Today, as Egypt explodes, I can’t help thinking of George W. Bush. I think in particular of an appearance he made in Sharm El Sheikh, in May 2008. I wrote about that appearance here. Before a conference of Middle Eastern elites, and their Western associates, Bush gave a speech that stood on the side of the men and women in the prison cells. And the people throughout the region who were hoping for a more democratic, freer, worthier life.
I will quote from my piece (written in the present tense, journal-style):
In due course, Bush slaps down the notion that democracy is a Western value, which America seeks to impose on unwilling people. “This is a condescending form of moral relativism,” he says. “The truth is that freedom is a universal right — the Almighty’s gift to every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth.”
This was the sort of talk that drove many Middle Eastern elites crazy. (They worried for their positions, for one thing.) It drove many Westerners crazy, too. In America, the Left hated any talk from Bush about freedom and democracy. They thought it was bigoted, dangerous, ethnocentric, theocratic, insensitive, self-congratulatory, hypocritical, warmongering, McCarthyite, crude, etc. As for conservatives, many of them harrumphed, as only conservatives can: “‘Freedom’! ‘Democracy’! A desire ‘beating in every human heart’! What a crock!”
#more#Here is another excerpt from my piece:
Bush plugs for human rights — in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere — and renews his call for an independent Palestinian state. (Bush is the first president to make such a state a goal of U.S. policy.) He outlines his vision of a free and prospering Middle East, with terror and tyranny tamed — and says he has “no doubt” that the region’s people will make this vision a reality.
Oh, did the Sharm El Sheikh audience hate that speech. Mubarak, they welcomed respectfully, even affectionately. Bush, not at all. They practically hissed him. Some of them might have, literally. As I remarked in my piece, his speech would have gone down much better in the prison cells. Even more hostile than the Middle Eastern elites’ reaction was the Westerners’ reaction — the reaction of those Westerners who are enablers of Middle Eastern autocracy and scleroticism:
An American woman in a lounge is speaking with some Middle Eastern delegates. One of them asks her, tentatively, what she thought of the president’s speech. “Oh, I hate Bush,” she says. That is a jarring sentence to hear: “I hate Bush.”
She goes on to say that “democracy is overrated.” She says it again, so much does she like the phrase. And then this: “His wife, Laura, seems nice. But the rumor is he hits her, you know. Sometimes I see her on television, and I’m thinking, ‘Poor woman.’”
President Karzai was at the conference, and he was one of the few who had anything good to say about Bush. In fact, with a group of us journalists, he praised him to the skies, and was not at all apologetic. He knew what Bush and the Americans meant in Afghanistan. He knew what Afghanistan was like before — and could be again. An excerpt:
One of our crew teases Karzai: “You’re the only one who supports him.” Karzai responds that he doesn’t care — he’s not going to criticize someone just because others do; he will not “jump on a bandwagon.” “Others can say what they have to say. I have my own opinion. And my judgment is one of praise and recognition.”
Bear with me for one more excerpt, then I’ll close with a couple of thoughts:
Later that day, some of us sit down with Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister of Iraq. He gives a hopeful report, although one mixed with caveats. Afterward, I speak to a Continental friend of mine — not a hawk, and not a conservative, but a sensible liberal. A “liberal with sanity,” to use Ed Koch’s self-description.
And he says, “You know, I think they just might pull this off — I think the Iraq War just might work. And wouldn’t my leftist friends go crazy about that? They rejoice in every setback; they jeer every advance. And what about those 12 million people who voted, dipping their fingers purple? Are we supposed to say that that means nothing?”
Yes, it just might work. And what’ll they say then? In any event, the final chapter about George W. Bush is far from written.
Oh, yes. The final chapter is far from written. But the Middle East is writing some important words today. In the summer of 2009, the democratic protesters in the streets of Tehran chanted, “Obama, Obama, either you’re with them [meaning the mullahs’ regime] or you’re with us.” The U.S. president was basically silent.
There is no question about where George W. Bush stands. That American woman — the type of American I know all too well — might have said, repeatedly, “Democracy is overrated.” But I don’t think so. Bush doesn’t think so. And the people in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities don’t think so.