Free at Last?

Some Arabs welcome American democratic browbeating


On Monday, exactly a week after Lebanon's prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was killed in a bomb blast in Beirut's tony seaside hotel district, some 50,000 or so protestors met near the site, observed a minute of silence, and marched toward Hariri's grave. As riot police brought up the rear, or stood by the roadside, protestors demanded a return to Lebanese sovereignty, shouted abuse against Syria and the pro-Syrian Lebanese government, and insisted that there be an impartial inquiry into Hariri's death.

I was there, and while protests are perhaps not as rare in the Arab world as some might think—particularly when directed against Israel or the United States—anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon (protests where, for example, Syrian President Bashar Assad could repeatedly be called "a pimp") are. The killing of Hariri removed all the stops, dissolving fear and allowing the pleasurable indecorum of the incanted insult. And while many in the United States might today be jaded when it comes to liberal impulses in the Middle East, increasingly there are those in the region who see recent elections in Iraq (and democratic movements in Ukraine or Georgia) as deeply relevant to their own fate.

On the same day as the demonstration in Beirut, George W. Bush delivered a speech in Brussels where he again demanded that the Syrians remove their army and intelligence agents from Lebanon. He also, more broadly, declared: "A status quo of tyranny and hopelessness in the Middle East—the false stability of dictatorship and stagnation—can only lead to deeper resentment in a troubled region, and further tragedy in free nations. The future of our nations, and the future of the Middle East, are linked—and our peace depends on their hope and development and freedom."

In this endeavor, Bush has unexpected allies. Writing in the Washington Post on Wednesday, David Ignatius offered up this quote from Lebanon's paramount Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who, after siding with Syria for decades (he didn't have much choice; they killed his father) and opposing the U.S. war in Iraq, has become the leading figure in the anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition: "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world . The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

Jumblatt, for whom political changeability has long been the price to pay for protecting his minority community (and his control over it), nevertheless means what he says. Like many Lebanese, albeit at much greater risk to his own life, Jumblatt has gone too far in attacking Syria to turn back now. And while there are those in the Middle East and the United States who will refuse to give the administration any credit on democratization, at this end of the table, and in Iraq, the more pragmatic view is that it's best to take what one can from the outside if expanded freedom is the upshot.

Nick Gillespie was right to pooh-pooh the view that "[a]t every step of his career, [George W.] Bush has been written off as a lightweight and a loser, a dim bulb whose grasp exceeds his reach and whose I.Q. is stuck somewhere in the high double digits." I once referred to him as a "cretin," and the laugh is surely on me, though this was in the context of a successful endorsement. Like Ronald Reagan in Eastern Europe, Bush has shown in the Middle East that simple, indeed simplistic, ideas can go a long way when expressing the frustration and anger of populations afflicted with tyrannies refusing to accord them even minimal respect.

For most Lebanese, the killing of Hariri was very much perceived as an outrage against the normal order of things, because it targeted a rare Arab leader who left behind a constructive legacy and didn't pack a gun. Even recognizing the former prime minister's faults, one often-heard refrain somehow makes perfect sense, particularly against the backdrop of photographs of Hariri's burned body widely disseminated in the local press: "It was unnatural for such a man to die in such a sordid way." This suggested the extent to which the Lebanese today understand (as many should have, but not so long ago didn't) that autocracy is the triumph of the aberrant and the promotion of the inferior.

As the debate continues in the U.S. and elsewhere over Bush's merits and demerits, and over his dissembling, indeed lying, before dispatching forces to Iraq, the Lebanon example shows the advantages of selective interpretation. It matters little where Syria's Lebanese foes stand in disputations over Bush's record, nor did voters in Iraq much care either; both populations took what was relevant to them, accepted Bush's broad sound bites of democratization, and carried the idea on from there according to their parochial interests.

Should the United States pursue its democratizing path, particularly in the Middle East? It is remarkable how Bush's critics, both from the political left and libertarian right, found themselves in a bind after the Iraqi election. Unlike Jumblatt, most scurried to a fallback position when their predictions of a fiasco proved wrong. A favored option was to warn that Washington had roused an Islamist monster. In that way the critics did a 180-degree turn: implying, initially, that the U.S. was avoiding democratic elections, then, when that proved wrong, that the elections would fail, and, when that again proved wrong, that elections should never have taken place because the victors were mullahs.

This magazine alone is proof that there is no consensus among American liberals (in the classical sense of the term) as to whether defense of liberty at home should somehow imply defending it abroad. As Christopher Hitchens bitingly observed in a 2001 Reason interview with Rhys Southan, when asked about why he was growing more sympathetic to the libertarian critique: "It's hard to assign a date. I threw in my lot with the left because on all manner of pressing topics—the Vietnam atrocity, nuclear weapons, racism, oligarchy—there didn't seem to be any distinctive libertarian view. I must say that this still seems to me to be the case, at least where issues of internationalism are concerned. What is the libertarian take, for example, on Bosnia or Palestine?"

Indeed, what is the libertarian take on Iraq or Lebanon? Or, for that matter, that of those leftist internationalists who cannot bring themselves, even temporarily, to walk in step with the Bush administration? Should the priority be freedom? Should it be to deny the president recognition for being true to his democratic word? Is American democracy an island, an isolated city on the hill that can be an inspiration but must not otherwise challenge the status quo buttressed by the prescriptions of national sovereignty?

Who knows, but earlier this week tens of thousands of marching Lebanese, and hundreds of thousands behind them, were hoping the answer is more, not less, American interest in advancing their desired liberty, even as they realize they are the ones who must take the lead.