President George W. Bush’s vision for the Iraq War was nothing if not expansive. Liberal democracy and popular sovereignty were to supplant tyranny not only in Baghdad, but in nearby capitals as well. And the force of U.S. arms would not be needed to accomplish the latter missions. As Bush asserted to eager applause at the American Enterprise Institute on February 25, 2003, “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.” Democracy, the war party believed, would be contagious.

In Syria and Iran, the authoritarian regimes would be chastened by Washington’s show of force into acquiescence to U.S. foreign policy goals, and shaken by popular unrest into domestic reforms. In Egypt, Jordan and the Arab Gulf states, the equally brittle regimes would bow to similar popular agitation lest their ties to Washington loosen. Regime change in Iraq would even end the notoriously intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some neo-conservatives promised, by cutting off external support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and erasing the remnants of Arab “strategic depth” for the Palestinian Authority’s resistance to Israeli terms for a final settlement.

All the breathless claims for the democracy-and peace-building potential of the invasion were made before it was launched. But no one took them terribly seriously until early 2005, when pro-war commentators convinced themselves that Bush’s vision was being realized. Elections were scheduled in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. In the most dramatic event of the “Arab spring,” Syrian troops were pushed out of Lebanon. Bus drivers and teachers launched wildcat strikes in Tehran. Israel announced a unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip.

Suddenly, the Iraq War loomed even larger in the historical sweep of post-World War II U.S. Middle East policy. For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations alike had pursued three fundamental goals in the region–the security of Israel, the westward flow of cheap oil, and the stability of cooperative regimes. Now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was telling a Cairene audience the third goal was history. “For 60 years,” she said, “my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East–and we achieved neither.” It was an accurate diagnosis, but was she serious that Washington had repented of its stability worship? And was the “Arab spring” proving that “Bush was right” about the regional reverberations of the Iraq War, as the likes of Charles Krauthammer were trumpeting? Even a few hardened cynics had to wonder.

Two years later, the verdict is in: Most Middle Eastern governments are just as autocratic as they were before the war, if not more so. In Iran, Israel and Turkey, three democratic (or quasi-democratic) exceptions to the regional rule, there are newly vibrant authoritarian currents. Two other countries that were partially democratic before the war, Lebanon and Palestine, are much more unstable, and democratic progress remains hampered by ongoing conflicts with Israel, which are, if anything, more deeply entrenched than in 2003. The Bush administration continues to mouth pro-democracy slogans, particularly in its support of elections for elections’ sake, but the actual outcomes of democratic exercises in the Middle East since the Iraq War have sent the White House back into the arms of its traditional allies.

Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen: The ‘Arab Spring’ Thaws

Take Egypt, the site of Rice’s pledge to reverse 60 years of backing for kings, dictators, and presidents-for-life in the Middle East. She used the same speech to praise the regime of President Husni Mubarak, who has occupied the palace since 1980, for its February 2005 decision to hold a multi-candidate presidential election for the first time in the country’s history. This decision was a key signal to the Western press of the “Arab spring,” and, as elsewhere, a closer look would have exposed the spring’s false promise. Already when Rice spoke, the Egyptian regime had imposed so many restrictions on who could run in the presidential race that Mubarak was guaranteed to win. Most importantly, candidacy was largely limited to members of “legal” political parties, a stipulation that excluded members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best-organized political force. To run as an independent, a presidential hopeful had to garner the signatures of at least 80 members of Parliament and ten municipal council members from at least 14 provinces. Both Parliament and the municipal councils were dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party. Sure enough, Mubarak won an election that few Egyptians took seriously, but to Washington, Egypt had taken a “step in the right direction.”

Where exactly Egypt was headed was revealed two months after the presidential election, during the balloting for the lower house of Parliament. As it had done during previous elections in 1995 and 2000, citing ambiguous threats of violence, the regime deployed its riot police in force near polling stations, particularly in poor urban and rural areas off the beaten track of the international press. As in 1995 and 2000, the violence came mostly from the police, intervening to “protect” regime supporters (or people the regime had bribed) brought in from other districts to cast illegal ballots. Unlike in 1995 and 2000, these tactics did not completely succeed in returning a parliament of regime loyalists, thanks to vigilant supervision of the voting by Egypt’s relatively autonomous judiciary. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood (running as independents) won an unprecedented 88 seats. Would the Bush administration welcome this result, an Arab election that had actually produced limited change?

