Dangerous Self Delusion
Bush's recent remarks on democracy in the Middle East
have evoked strong reactions dripping with familiar words such as 'myopic',
'self-serving', 'vacuous' and the like. Two perspectives.
President Bush's recent remarks at the 20th anniversary celebrations of the National Endowment for Democracy have been seen by the dominant media as a bold and new statement on the Middle East. In fact, it is a text that drips with the rhetoric and passion of the erstwhile Cold War -- a war that was cold only in the homelands of the USA and the USSR, and not in the many lands, such as Vietnam and Angola, where it was fought out. And it presents the same dangerously self-deluding perspective that we have heard him propound many a time before in similar triumphal tones.
Before examining what he said regarding the Middle East, let me briefly point out what he said about Greece, for his two overt references to that European nation are quite instructive taken together. The first comes early in his speech: "In the early 1970s there were about 40 democracies in the world. By the middle of that decade, Portugal and Spain and Greece held free elections." A few pages later, he states, "As in the defence of Greece in 1947 . . . the strength and will of free people are now being tested before a watching world."
Now, if liberty and democracy were valiantly defended in 1947, why were the Greeks not able to enjoy free elections for the next thirty years? Was it remotely because of the colonels that several American administrations staunchly supported until finally the Greeks themselves managed to get out from under their oppression? Such questions do not occur to him, to his speech writer, or to his close advisers who provide him all the "objective" information he needs.
Turning to the Middle East, no one doubts that the present Arab states, from Morocco to Iraq, and Iran do not have democratic governments. The Arabs have long talked about it but nary a whisper was heard from the White House. The report -- "Arab Human Development Report 2003" -- that President Bush cites to build his case was prepared under the auspices of the United Nations, and not the National Endowment for Democracy where he spoke. And it was not the first statement of the kind; Arabic newspapers and journal published in Europe and in Kuwait (before 1991) have been saying similar things for some time. They are ignored by President Bush, just as he ignores the al-Jazeerah satellite TV, only because they have also been highly critical of policies and actions of the United States.
President Bush's comments are based on the history of the region over
the past sixty years. It is only for those years that he puts the responsibility
on the Western nations. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating
the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because
in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
The myopic and self-serving spirit that permeates the key portions of his
speech is fully evident in this one sentence. History for him begins in
1943 (the year FDR met with King Ibn Saud and obtained exclusive rights
to Arabian oil); the Western nations have been neglectful but indulgent
parents, and bad results have followed only for "us", and not the Middle
Eastern nations. His advice to the latter is to stop "dwelling on past
wrongs and blaming others". To get a sense of what President Bush ignores
or distorts as he mendaciously blames the victims, we need only to examine
what actually took place in Iran and Iraq during the colonial and the cold
In 1914, Great Britain already held extensive control over the small states on the Persian Gulf, and so it quickly took hold of Iraq at the start of WWI. It also found willing allies against the Turks in the local communities of Sunni and Shi"ah Arabs and the Kurds. The direct British control continued even after the war ended in 1919, but eventually a constitutional monarchy-the king was chosen by the British-emerged in Iraq in 1921. This constitutional polity, indirectly controlled by the imperial Britain was allowed to function until 1941. Then the British again occupied Iraq for the next four years.
Subsequently, the overlordship of Great Britain continued, and Iraq became an early victim of the Cold War. It joined hands with Turkey, Great Britain, Iran, and Pakistan in what was first called the Baghdad Pact and later, in 1955, came to be known as CENTO or the Central Treaty Organization after the United States joined as the new overlord. Iraq's constitutional monarchy changed into a left-leaning republic in 1958 after a coup by some radical army officers. A Baathist coup five years later eventually led to the coming to power of Saddam Hussein. Forty years of tyranny followed, during which time the Baathist dictator received ample patronage from the Western nations so long as Iraqi oil was flowing and Western arms and armaments could be sold. If the Iraqis were not able to achieve a "regime change" it was only due to the support that their tyrant received from abroad.
Iran was a monarchy with some semblance of constitutionalism during the first two decades of the 20th century, though with extensive overlordship of the British and the Russians at different times. In 1926, the chief of the Iranian army, Riza Khan, took over the reins of the state and named himself the Shah, with autocratic powers. Under him the British gained control over oil exploration while the Germans made headway in other areas of the country's economy. In 1941, the Allied armies invaded Iran, divided up the country under two zones of authority, the Russian and the Anglo-American. Gradually more power returned to the Iranians, i.e. the Iranian Parliament that now contained a forceful nationalist/socialist element. The latter became strong enough to nationalise the oil industry.
The result was as expected. A CIA instigated coup in 1953, fully described by its organizer, Kermit Roosevelt, in his 1979 book Countercoup, brought back the Shah's autocratic rule, which grew more oppressive with time. The CIA helped the Shah build his infamous secret police SAVAK. To get a sense of what was involved, we need only note that in the first year after the coup, the United States gave close to $85 million to Iran. It is more than ironic that President Bush mentioned Saddam Hussein's desire to revive Iraq's "ancient glory" but didn't mention the mad fantasy of the last Shah of Iran at Persepolis in which an American President -- Jimmy Carter -- participated.
The United States played no role in the ouster of the Shah; it was happy when the Islamic elements crushed their leftist allies in the popular movement, and for many years willingly helped the new rulers in the war against Iraq. It may sound incredible now but for many years after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Israel supplied arms to Iran against Iraq, while the Arab nations gave financial and logistical support to Saddam Hussein. And both actions had the approval of the Reagan administration at Washington!
Only a deluded and deluding man can call the American policies in Iraq and Iran as policies of "excuses and accommodation". They were intrusive, distorting and corrosive. President Bush and his advisers in Washington know it, but they also know which side of their bread is more buttered. That becomes clear in his own smug call: "Instead of dwelling on past wrongs and blaming others, governments in the Middle East need to confront real problems and serve the true interest of their nations." Blaming others? The only countries that are most blamed for what happened in the Middle East during the sixty years of President Bush's concern are the United States and Israel. Most tellingly, in this major statement on the Middle East, Israel is not mentioned even once. The doctrine of "fairness", just recently invoked to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Israel and to vote against a resolution in the General Assembly, was readily put aside. Instead, the routine of blaming the victims was again repeated.
Near the end of his talk, President Bush announced the inauguration
of "a new policy: a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East". To
most of us they may appear as vacuous words. After all, a few hours after
they were spoke, the White House made it clear, as the New York Times put
it, that "it was not threatening any consequences for his Arab allies if
they failed to heed his warning." They are, in fact, ominous words. It
is the same policy of "regime change" that he kept harping on before launching
the attack on Iraq, which in turn was no different from the cold war policies
and actions of the past. The Congress has now passed a bill asking for
action against Syria. Is that where the first display of this "forward
strategy of freedom" might be expected from the folks who brought us Desert
Storms One and Two? The fear is real. Richard Perle recommended the same
in his notorious report to Benjamin Netanyahu in 2000.
C. M. Naim is Professor. Emeritus, South Asian Languages & Civilizations, University of Chicago