Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Bush's Widening Credibility Gap

The article below is by Rami G. Khoury, Executive Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is reproduced here with permission of the author.

By Rami G. Khouri

Bush's high-minded talk about freedom and democracy went over like a lead balloon in the Middle East, explains Beirut Daily Star editor Rami Khouri. The reaction would be different if Bush—and the United States in general—had a record of genuine support for self-determination and the development of democratic institutions in all nations.

Rami G. Khouri is executive editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune

President George W. Bush's inauguration speech Thursday left most people in the Middle East unimpressed and unmoved, and more concerned than ever about U.S. foreign policy directions. The prevalent reaction in this region was that he has merely raised the level of American double standards in the world to a new level of incredulity, given the massive gap between America's rhetorical commitment to democracy and freedom and the reality of its often whimsical foreign policy priorities. Five specific problems in Bush's speech stand out starkly in the eyes of observers in the Middle East.

The first is that Bush's ringing endorsement of freedom and liberty—he mentioned the words 42 times in his speech—do not necessarily match the priorities of most people in the developing world, where national liberation, development, dignity, justice and meeting basic human needs tend to be much more urgent and common demands. Bush accurately echoed the powerful appeal and hallowed place of liberty in America's history and values, but clearly he does not grasp the nuanced order of multiple priorities that define the lives of individuals and entire societies in other lands.

Once again, he reflected the neoconservative tendency to allow peculiarly American emotionalism and triumphalism to prevail over the more sober dictates of global realism. Linked to this is the fact that most people in the Middle East—and probably the rest of the globe—reject the idea that the United States is either divinely mandated or formally certified by any global authority to promote freedom or any other value around the world. The world sees Americans' own sense of the universal power of their fine national ideals as both presumptuous bombast and unacceptably predatory aggression.

Second, most Middle Easterners feel that the United States' rhetorical commitment to freedom and democracy is sharply contradicted by the United States' enduring support for autocrats and dictators. This was not just a Cold War problem, for even since the fall of communism a decade and a half ago, the United States has continued to support undemocratic thugs, authoritarian strongmen and benevolent autocrats, in countries like Egypt, Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and numerous others.

The third prevalent criticism of Bush's cry for freedom worldwide will focus on American policy in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Strong American support for Israel and for many of its policies in occupying and colonizing Palestinian lands will be seen in the Arab world as a practical commitment to the subjugation of the Palestinians—not their liberty. This flagrant gap between an American rhetoric of liberty and a long-standing policy commitment to Israel that perpetuates Palestinian occupation will continue to be the single biggest reason for deep Arab skepticism of American promises or rhetoric.

The fourth reason for widespread doubt about Bush's pledges concerns his suspect motives. Arabs and Muslims widely already reject Bush's simplistic analysis that 'resentment and tyranny' in the Arab-Asian region are the causes of the terror that assaulted the United States on 9/11, and that the perpetrators were motivated by hatred for American notions of freedom. American policies 'to promote freedom and democracy' in the Middle East are not seen as mainly designed altruistically to help the recipient people, but rather are seen as self-serving instruments of America's own defense. When the U.S. government acts to protect its own people and national interests, carrying out its legitimate right and duty, but does so under the rhetorical screen of calling for freedom and democracy for others, those others remain highly dubious because they do not believe that Washington is acting out of sincerity and solidarity.

The fifth concern about Bush's second inaugural speech reflects a fear that Washington will now pursue more regime changes in lands beyond Afghanistan and Iraq—both of which are deeply troubled and unstable since the American-led wars in those places. Iran, Syria and others will be concerned that Washington will use its diplomatic, economic and military assets to pressure them and perhaps change their regimes and governance systems. Pre-emptive warfare has become official policy for Washington in the past three years, and Bush's speech Thursday frightens many in the world that we will see much more of this strategy in the years to come.

These five basic concerns will be widely echoed around the Middle East and other parts of the world in the days to come—not because people dislike Bush's rhetoric, but rather because they have mainly felt the negative, often destructive, consequences of American foreign policy in recent years. Instead of flamboyantly—almost childishly—summoning divine inspiration for an American global 'calling', as Bush did in his speech, the United States would do better to craft practical foreign policies that are consistent, undiscriminating and based on working with like-minded partners around the world.

Middle Easterners and people around the world would jump over each other to work with the United States to promote freedom and democracy—but only if Washington's policies sought such goals consistently, in all lands, for all peoples, without whimsy or exceptions. The United States should not merely affirm that freedom is indivisible; it should implement a foreign policy that gives life to that belief. In recent years, Washington has been too willing to support dictators and occupying powers for its sudden calls for freedom everywhere to be taken seriously. That is why Bush will hear a great deal of skepticism from around the Middle East—and other parts of the world—in the next few days. The gap between the rhetoric and the policy is simply too wide, and has been for many, many years.