The speech President Bush gave last night at the American Enterprise Institute was not only one of the most important of the war – it ranks among the most important state papers of the past three decades. In front of 2000 dinner guests, the president announced that the assumptions that have governed U.S. policy in the Middle East since 1945 would govern no longer. The U.S. government did not use to care about the internal governance of the oil-producers of the Middle East. From now on, it does. The U.S. will not merely overthrow Saddam Hussein – and throughout the speech, the president treated Saddam’s overthrow as a certain fact – but it will seek to build a more democratic Iraq afterward.
“There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq — with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people — is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.”
The President replied to those who would say that the forms of government adopted in Arab world are none of America’s business by arguing, to the contrary, that the Arab world’s authoritarianism bred the terrorism of 9/11:
“The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life.”
It’s hard to over-stress the grandeur and importance of this new departure. Bush emphatically repudiated the core belief of the old policy in the Middle East – that Islamic societies are somehow permanently unsuited for democracy.
“It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world — or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim — is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth. In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same. In our desire to care for our children and give them a better life, we are the same.”
If the speech carried a title, it might have been called “Death of an Illusion.” Since World War II, American policy has assumed that progress in the Islamic world – if it comes at all – will be delivered, not by democratic reform, but by modernizing strongmen. For 50 years, American presidents have sought (and often believed they found) another Ataturk. Ataturkism led the United States to tilt toward Nasser in his early years in power – the Shah of Iran – and, yes, Saddam Hussein. (In the 1970s, that same Zbiegniew Brzezinski who criticizes Bush’s Middle East policy for its alleged naivety pushed hard as National Security Adviser for support for Saddam: “Iraq,” he was quoted at the time telling friends, “will be to my Middle East achievement what Egypt was to Henry’s.” Henry being of course Henry Kissinger.) The hunt for the modernizing strongman appears to have ended – terminated due to repeated failure. “The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq’s new government. That choice belongs to the Iraqi people. Yet, we will ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another.”
The speech stressed that humanitarian aid will again be essential, not peripheral, to the U.S. war effort. And it declared that the protection of innocent Iraqi life will be a war aim of the United States:
“The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people, themselves. Today they live in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture. Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein — but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us.”
The speech did not lay out the details of Iraq’s transition to democracy. The time for that will come after the war is won. But it did suggest that Iraq is the beginning, not the end, of the internal reform of the Islamic Middle East.
“A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions.”
As to how that transformation might occur, the President preserved a discreet silence. The words “Saudi Arabia” and “Iran” went unmentioned. The one post-Iraq commitment the President did talk about was the Arab-Israeli dispute. This is more than a little strange: The speech almost left behind the idea that the next order of business after Iraq is not the extension of democratic transformation in the Arab world, but yet another dreary round of negotiations on the West Bank. There may be Realpolitik reasons why this will have to be so, but it does leave behind the unfortunate idea (widely held by many in the U.S. bureaucracy) that democracy is something disagreeable the United States is inflicting on the Middle East – for which the Arabs must be compensated with another round of concessions to the Palestinians. Still, the President repeated his bold insistence that the new Palestinian state be democratic and untainted by terror – and that the Arab states must “clearly” announce their acceptance of Israel as part of any final Middle Eastern settlement.
It was Bush all over: strategically bold, tactically cautious; gentle in tone, strong in content; carefully balanced between the innovative and the traditional. He didn’t actually say the words “Ahmed Chalabi” – but short of that, it was masterful. And to deliver it at AEI – the institution that began arguing for Arab democracy as the true solution to the troubles of the Middle East more than 20 years ago, back when Jacques Chirac was still a nuclear salesman for Saddam – went beyond boldness to outright cheekiness. Huzzah and huzzah.