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World Opinion Roundup by Jefferson Morley

Hold the Praise and Pass the Nuance

Bush Critics Say No One Person or Policy to Credit for Changes in the Middle East

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff
Thursday, March 10, 2005; 6:00 AM

Credit President Bush? Not so fast, say some international online pundits.

The groundswell of commentary praising Bush for democratic developments in the Middle East has generated its own countercurrent of commentary in England and France that argues the American president is not the only one who deserves credit.

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But the tone of these retorts is mild compared to past polemics over the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. European commentators offer a rare degree of respect for Bush's rhetoric along with historical perspective that is often missing from American commentary. If this debate is any indication, the once-stark differences between the U.S. and European public opinion over President Bush may be narrowing.

This trend is most visible in The Guardian of London and Le Monde (in French) of Paris, two of the European Web sites most critical of Bush during his first term.

Each publication has its own distinctive style. For an American, reading The Guardian on Bush is like discussing a family quarrel with an obnoxious (some would say honest) cousin who is fed up with your headstrong dad. Reading Le Monde is more like listening to an urbane (some would say cynical) uncle who wants to fill you in on the limitations of your tres gauche paterfamilias.

Writing in The Guardian last week, Timothy Garton Ash said the "crowing triumphalist narrative out of Washington" should be resisted "not because it comes from Washington, but because it's wrong and counter-productive."

"What is happening on the streets of Beirut is not a result of the invasion of Iraq, nor does it retrospectively justify that invasion," he said.

Garton Ash argued that recent events actually show that Bush is adopting a more European perspective out of necessity.

"The truth is that, starting with the shock of September 11 2001, Washington has groped its way, by a process of trial and error, to a strategic position which it is entirely possible for democrats in both Europe and the Arab world to engage with. A key part of that groping was the realisation in Iraq that, while the United States could win any war on its own, it could not win the subsequent peace; and that democracy would not come overnight, out of the barrel of a gun."

For the editors of Le Monde (in French) the events of recent weeks in the Middle East are less a vindication of Bush than a blow to two schools of thought among U.S. foreign policymakers.

The success of Arab democratic movements, they say, refutes the "clash of civilization" theory first proposed by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, which finds the Arab-Muslim world "impermeable" to democratic thinking for historical, cultural and religious reasons. The Arab democratic movements are also a rebuke to "realist" policymakers who "preached a certain indulgence with respect to the authoritative modes of the region."

But the Parisian editors acknowledge the appeal of Bush's democracy message.

Europeans should "take care not to cede to the Americans a monopoly on democratic rhetoric. [The Europeans] are right to say that there will be no durable democratization and modernization of the Middle East as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unresolved, but it would be an error to make a precondition of it."

The French, not surprisingly, also find the "Bush is right" discourse lacking in nuance. A Le Monde story on "aspirations for change in the Arab world" pointed out that the Persian Gulf countries actually began implementing democratic reforms after the 1991 war to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, well before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In another Le Monde article, several unnamed French officials rejected the Bush administration's so-called "domino theory," which holds that the fall of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq will inevitably help topple neighboring autocracies.

These officials argue it was the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) which developed and documented the correct diagnosis of the Arab world's problems -- backward education, absence of economic initiative, illegitimacy of authoritarian regimes, frustrations of the young, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The UNDP, one observes, "was not inspired by Washington."

"Why do Arab leaders feel they have to make gestures toward opening up?" this official asked. "Is it because their dialogue with the United States is becoming more difficult? Or is it because they have become conscious that the world has changed and so have their countries? It doesn't matter."

But Daniel Pipes, a controversial Middle East commentator whom Bush appointed to serve on the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace, worries that democracy may prevail too quickly. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Pipes notes that Islamist parties opposed to U.S. policies in the region are the most likely beneficiaries of free elections in Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

"Removing . . . . Hosni Mubarak, Bashar Assad, and the Saudi princes is easier than convincing Middle Eastern Muslim peoples not to replace them with virulent Islamist ideologues," he writes.

Pipes says Bush "deserves high praise for his steadfast vision of a free Middle East; but his administration should proceed slowly and very carefully about transferring power from autocrats to democrats."

One of Bush's long-time supporters sounds more concerned about the implications of his Arab democracy campaign than some of his long-time critics.

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