The answer is clearly no. For the last two years, Mubarak’s regime has targeted Muslim Brotherhood activists for intimidation and arbitrary arrest, as part of a wider campaign to gut any and all effective political opposition as the regime prepares what looks like an engineered succession of Mubarak’s son to the presidency. Thirty-two Muslim Brothers face charges of inciting violence before military tribunals, which lack any due process, after being acquitted of the same charges in civil courts. The regime is moving to undermine the independence of the judges who certified the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral gains. Even young bloggers who decry the regime’s depredations have been sent to the country’s jails, where cell phone cameras have captured for all to see on the Internet the police brutality and torture for which the prisons have long been notorious. Egypt’s population has long been alienated from the regime, but perhaps there has never been more disgust with the regime’s sheer indifference to the population’s crying social needs, a feeling of revulsion greatly intensified by Mubarak’s alliance with Washington.

In almost all other U.S.-allied Arab states, the details are different, but the big picture is the same: Far from becoming more democratic since the invasion of Iraq, the regimes have rolled back reforms and cracked down on dissent. In Jordan, the king used an arbitrary suspension of Parliament from 2001-2003 to ram through over 100 “temporary laws” curtailing (among others) the rights of free speech and public assembly. The country’s public life has never been the same, with increased state security surveillance and disruption of all manner of protests and civil society activities. In Yemen, the president (who has ruled longer than any Arab leader save Col. Muammar Qaddafi) first withdrew his name for reelection, then staged an elaborate “comeback” justified in part by a pesky rebellion against his rule in the remote northern highlands. With no apparent encouragement from Washington, and no visible link to the Iraq War, women won the franchise and a popular movement won more democratic elections in tiny Kuwait. But in the granddaddy of all the petro-princedoms, Saudi Arabia, there has been no liberalizing reform to speak of.

Iran and Turkey: Softening of Democracy

If the Iraq War and its ex post facto justification, the Bush democracy doctrine, have failed to open up allied autocratic states in the Middle East, in the region’s three most democratic countries there are ominous signs of backsliding. When the Bush administration took office, the clerical regime in Iran faced mounting challenges both within the state and without. From the inside, reform-minded Islamists led by President Mohammad Khatami pushed to allow greater freedom of expression and modify the constitution to curb the power of unelected clerical bodies that hold super-parliamentary prerogatives. The conservative backlash began in the late 1990s, but the reformists were not helped by Washington’s refusal to see them as different in kind from their hardline foes. President George W. Bush’s designation of Iran as part of an “axis of evil” in 2002 empowered the hardliners further, as they could credibly claim that the “Great Satan” would spurn every olive branch the reformists wanted to proffer. Conservative electoral victories–helped along by the unelected clerical bodies–in 2004 and 2005 sealed the reformists’ fate. The democratic aspects of the Iranian polity are greatly weakened, partly because of the belligerent rhetoric coming from the White House. Particularly under the new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the central government has stepped up repression of students, workers and women’s rights activists.

Turkey offered a test of the Bush administration’s respect for democracy even before the war. In early 2003, the Turkish legislature, newly controlled by the “soft Islamist” Justice and Development Party, voted to deny the U.S. the right to attack Iraq from bases on Turkish soil. Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy defense secretary, let it be known he fully expected the Turkish military to lean on the legislators to change their mind. The message could not have been lost on a country that has experienced multiple and brutal military coups in the last several decades. In the end, Turkey allowed air raids on Iraq from its soil, but not a northern front of the ground war. This was not enough for Wolfowitz, who told Congress in late March 2003 that “Turkey had made a big, big error…. It was a new government that I think didn’t quite know what it was doing.”

Since the invasion, the Turkish military and security services–known to Turks as the “deep state”–have reasserted themselves, to the detriment of Turkish democracy. They are resisting even the Justice and Development Party’s modest efforts to reach out to the country’s Kurdish population, and inveighing against any ceasefire with the renewed Kurdish insurgency in the southeast. Far-right social elements associated with the “deep state” are rallying in favor of chauvinistic versions of Turkish nationalism; in January, one such militant murdered an Armenian-Turkish journalist who sought to reconcile Turks’ and Armenians’ understandings of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Extremist, anti-democratic politics are also on the rise in Israel, where new Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman proposes “transferring” Palestinian citizens in Israel, against their will, to the non-sovereign Palestinian entity in the West Bank.

