Middle East

With the Cretin, Not the Shyster

An endorsement from overseas

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This is endorsement season, and like The New York Times, I'm now prepared to make the case for my choice of the next American president, with the aspiration that millions will follow my lead, and the conviction that a quarter of a dozen might. Here it is: Speaking only for myself, I endorse George W. Bush, and just as soon as I can get out from under this rising mound of banana peels and rancid egg shells I'll explain why.

The reason can be distilled into three words: Middle Eastern democracy. Endorsing Bush is not an easy thing to do when the American president has overseen the steady corrosion in Iraq of the very qualities for which he is being promoted here. Alas, any defiant defense, in order to be credible, must lead in with an inventory of administration failures, gaffes, setbacks, howlers and contradictions.

But in the end one thing stands out: John Kerry is simply not interested in seriously advancing democracy in the region, and will enter the Iraqi fray looking, primarily, for the exits; Bush, in turn, for all his administration's backtracking on democracy, is more likely to keep fighting on for success in Iraq, if only to burnish his legacy. That means he will remain more focused on what Iraq can become if a pluralistic system is set up there: a liberal example for the Arab world and Iran.

Simplistic, you say? Perhaps. But it's Kerry's myriad subtleties on the Middle East that have convinced this single-issue endorser, who believes that a liberal future for the Middle East should be of overriding concern come Nov. 2—it's Kerry's subtleties that have convinced me that the man of countless plans is an unreconstructed shyster on the issue of democracy.

I was greatly relieved to read that former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, in an interview with The Financial Times last week, poured ice water on Bush's Middle East democratization plans. Scowcroft is one of those who scratched his bald pate in 1991 and determined that it was better to keep Saddam Hussein in office after his debacle in Kuwait, since his removal might have destabilized the Middle East (which Saddam Hussein had just finished destabilizing). Scowcroft's pessimism confirmed to me that the democracy idea remains credible. Old-line Washington realists, for all their hallowed experience, have never lacked in their fidelity to stalemate.

Indeed, the realists may have already retaken the hill in Iraq. The man running policy there is Robert Blackwill of the National Security Council, acting on behalf of his boss, Condoleezza Rice, who has ridden with the hounds and run with the fox on Iraq. She sidled up to the neoconservatives in supporting grand change in the Middle East, then dispatched Blackwill to take the initiative back from the Pentagon fantasists, who saw the splendid advantages of victory in Iraq, but were at sea on what was required to turn it into tangible progress.

Given such spectacular bumbling, why opt for Bush? Though the president may be a certified cretin, he has two things in his favor: He still sees in Iraq a cornerstone of a wider plan to fight terrorism in the Middle East; and he remains the first recent American president to embrace a U.S.-driven liberal destiny for the Middle East.

One can fault the neocons for many things, but they, and Bush with them, are right that if Iraq is turned into a pluralistic system, given its centrality and potential political and economic power, it can become a commanding model for the Middle East and present a liberal alternative to the stifling ways of its autocratic brethren. Much as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser turned Egypt into a fount for Arab nationalism in the 1950's and 1960's, though Egypt's history did not preordain it to such a fate, Iraq has the potential to offer Arabs and Iranians a substitute to militant Islam as a means of removing corrupt regimes. That would create the best antidote to terrorism. Moreover, once it becomes a truly independent Arab democracy, Iraq could help kick off an indigenous drive for Arab change, at a time when Middle Eastern liberals are utterly powerless to open up their systems.

Kerry on the other hand, has tended to focus on intelligence and law enforcement techniques to fight violent Islamists.

Bush also intuitively understands that there is more to the war against terrorism than good intelligence and international alliances. The war must be fought with ideas, and democracy is as potent an idea as the U.S. has in the Middle East. However, this will also require a willingness to use force if necessary (since Middle Eastern regimes will not hesitate to do so, especially against their own people). Unlike the soft Wilsonianism of yore, regional democracy serves a practical purpose in making the United States safer in light of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Sure, if Bush wins nothing guarantees the president's attention span will allow him to stick to a democratic game plan in the Middle East. But Bush is stubborn, and though he's been taken to task for that of late, stubbornness is precisely what is needed to win in Iraq, though it must be accompanied by far more sensible policies than the ones pursued in the past 18 months. Indeed, success in Iraq is important enough to the Middle East and the U.S. that even the mere possibility that Bush might follow his liberal instincts is preferable to opening the door to Kerry's vacuity in that regard.

So, it's Bush for me, but damn his eyes if he discards the one thing that would make his term in office remarkable: the beginning of the liberation of a part of the world whose lack of freedom can yet kill many Arabs, and Americans.