March 7, 2005


What Bush Got Right: Freedom's march: The president has been right on some big questions. Now, if he can get the little stuff right, he'll change the world (Fareed Zakaria, 3/14/05, Newsweek)

The other noted political scientist who has been vindicated in recent weeks is George W. Bush. Across New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—and probably Europe and Asia as well—people are nervously asking themselves a question: "Could he possibly have been right?" The short answer is yes. Whether or not Bush deserves credit for everything that is happening in the Middle East, he has been fundamentally right about some big things.

Bush never accepted the view that Islamic terrorism had its roots in religion or culture or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead he veered toward the analysis that the region was breeding terror because it had developed deep dysfunctions caused by decades of repression and an almost total lack of political, economic and social modernization. The Arab world, in this analysis, was almost unique in that over the past three decades it had become increasingly unfree, even as the rest of the world was opening up. His solution, therefore, was to push for reform in these lands.

The theory did not originate with Bush's administration. Others had made this case: scholars like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, the Arab intellectuals who wrote the United Nations' now famous "Arab Human Development Report" and even this writer. (Three weeks after 9/11 I wrote an essay titled "Why Do They Hate Us?" that made this case.) These ideas were gaining some ground in the Arab world, especially after 9/11. But Bush's adoption of them was absolutely crucial because he had the power to pressure the region's regimes. Efforts to change the dynamics of the Middle East had always collapsed in the past as its wily rulers would delay, obstruct and obfuscate. Bush has pushed them with persistence and, increasingly, he is trying to build a broader international effort. The results might surprise.

Repressive regimes are often extremely fragile. Syria is the perfect example. Bashar al-Assad's rule rests on the narrowest base of fear and coercion. His ruling clique, mostly coming from the country's small Alawite sect, is well aware that it lacks support in their society. That's why it is so easily rattled and why the events in Lebanon could snowball into something much, much bigger. The other Arab regimes are less fragile. Mubarak, while unpopular, is not despised. The Saudi royal family is more stable than many think. It uses money, marriage and connections—and yet more money—to create an elaborate patronage network that sustains it. But everywhere, there is pressure to change.

As so often where repressive regimes are concerned, it was Solzhenitsyn who put it earliest and best: "Yes, yes, of course, we all know you cannot poke a stick through the walls of a concrete tower, but here's something to think about: what if the walls are only a painted backdrop?"

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2005 7:59 AM

Somehow, I don't think Thomas Friedman ever quite made the same conclusions as Bernard Lewis or Fouad Ajami. In fact, Friedman rarely 'reaches' conclusions; he just dances around them.

But how it must hurt to throw a salaam or two Bush's way. Although, I suspect that in a year or two, many of the pundits will be saying that Bush was really listening to them all along.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 7, 2005 8:24 AM


Friedman, like Zakaria, makes that conclusion in one column and reverses himself in the next and so on and so forth. The next setback in this process will trigger told you so's from both saying it's all been a mistake.

Posted by: oj at March 7, 2005 8:34 AM