On April 28, 2004, dozens of retired Foreign Office diplomats published an open letter berating Prime Minister Tony Blair for “abandonment of principle…at a time when, rightly or wrongly, we are portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as partners in an illegal and brutal occupation in Iraq.” Several American diplomats followed suit. The diplomats are right: London and Washington have abandoned their principles. But the principles abandoned have less to do with the moral equivalency held dear by Foreign Office Arabists than with the freedom, liberty, and human rights so emphasized by President Bush.
Commemorating the first anniversary of the war to liberate Iraq, Bush was unapologetic about U.S. policy: “We have set out to encourage reform and democracy in the greater Middle East as the alternatives to fanaticism, resentment, and terror.” Good words, but Washington appears to be reversing the presidential policy. Perhaps with media pressure building, the White House has decided to trade long-term progress for short-term expediency. Or perhaps distracted by the campaign, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice is deferring responsibility to career diplomats to pursue their worst instincts. Regardless of the reason, the White House policy–and 10 Downing Street’s acquiescence to the flip-flop–threatens to undermine the foundations of nascent democracy movements across the Middle East.
Fanaticism, resentment, and terror threaten to return to Iraq. On May 17, 2004, a suicide bomber murdered the president of Iraq’s Governing Council. Less than a month ago, Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator L. Paul Bremer, in deference to U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, announced the abandonment of de-Baathification efforts. But Brahimi’s claim that “thousands upon thousands of teachers, university professors, medical doctors and hospital staffs, engineers and other professionals who are sorely needed in the country have been dismissed within the de-Baathification process” falls flat among Iraqis. De-Baathification affected less than 1 percent of party members. Iraqis recognize that Iraqi society functions better without the Baathist elite. Saddam’s government promoted technocrats not on merit, but rather for political loyalty. The Iraqi Education Ministry is now forced to fire teachers hired in the wake of liberation. Popular sentiment is reflected in the hand-painted banners that hang in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq’s Shiite heartland, saying, “Death to the Baath Party.” As one Iraqi put it, “Saddam’s mass graves did not fill themselves.” These teachers had refused to join the Baath under Saddam; they lived hand-to-mouth as they sold off property or worked menial jobs to feed their families. When faced with a choice, they made the right moral decision. Now Coalition policy punishes them for it, instead rewarding their tormenters.
It is not only in Iraq that Washington and London appear to have abandoned principle. American and British politicians have cheered the rapprochement with Libya. On March 12, Bush declared, “We stand with courageous reformers.” He praised the Libyan government for releasing Fathi El-Jahmi, a political prisoner jailed in 2002 after speaking out for democracy. “It’s an encouraging step toward reform in Libya,” Bush said. Unfortunately, two days after Assistant Secretary of State Bill Burns dined with the Libyan dictator, and one day after Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to Libya, Libyan security agents arrested El-Jahmi; he has not been seen since. If El-Jahmi has access to a television, he will not see U.S. or British diplomats invoking his name. Rather, he will see Blair and Burns sitting with Khaddafi and European diplomats toasting the Libyan strongman in Brussels. The White House remains silent. Libyans visiting Washington say Khaddafi’s arrest of El-Jahmi is meant as a direct slap in the face of President Bush.
And nowhere has the Bush doctrine’s reversal hit harder than in Iran. In 1953 and 1979, Washington and London supported an autocratic leader over the wishes of the Iranian people. In recent years, though, the Iranians have again rallied for reform. In 1999, I arrived in Tehran as riot police and students clashed. Tear gas wafted through the air. In his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address, Bush threw down a gauntlet, declaring Iran part of “an axis of evil.” Many Europeans found Bush’s rhetoric simplistic, but it was Bush’s moral clarity–and not Europe’s critical engagement–that emboldened Iranian students, factory workers, and teachers to again take to the streets. It has not escaped Iranians’ notice that while the European Union doubled its trade with Iran, the Islamic Republic doubled its application of capital punishment.
On May 9, 2004, three months to the day since Britain’s Crown Prince visited the Islamic Republic, an Iranian court confirmed the death penalty against Hashem Aghajari, a University of Tehran history professor who had criticized theocracy. Shortly after an Iranian court first sentenced Aghajari to die, Bush spoke on U.S.-funded Persian-language radio. “We continue to stand with the people of Iran in your quest for freedom, prosperity, honest and effective government, judicial due process and the rule of law,” the president said. According to the Iranian newspaper Aftab-i Yazd, on May 11, 2004, Aghajari threw down the gauntlet. “Either free me unconditionally or carry out the death sentence.” The Iranian people expect silence from 10 Downing Street, but not from the White House. If the Bush administration is serious about freedom and democracy, now is the time to speak. Silence sends a different message.
The ripple effects of the Bush doctrine’s abandonment spread far. On May 16, 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell criticized Israel for razing homes used to facilitate weapons-smuggling. The previous day, the Bush administration remained silent when Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat said on Palestinian television that Palestinians should “terrorize your enemy.” That Powell would criticize a democracy, and that Bush-administration principals would engage with members of Arafat’s government, is troubling.
Britain’s effete diplomats are wrong. Their belief that Muslim countries should not be held to basic human-rights standards is racist. One in six Iraqis fled his country under Baath-party rule; Iraqis who settle in the West thrive because of the rule of law. There are no cultural impediments to democracy; when Bush and Blair hold governments accountable for their actions, progress ensues. Rather than fete Khaddafi, the president and prime minister should receive prisoners of conscience like El-Jahmi and Aghajari. Across the Middle East, people look to the West to match its rhetoric with action. We should not abandon dissidents, even if career diplomats, both British and American, demand it. The policy reversals of today will undermine democracy in the Middle East for years to come.
–Michael Rubin, an NRO contributor, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.