"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe."
This sentence, spoken last week by George W. Bush, is about the most jaw-dropping repudiation of an established bipartisan policy ever made by a US president.
Not only does it break with a policy the US government has pursued since first becoming a major player in the Middle East, but the speech is audacious in ambition, grounded in history, and programmatically specific. It's the sort of challenge to existing ways one expects to hear from a columnist, essayist, or scholar – not from the leader of a great power.
Bush spoke in a candid manner, as heads of state almost never do: "In many Middle Eastern countries, poverty is deep and it is spreading, women lack rights and are denied schooling. Whole societies remain stagnant while the world moves ahead. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export."
This is not the first time Bush has dispatched decades' worth of policy toward a Middle East problem and declared a radically new approach.
He also did so concerning Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict:
Iraq: He brushed aside the long-standing policy of deterrence, replacing it in June 2002 with an approach of hitting before getting hit. US security, he said, "will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives." This new approach provided justification for the war against Saddam Hussein, removing the Iraqi dictator from power before he could attack.
Arab-Israeli conflict: I called Bush's overhaul of the US approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict in June 2003 perhaps "the most surprising and daring step of his presidency." He changed presumptions by presenting a Palestinian state as the solution, imposing this vision on the parties, tying results to a specific timetable, and replacing leaders of whom he disapproved.
And this time:
Democracy: The president renounced a long-accepted policy of "Middle East exceptionalism" – getting along with dictators – and stated US policy would henceforth fit with its global emphasis of making democracy the goal.
He brought this issue home by tying it to American security: "With the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo." Then, on the premise that "the advance of freedom leads to peace," Bush announced "a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."
Drawing explicit comparisons with the US success in sponsoring democracy in Europe and Asia, he called on Americans once again for "persistence and energy and idealism" to do the same in the Middle East.
Understanding the rationale behind the old dictator-coddling policy makes clear the radicalism of this new approach. The old way noticed that the populations are usually more anti-American than are the emirs, kings, and presidents. Washington was rightly apprehensive that democracy would bring in more radicalized governments; this is what did happen in Iran in 1979 and nearly happened in Algeria in 1992. It also worried that once the radicals reached power, they would close down the democratic process (what was dubbed "one man, one vote, one time").
Bush's confidence in democracy – that despite the street's history of extremism and conspiracy-mindedness, it can mature and become a force of moderation and stability – is about to be tested. This process did in fact occur in Iran; will it recur elsewhere? The answer will take decades to find out.
However matters develop, this gamble is typical of a president exceptionally willing to take risks to shake up the status quo. And while one speech does not constitute a new foreign policy – which will require programmatic details, financial support, and consistent execution – the shift has to start somewhere. Presidential oratory is the appropriate place to start.
And if the past record of this president in the Middle East is anything by which to judge – toppling regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, promoting a new solution to Arab-Israeli conflict – he will be true to his word here too. Get ready for an interesting ride.