Mideast Mission Unaccomplished
It was a natural idea: Send first lady Laura Bush to the Middle East to put a kinder, gentler face on her husband's smash-the-china policies. After all, the tactic had been test-marketed to perfection a few weeks ago at the White House correspondents' dinner, the annual black-tie event where everyone pastes on a smile and pretends that Washington isn't riven into bitter factions, each convinced that all the other factions will someday burn in hell.
When it came time for the president to deliver a few funny lines, a ritual he seems to enjoy as much as major dental work, Laura Bush pretended to interrupt and then gave a winning, self-assured performance. She called herself a "desperate housewife," joked about her uptight, dynastic in-laws and generally had naughty fun at her husband's expense. She had shattered her Stepford wife image and momentarily transcended the deep-seated animosities of a ballroom full of jaded Washington insiders. Maybe she could do the same in that other hotbed of factionalism: the Middle East.
Not really, it turned out -- some feuds are even more intractable than those on Capitol Hill. But she did deliver an important message to the women of the Arab world, and it will be tragic if her eloquence turns out to be empty rhetoric.
As an extended photo op to show America as liberator rather than oppressor, the trip didn't deliver. In Jerusalem the photos were of tense scuffles as the first lady was heckled by angry Israelis, followed by angry Palestinians. She remained poised throughout, understandably slipping back into Stepford mode -- a pleasant smile, a few anodyne words. In Egypt she gave unqualified endorsement to President (or is it Pharaoh?) Hosni Mubarak's blueprint for upcoming elections, calling it "very bold and wise." She was slammed by opposition groups, which charge that Mubarak is just rigging the system so his son can eventually succeed him; one critic sniffed to Reuters that Laura Bush "seems not to know enough about Egypt."
But if that's all you remember from the trip, you missed its real impact. At a kickoff speech in Jordan, she called for women to have "the right to speak and vote and worship freely." Throughout her journey she repeated this basic message, a polite but firm call for gender equality. To our ears, there was nothing remotely controversial about anything she said. But in a region where so many women are still treated like chattel, the idea that women should enjoy the same rights, privileges and opportunities as men is revolutionary.
First ladies aren't elected but can have enormous influence, both inside the White House and more broadly through use of the bully pulpit that comes with the title. Laura Bush, a former librarian, has used her visibility to push education and literacy. This remains her passion: In Egypt, she appeared on the local version of "Sesame Street." That was the Laura Bush we already know.
The Laura Bush we may not know so well traveled through the heart of the Arab world telling audiences and television cameras that she understands and supports women's aspirations for equality. People paid attention. In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for example, the English-language Arab News said that on her trip she "became the face of women taking on larger public roles."
The first lady has already been active in promoting women's rights in Afghanistan largely through her traditional focus on education. Under the Taliban, girls were forbidden even to go to school; that was the obvious place to start. Education is crucial in the Arab world, too, but it's part of a larger nexus of issues that shouldn't have to wait for the next generation to grow out of pigtails. Will women be accepted as full citizens? Will they be freed from the threat of domestic violence? Will they have the freedom to chart their own lives?
U.S. involvement in the Middle East deepens every day, as the Bush administration struggles to push autocratic regimes toward democracy. Ultimately the moral responsibility to ensure that women are liberated along with men falls upon the president. But I'm hoping the first lady doesn't forget that she now has personally invited women in the Arab world to dream forbidden dreams.
If she had stayed in Cairo a few more days, and seen police allow pro-government thugs to pummel anti-Mubarak demonstrators in the streets, she might have noticed, as reporters did, that the goons singled out women for especially rough treatment. That's the challenge that the president faces -- and that I hope Laura Bush now feels she shares.