President George W. Bush likes to associate his administration’s goals with the will of the Almighty. Witness the stirring coda of the 2005 State of the Union address: “The road of Providence is uneven and unpredictable yet we know where it leads: It leads to freedom.” As in many previous speeches, Bush lingered on the way stations of this divinely lit pathway in the “broader Middle East,” the region stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan.
Everyone expected the president to trumpet the turnout in the January 30 Iraqi elections for a transitional national assembly, if only to claim vindication of his unpopular regime-changing war. His thinly veiled warnings to autocratic leaders in Syria and Iran, both classified as “against us” in the war on terrorism, sounded themes of long standing. But Bush also made explicit pledges to “encourage a higher standard of freedom” in two close Middle Eastern allies of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Will he defer to Providence and demand expeditious reform in these two autocracies, when his predecessors in the White House have assiduously turned the other cheek?
Careful listeners heard the answer in the speech itself. Bush predicted that “the victory of freedom in Iraq” would “inspire democratic reformers from Damascus to Tehran”—the capitals of Syria and Iran. In those states that are “against us,” he expects that democratic change will come from the long-suffering populations, perhaps with a helpful nudge from Washington. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, “can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future. And the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.” In these allied undemocratic states, Bush trusts the regimes to lead their benighted subjects on the road to redemption, just as previous presidents have always done, and always in vain.
Exhibit A is the actual behavior of the Saudi and Egyptian regimes. A few examples:
Saudi courts recently sentenced 15 people to flogging because they had demonstrated in favor of an elected government to replace the absolute rule of the monarchy.
In 2004, the royal family’s police arrested 13 other citizens who had merely circulated a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy with a parliament.
In Egypt, just days before Bush addressed Congress, security forces detained three activists who were distributing leaflets at a book fair calling upon Husni Mubarak to relinquish his 24-year grip on the presidency. Mubarak is running later this year in yet another sham referendum where Egyptians can vote yes or no on his fifth term, but will not be able to choose someone else. A prominent opposition politician has been jailed, apparently just for backtracking on his promise to vote yes.
Bush told Iranians chafing under oppressive clerical rule that “as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.” He could not spare an encouraging word for pro-democracy activists in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, though they are also paying a high price for their stand. Nor did he shine a light into the dingy corners of Saudi and Egyptian prisons, where torture is commonplace.
The reason for his silence is clear. He is content to watch these regimes stumble on the cobblestones of the “uneven and unpredictable” road to freedom, as long as they remain congenial to U.S. strategic goals in the region. Their prisons, meanwhile, are convenient pit stops for the CIA’s “ghost detainees” in the war on terrorism. If American interrogators cannot build a case against these prisoners, maybe their less legally restrained Saudi Arabian and Egyptian friends can.
It is easy, of course, to decry the gap between rhetoric and reality in Bush’s self-appointed mission to democratize the broader Middle East. His administration is hardly unique in this respect. But the ink-stained fingers waved by congressional Republicans at Bush’s every mention of the Iraqi elections pointed up in a dramatic way continued U.S. hypocrisy as Middle Eastern allies roll back the very freedoms the president says are spreading. As the Egyptians protesting Mubarak’s refusal to step down say, “Enough!”