Lee Smith is senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
Two weeks of massive street protests have given Egyptians their voice and today Hosni Mubarak has heard them. If the events that led to Mubarak's resignation after 30 years as president came as a surprise to many longtime observers of the Middle East, there's one former US policymaker who has some reason to boast that he saw it coming.
President George W. Bush's Freedom Agenda was based on the notion that around the world all men share the desire for liberty. It was our founding fathers who put forth the idea that this was not merely a human aspiration but a natural right, and it was the many generations of our forefathers who fought for that right, both at home and abroad. The Arabs had not been born with that privilege.
Instead, they were ruled by princes and presidents for life whose governance amounted to little more than repression and the instruments of torture used by the various regimes' so-called security apparatuses. With no room to act freely in their political lives, it was little wonder that Arabs turned to violence and extremism.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Bush believed that freedom was not only best for the Arabs, but also a vital national interest that would keep Americans, U.S. allies and interests around the world safe from terrorism. The Freedom Agenda became the cornerstone of the Bush administration's Middle East policy.
Iraq was first on the Freedom Agenda as the 2003 invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, one of the region's bloodiest tyrants, and set in motion a democratic process — free elections, popular representation, accountability and rule by consent of the governed. With the symbolic image of the purple-stained fingers of first-time Iraqi voters still fresh in their minds, the Lebanese were next. After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, more than a million Lebanese went to the streets on March 14, 2005, to demand their freedom, sovereignty and independence. And suddenly, after years of occupation, Syrian troops were gone from Lebanon. The Bush administration even scored a success in Egypt, where the White House got Mubarak to hold what were the country's freest presidential elections ever, up until now anyway.
Lee Smith is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.
The Freedom Agenda's worst setbacks were, paradoxically, an index of its success. In the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections, the electorate brought to power Hamas; and in Lebanon, Hezbollah was also empowered at the polls. The administration had not anticipated that a democratic system would pave the way for parties with nondemocratic ideas.
The unfortunate fact is that assuming Mubarak does keep to his word and step down come September, we may see something similar happen in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized, if not necessarily the most popular, party in the country. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has taken over the government, and Iraq is perhaps teetering on the verge of another round of violence. In other words, the Freedom Agenda's scorecard is mixed.
So was Bush right? In one sense, it will be years, perhaps decades or even longer before we can have an accurate accounting. It is worth recalling that all these nascent Arab democracies are just now taking root in a part of the world with a culture and history many times older than that of the United States, arguably the world's oldest democracy. This is a messy process, democracy, and intentionally so. It is not by any means a perfect system, but it is the ideal form of governance to account for the imperfect nature of man, the political animal.
That is to say, in another sense, yes, Bush was right, and every American knows it — for it is only democracy that allows those voices not only to be heard, but to reach consensus without resorting to violence.