Lebanon and Palestine: No Transformation

Outside of Iraq, the neo-conservatives’ “transformational” vision has been most grievously wrong in its predictions–and most devastating in its consequences–in Lebanon and Palestine. Following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, long-standing, cross-confessional resentment of the Syrian military and intelligence “presence” in the country boiled over into weeks of “Syria out!” demonstrations. The rallies were partly driven by traditional sectarian parties with a reactionary agenda, including the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces, but partly by non-sectarian Lebanese youth who yearned for a genuinely new kind of politics. Commentators like Krauthammer rushed to credit regime change in Iraq for what the State Department named the “Cedar Revolution” (Lebanese called it the Independence Intifada), but there was precious little connection. In the event, the Lebanese elections preceded by Syria’s departure made clear that old-style confessional politics was firmly entrenched. The remaining spirit of the Independence Intifada dissipated. Furthermore, the end of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon did not leave behind an undifferentiated pro-American population, as the neo-conservatives puffed that it would.

Hizballah emerged as an even more powerful player with its patron Syria gone, increasing its share of the legislature through an alliance with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of Gen. Michel Aoun, and joining the cabinet for the first time ever. The Party of God’s political rivals proved unable to disarm its militia, which was still admired by many Lebanese for resisting the Israeli occupation of the south that ended in 2000. When Hizballah fighters crossed the Israeli border to attack an army convoy in July 2006, the party’s Sunni, Christian, and Druze adversaries joined the U.S. and its main Arab allies in blaming Hizballah for the massive bombardment Israel rained upon Lebanon in retaliation. The U.S. actively blocked a ceasefire for a month to give Israel free rein, but Hizballah fighters stood their ground. The predictably bitter political fallout of the 34-day war culminated in Hizballah’s decision to pull its ministers out of the cabinet, and, in concert with Aoun and other allies, call upon the Lebanese government to resign. In the name of respecting the results of the 2005 elections, the Bush administration openly sided with the government, bolstering its resolve to outlast the Hizballah-led opposition and boosting the likelihood of civil strife. The Bush administration contributes to the structural Lebanese crisis and sectarianism in the region with its refusal to consider Hizballah–the main representative of Lebanon’s largest sect, the Shi‘a–as anything but a “terrorist organization.”

But no case demonstrates the supremacy of the “with us or against us” motto in White House thinking better than the Palestinians. When Yasser Arafat was alive, the Bush administration conditioned the restarting of meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations upon “reform” of the Palestinian Authority (PA)–presumably meaning elections and anti-corruption measures. The White House celebrated Mahmoud Abbas’ accession to the Palestinian presidency in January 2005 as a harbinger of the “Arab spring,” but did nothing to advance the cause of peace in the next year, permitting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to drive events with his unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza. After the Israeli pullout, U.S. engagement was again delayed until Abbas proved his security services could maintain “calm” in the impoverished strip. All bets were off after the January 2006 elections swept Hamas into control of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Though the elections got a clean bill of health from veteran observer Jimmy Carter, the U.S. and Israel refused to deal with the democratically chosen Palestinian government unless it met three Israeli conditions. The U.S. and Israel organized an international boycott of the Hamas-led PA, depriving the quasi-government of the aid dollars it desperately needs to pay civil servants’ salaries. As civil servants and their families compose over 30 percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza, the boycott of the PA was, in effect, an attempt to starve the Palestinians into turning against their elected leaders. Such was also the transparent aim of the intense Israeli bombing and tank incursions in Gaza pursuant to the capture of a single Israeli soldier in June 2006. These measures ultimately failed to unseat Hamas, but did help persuade Abbas to form a “national unity” government with the Islamists. The Bush administration has so far rejected this new cabinet as a step backward for Palestinian democracy.


None of the truly anti-democratic developments in U.S.-allied states are of any visible concern to the Bush administration. Aid packages to countries like Israel, Egypt and Jordan are unaffected. The State Department issues mild rebukes at displays of state repression by its Arab friends, but nothing like the broadsides fired at Tehran. Indeed, the democratic “transformation” of the region is now clearly subordinate to good old power politics, as the Bush administration attempts to assemble an Egyptian-Jordanian-Saudi-Israeli front against Iran. To scare their chafing populations off the possibility of change, authoritarian regimes merely point at the inferno the Bush administration calls “democracy” in Iraq. At the same time, it is easier than ever for autocrats to caricature Middle Easterners who advocate concepts like the rule of law and human rights as tools of the imperialist West. Contrary to the stated aspirations of Washington hawks before the invasion, the Iraq War has dealt a body blow to the many Middle Eastern activists who were working for democracy and peace long before the Bush administration entered office. On these grounds alone, the war has been an unmitigated disaster.

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