian towns in Gaza.

The real test of Bush’s policy will be: is it successful in fighting terror? Or, rather: is it more successful than another approach would have been?

I believe Bush’s approach is, in fact, the only alternative. That is why US Senator John Kerry, who ran against Bush in the 2004 elections, proposed a Middle East policy whose fundamental elements were essentially the same as those of the incumbent.

It will be impossible to stop every lunatic with a gun or homemade explosives. But it will not be impossible to build societies over the long term that can discourage, and withstand, terror—societies whose leaders do not need to teach their people to hate in order to maintain control, societies who look forward to solutions rather than backward to old grievances.

It is through a combination of approaches—fighting terror on the one hand, encouraging democracy and human rights on the other—that the threat of terror can be suppressed, and the lives of millions of people in the Middle East and around the world can be changed for the better.

Our freedom, and our courage to use that freedom as we do here today, is the best—and the only—security.


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