A prominent liberal Arab journalist who strongly supported the war in Iraq, has a long record of outspoken opposition to Islamic extremism, and has a deep appreciation for American values recently told me that he has never been more depressed or more alienated from the United States. Why? He was absolutely clear: George W. Bush’s policies and rhetoric have made it impossible for moderates such as himself to win their battles for a more liberal Arab future.
This may seem odd given how often President Bush talks about bringing democracy to the Arab world. He declares that America’s security depends on a “forward strategy of freedom” in the Middle East. If so, he is jeopardizing our safety. For all of the talk about spreading Arab democracy, it is impossible to name a single Arab country that is significantly freer than it was four years ago. Many countries are more authoritarian. Arab dictators know better than to believe Mr. Bush’s calls for change, and liberals have learned not to put their faith in them.
George Bush’s loss of credibility in the Arab world has deeply undermined American security and power in the region. Part of the problem is that, as John Kerry argues, the administration’s “fantasy world of spin” blinds it to the harsh realities in Iraq. With Mr. Bush oddly praising Iraq’s progress towards democracy at a time when entire regions of the country are controlled by insurgents, American soldiers are killed daily, and his own intelligence briefings warn of impending catastrophe, the president seems dangerously out of touch with reality.
The disconnect between words and deeds have led to his loss of credibility. He oversold the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, responded too slowly to the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, and continues to support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon even as he renounces Mr. Bush’s own road map to peace. The administration’s open scorn for international public opinion only deepens the problem. Recent polls reveal that 96 percent of Jordanians hold a negative opinion of George Bush and a stunning 98 percent of Egyptians view the United States negatively.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the magnitude of the administration’s failure on the battlefield of ideas. The president’s response to the recommendations of a congressional panel to fix American public diplomacy was so tepid that even Frank Wolf, its Republican sponsor, complained. When the first appointee to a new position of public diplomacy czar quit, Mr. Bush couldn’t be bothered to fill the post for nine months—during the Iraq war, when it would have been useful.
And then there is the administration’s absolutely appalling record on freedom of the press. Our officials repeatedly denounce Arab television stations for their coverage of Iraq. Certainly, complaining about the media is a time-honored tradition, especially for politicians with no other plan. But exerting diplomatic pressure on Qatar, the country which hosts al-Jazeera, to force that station to change its coverage reeks of hypocrisy at a time when the president claims he wants Arab governments to become more democratic. Remaining silent when interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi shut down al-Jazeera’s offices in Iraq sent a clear message to all Arab dictators: We don’t care about freedom of the press, and neither should you.
Instead of working to encourage and engage independent Arab media, the Bush administration started its own Arabic language stations. It threw over $100 million at al-Hurra television and Radio Sawa at a time when the entire budget for direct outreach to the Islamic world stagnated at $25 million. The result? A television station which only 16 percent of Saudis watch, which almost no Arabs find credible, and which has already sunk into obscurity.
For America to triumph in the war on terrorism, it needs to encourage Arab and Muslim moderates in their own struggles for reform. But by now, our credibility has sunk to such depths that even attractive proposals will fail. Moderate Arabs and Muslims, who desperately want reform and long for positive relations with America, despair of this administration. In their eyes, our policies have greatly strengthened the hand of radicals and made the prospects of a democratic Middle East that much more distant.