Keep Holding Your Breath: The Legacy of W. Bush's Middle East Policy and the Arab Spring - Melting Pot Week on BTR


Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose regime became the latest to fall in the recent ‘Arab Spring’ of revolutions across North Africa. Photo by the U.S. Navy.

An Editorial:

It’s the favorite pastime of any political junkie or pundit to embolden the legacy of their preferred ex-president by giving them credit for anything good that’s happening at the moment, regardless of whether or not their beloved president is still in office. Further glorification comes in the form of sucking the wind out of any sitting president’s sails by accusing them of inaction or laziness, especially if said talking heads are not fans of that sitting President.

This is nothing new, but usually the opposition waits for said president to give his farewell address before engaging in such diatribes. At the turn of the century, conservatives declared that President Clinton could not possibly be given credit for the economic booms of the ‘90s as it was, to them, obviously Alan Greenspan and Ronald Reagan’s doing.

National tragedies are a special occasion and sometimes call for a reversal in the dynamic. For instance 9/11, however, was obviously Clinton’s fault.

Oh and by the way, the ’08 economic crash has Obama’s name all over it. While we’re at it, let’s go ahead and say that it’s Bush’s fault that the current administration responded so slowly to the BP oil spill, or failed to effectively negotiate an appropriate solution to the debt crisis. You get the idea.

It’s a kind of argumentative process that provides spectators with feats of rhetorical acrobatics , amusing alternative histories, and impressively creative interpretations of the space-time continuum. Unfortunately, observing the practice makes for better entertainment than informative analysis.

Thus the Arab Spring has provided a loud opportunity for conservatives to quietly question whether or not the widespread revolts validate the efforts of the Bush Administration in Iraq that began eight years ago. Such claims were only to be expected, but unlike investing any faith into a Clinton-9/11 connection, there’s actually some palpable truth to this. The trouble is that conservatives, in all their excitement for possibly being vindicated after years of chastisement and ridicule, have that truth completely backwards.

The American invasion of Iraq did not spark the Arab Spring – that much is obvious. That invasion, simply from the standpoint of a superpower reaching out to a repressed people, is tarnished with countless military, diplomatic, and PR debacles – and that’s putting it nicely. Furthermore, the president who so kindly donated freedom to Iraqis had very memorable and cozy relationships with both dictators who have been deposed in the Arab Spring. To a region that has only grown wearier of tyranny, America’s decade-long liberation efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan still reek of western colonization and occupation. If they didn’t, would there have been any insurgents’ movements in either the Iraqi or Afghani military theaters?

That question is easily answered by another: Is there any insurgency in Egypt right now? Or even better, has Al Qaeda infested Egypt yet?

President Bush announcing that America ended major combat operations in Iraq to the nation and crew aboard the USS Lincoln May 1st, 2003. The infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner hangs in the background. Photo from the Office of the President.

As the world quietly awaits the final breaths of the Gaddafi regime, America’s (particularly conservatives’) fears run rampant with thoughts of ‘what if this doesn’t turn out the way we want it to?’ Elsewhere in Egypt, where news of a post-Mubarak government has yet to surface, we grow as anxious as spoiled teenagers frustrated that their newly refurbished iPod doesn’t work.

The right-wing blogosphere and media would do well to make like President Obama and keep their mouths shut as this process unfolds. Not because I personally find most of their input to be noise anyway, but more so that the moment of proof for President Bush’s Middle East policy has only just arrived.

The central belief of that policy was, briefly, that if we bring just one democracy to the Middle East then neighboring countries in the region will follow suit. We’ve been arguing for nearly a decade as to whether the means of implementing that policy have justified their ends, all without actually having seen another democracy submerge from the Arab Spring. Since those means were hardly proven justified, arguing that an invasion viewed in the Arab world as yet another act of western aggression in any way inspired a revolution is preposterous. These policies only acquire meaning now that grassroots revolutions have laid the foundation for a government, democracy or otherwise, to arise.

Putting aside the predicament of Afghanistan, if there’s any moral to take from the story of Iraq in the eyes of the Arab world it’s that setting aside tribal differences and choosing unity through democracy will save you a lot of time, blood, and money. One of the benefits of having a change in power being supervised by an occupying force is that the supervisor won’t let any constitutional talks fall apart into civil war at any cost—come hell, high water, world economic collapse, or suicide bombers.

Thus, of the countless luxuries the new Iraqi state was afforded by their American protectors, two of which have proven critical to their survival. The first is perseverance and the second is the insistence of unity over divisiveness. The real fruit of both their labors and ours is that Iraq now stands as an example not so much as how to overthrow tyranny but rather what to do after the tyrants have been overthrown. Should there be any sectarian disagreements that threaten the stability of Libya or Egypt, the sputtering prosperity of Iraq suggests these differences can be surmounted.

The trouble, to the utmost chagrin of American conservatives, is that we have absolutely no say in whether or not Libya or Egypt learns from this history. Further, we cannot protect either state from the consequences of their democracies not surfacing fast enough or, more pessimistically, not surfacing at all.

Again, the question arises: ‘what if this doesn’t turn out the way we want it to?’ but asking only makes America look like the most annoying kind of empire in the eyes of the world. The kind that grows increasingly irrelevant every day, makes democracy look and smell like a pyramid scheme, and has a bad habit of exposing their puppet republics for the unbecoming dictatorships they really are (i.e. Hosni Mubarak).

Like the aging grandparent who assumes every possible family occasion is all about them, we couldn’t give a damn whether or not anyone else is enjoying their own party. We want to feel responsible for any positive outcome even if what’s going on has very little to do with us. In the end we just want to feel needed, even if we aren’t.