The west's Arab racket
George Bush is right about the lack of freedom in the
Middle East - but wrong about its causes and solution
Wednesday June 30, 2004
George W Bush may not have read much history but he
likes making it. The recent run of insider accounts of
the Bush White House show the president is a man with
a constant eye on the historians of the future,
anxious to lend every moment just enough
semi-Churchillian gravitas to make him look good in
the decades to come.
So it was on Monday when he was handed a note that
declared "Iraq is sovereign", immediately scrawling on
it "Let freedom reign!" - as if ready for instant
display behind the glass case at the future George W
Bush presidential library. Those three words confirm
how Bush sees himself and how he wants to be seen in
the future - as a latter-day George Washington,
leading subject peoples to liberty.
He has in mind not only the Iraqi nation but all the
people of what he calls the Greater Middle East. The
"liberation of Baghdad" is but the first step towards
the transformation of the entire region.
It is not a secret plan, contained only in classified
memoranda. On the contrary, Bush has declared it loud
and proud, returning to the theme again in Istanbul
yesterday. He articulated it most clearly in a
November 2003 speech to America's National Endowment
for Democracy where he set out how, though there were
now 120 functioning democracies in the world, the wave
of self-rule had barely touched the Middle East.
Democracy had made inroads in Latin America and Asia,
but had still failed to make a dent in the Arab world.
Why not, the president asked: "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?"
Bush went on to reject such "cultural condescension",
insisting that liberty is universal. He called on the
Arab states to open up - to respect the rule of law,
recognise the equal rights of women and allow
political pluralism and free speech.
For my money, it was the best speech Bush has ever
given. Because on this fundamental point he is surely
right. One has only to flick through the 2002 joint
report of the UN development programme and the Arab
fund for economic and social development to see why.
This document, written by a group of Arab
intellectuals, bursts with findings as stunning as
they are bleak. All 22 Arab states combined, oozing as
they are with natural resources and the black gold
that is oil, still have a GDP smaller than Spain's and
less than half that of California. Education is in a
dire state: the whole Arab world translates around 300
books annually, one fifth the number translated by
Greece alone. Rates of internet connection, the Arab
scholars found, were less than those in sub-Saharan
What's more, the Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied
West Bank and Gaza are not the only Arabs to be denied
fundamental democratic rights. Using the widely
accepted freedom index - which assesses everything
from civil liberties to government accountability and
a free press - the Arab states come at the foot of the
global league table. The report was especially damning
on the exclusion of women, often denied the vote and
access to a basic education: "Sadly the Arab world is
largely depriving itself of the productivity and
creativity of half its citizens."
Bush was right to draw attention to this story of
oppression and failure. Nor can he be faulted for
placing it in the context of his war against al-Qaida.
For if Bin Ladenism feeds off anything it is surely
the frustration and despair of those who have to live
in such suffocating conditions. If the right approach
to the current global conflict is the one advocated by
the likes of Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown - tough on
terror, tough on the causes of terror - then surely
the foremost "cause" is the desperate state of the
So Bush is right in identifying the problem. Where he
is wrong is in understanding its causes - and in
finding a solution.
To his credit, the president does not imagine some
innate Muslim or Arab incapacity for self-government:
he attributes such attitudes to his enemies. But he
speaks as if the Arab world became a desert for
democracy through some strange act of nature, a freak
accident with no rational explanation besides the evil
rule of a couple of twisted dictators. What neither
he, nor Tony Blair for that matter, ever acknowledges
is the west's own culpability.
One does not have to be a placard-waving
anti-imperialist to note that for nearly a century the
Arab world has been on the receiving end of constant
western meddling. If they have not got on with
choosing their own governments, that's partly because
we kept (and keep) stopping them! Iraq is a case in
point as Britain repeatedly, from the 1920s to the
1950s, ensured the regime was to our liking. That
pattern has been repeated across the region, from the
tiny emirates created by a stroke of a western pen, to
mighty Egypt: first Britain and then America has
always plotted and connived to secure a friendly face
at the top, even if the price has been the denial of
the people's will.
So Bush's rhetoric is all very well, but it would ring
truer if it entailed an explicit renunciation of that
colonial habit. And this is not ancient history. The
US still props up hideous, human rights-abusing
regimes so long as the top man remains "our son of a
bitch". Look no further than Bush's closest chum, the
ruling family of Saudi Arabia. When Bush severs his
links with the House of Saud over their beheadings,
oppression of women, rank corruption and denial of
basic human freedom, then his words will have meaning.
But the president is wrong on the solution, too.
Democracy only very rarely flows down the barrel of a
gun. Post-1945 Germany and Japan were surely the
exceptions in exceptional circumstances. Even putting
the 2003 war to one side, the images of abuse in Abu
Ghraib alone would disqualify America as a credible
bringer of democracy to the Middle East.
Instead that task will have to be performed by other
people and in a different way. That does not mean a
new European mandate to meddle, but rather a more
creative use of influence. The first move will be a
withdrawal of support from offending regimes, Riyadh
and Cairo among them. Next, aid and trade should be
tied to democratic performance. (A cheaper and less
lethal way to create a democratic model in the Middle
East than invading Iraq was surely to make Egypt's
annual $2bn aid package from the US conditional on
Cairo sharpening up its act in the liberty department.
That would have done the trick, without a shot being
fired.) The west could put current Arab and other
tyrannies on notice that their only way back into the
global community is not simply to arrest al-Qaida
suspects, but to grant basic freedoms to their own
Do that and then Bush will have every right to his
Washingtonian rhetoric. He can chant "Let freedom
reign" at the top of his voice. But not till then.
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