George W. Bush is no Woodrow Wilson, let alone Winston Churchill. Yet in his speech last week at the National Endowment for Democracy, Mr. Bush said much that deserved saying. He also left out a lot that was worth saying, as American politicians almost always do when they talk about democratic values.
In urging the militaristic and hereditary regimes of the Middle East toward reform, Mr. Bush rightly mocked the notion that any nationality or ethnic group should be supposed incapable of self-government and uninterested in liberty because of its nature or history. Although too many of his supporters on the religious right are spreading just such bigoted nonsense about Arabs and Muslims, he insisted: “Islam, the faith of one-fifth of humanity, is consistent with democratic rule.” He properly emphasized that many millions of Muslims live as free citizens of many democratic governments, and went on to praise the “progress” he detects in predominantly Muslim nations such as Turkey, Indonesia, Senegal, Albania, Niger and Sierra Leone.
The most quoted line of his address departed from decades of American policy toward the oil-rich oligarchs and military rulers of the world’s most strategic region. “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,” he said, “because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
From now on, the United States will seek to encourage freedom everywhere, according to the President-perhaps even among the petroleum states where the Bush family and its cronies have so long enjoyed the patronage of oppressive regimes. At least that is what everyone who read the speech assumed, even though the President never mentioned Saudi Arabia by name (and reserved his scourging for Syria and Iran).
Assuming that Mr. Bush meant what he said, however, a hard question arises: Aside from forcible “regime change” throughout the region, how does the President plan to encourage democracy, freedom, women’s rights and all the other benefits of enlightenment in that region? Doesn’t democratic reform pose a lethal threat to the royalists and other corrupt elites that have prospered from dictatorial rule? Wouldn’t the Arab and Muslim peoples, freed from the feudal yoke, immediately throw off those wicked rulers and seize their ill-gotten gains?
They probably would, which leaves the President with the difficult task of persuading his autocratic friends to take such risks. Still, there are reasons to hope that he can persuade them.
As the legatee of a political dynasty founded in part on oil wealth, Mr. Bush provides a fitting role model for the men who will someday inherit the Gulf states. Of all the Western politicians of our time, he may well be the best suited to guide the Mideast autocrats toward democracy. He could point out how little change may be required for them to meet the standards that our own government has set lately.
To a dictator who expresses doubt about imitating American freedoms enshrined in habeas corpus and the Fourth Amendment, the President could mention the Patriot Act. These days, as he could explain, the President of the world’s greatest democracy can order a citizen to be seized and thrown into prison indefinitely without trial or even charges. He can deny the prisoner access to family members or legal assistance for as long as he pleases, simply by applying the term “enemy combatant” to him.
To an autocrat who voices concern about the hobbling of the security services that have kept his kind in power for decades, the President could mention his administration’s ongoing “reforms” of certain basic American traditions. Federal agents can now seize library records, credit-card receipts, bank statements and other personal data without review by a judge; they can monitor your telephone and computer without judicial authority, too.
To a king or prince who worries over the outcome of an election in which everyone has only a single vote, the President could point out the enormous fund-raising advantage, not unlike his own, that any of the fabulously wealth oil monarchs would certainly enjoy. And should the king or prince rudely argue that Mr. Bush actually lost the popular vote in 2000 despite spending $65 million more than his opponent, the President could simply note that he doesn’t intend to let that happen again-because he expects to outspend his opponent by $150 million or more next year.
So despite the marvelous advances in technology and development that herald worldwide liberty, the autocrats, kings and dictators can be reassured: They can mimic democracy without undue concern about their own political survival. Last week, the President told the world’s authoritarians why they inevitably will someday resemble us. But it’s hard not to wonder whether that is likely to happen before we begin to resemble them.