When mass demonstrations began spreading across the Arab world early last year, conservative commentators lost no time in singing the praises of George W. Bush, the first U.S. president to aggressively push for democratization in the region.
Today, with Islamists dominating politics wherever tyrants have stumbled or fallen, many of those who waxed eloquent about Bush's Freedom Agenda have either fallen silent or taken to arguing that Islamist ascendancy will prove to be a temporary setback on the road to liberal democracy. Those who were critical of it all along are having a field day.
In fact, even if the Arab Spring constitutes "an unshackling of Islam, not an outbreak of fervor for freedom in the Western sense," it is proof positive that the Bush administration correctly diagnosed the causes of Arab political dysfunction and made extraordinarily sound -- if short-lived -- policy changes to combat it.
In the wake of 9/11, the White House openly repudiated the longstanding conventional wisdom that U.S.-backed autocratic regimes in the Middle East served as bulwarks against the regional and international security threat posed by radical Islamism. Al Qaeda was then a largely Saudi and Egyptian network, its leadership drawn primarily from disgruntled subjects of the Arab world's two most powerful pro-American governments. The Bush administration quickly recognized that authoritarianism had swelled the ranks of radical Islamist movements by traumatizing Arab citizens and eradicating alternate channels of political expression, while Washington's longstanding support for this state of affairs infused them with hatred of America.
To make matters worse, Arab regimes typically sought to co-opt Islamists by introducing illiberal religious dogma into education, civil law, and media, allowing them to advance their long-term goal of Islamizing society in exchange for short-term political quietism. Those who persisted in subversive activity were typically imprisoned and tortured, then released into exile to seek other paths to martyrdom.
The Bush administration was not the first to recognize that the political survival strategies of friendly Arab regimes were fueling the growing threat of transnational Islamist terrorism, but it was the first to take bold action to address the problem. President Bill Clinton's administration understood the malignant spillover effects of autocracy in the region, but believed that democratization in the Middle East was a pipe dream in the absence of a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Pushing for political reform before a resolution was in hand, the reasoning went, would only alienate Arab governments whose cooperation was needed to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough.
By the time Bush took office, however, prospects for a peace settlement were at a nadir. Given the multitude of septuagenarian and octogenarian heads of state in the Arab world and the growing impact of communications technology in weakening authoritarian controls, the assumption that political reform could wait for peace was dismissed as untenable.
Bush administration officials feared a repeat of Iran's 1979 revolution, when the collapse of an oppressive, U.S.-backed government led to a power vacuum that violently anti-American Islamists were best positioned to exploit. Iraq aside, the Freedom Agenda was intended less to bring about full-blown transitions to democracy than to treat the pathologies of existing regimes, maximize the capacity of secular opposition groups to compete with Islamists, and dispel the widespread belief among Arabs that the United States, as Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abdelbari Atwan once put it, "wants us to have dictators and monarchical presidents."
Of course, this policy shift did not gain consensus in Washington purely on the basis of such pragmatic considerations. Bush's soaring rhetoric about democracy gratified conservative perceptions of American exceptionalism, provided ideological cover for the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, and dovetailed neatly with efforts by Israel's supporters to discredit the claim that Arabs hate the United States primarily because of its support for the Jewish state.
Whatever the motivations of its fair-weather advocates, however, the Bush administration's commitment to effecting political liberalization in the region was genuine. It was uneven in practice, to be sure -- countries heavily dependent on U.S. aid were pressured far more than the oil-rich monarchies, for example, where the United States had little leverage.