Getting on the good side of history

Is it time to declare the bright dawn of democracy in the Middle East?

By Mark Follman
Published March 4, 2005 9:02PM (EST)

More encouraging news today from the Middle East: Now the Saudis, too, are turning their back on the Syrian dictatorship, calling for a withdrawal of Syria's remaining troops in Lebanon. It appears that the tremors of reform continue to shake the region, and that's a good thing.

But the recent developments also give new meaning to the notion of cautious optimism: There is still a long, long way to go before democracy is the rule of the region. Predictably, the Bush administration's right-wing cheerleaders have been declaring victory at the signs of a wave change, and are crowing over the death of the political left. One popular get-with-the-program mantra is that any questioning or criticism of Bush's foreign policy only comes from those "on the wrong side of history."

Then there are the more serious thinkers who see the positive signs of change, including Bush's role in them -- as well as what remains to be seen. It's not quite one big merry Constitutional Convention from Baghdad to Beirut just yet, says Slate's Fred Kaplan. "While it's absurd to think that Bush set the upheavals of '05 in motion, it's churlish not to grant him any credit at all," he acknowledges. "If nothing else, it's an inspiring thing to see the United States standing on the side of national self-determination. It hasn't happened very often in the past 60 years, unless anticommunism was at stake. John Kerry would be commended for it if he were president; George W. Bush should be, too.

"But Bush's partisans seem not to realize that we are witnessing, for the most part, the mere beginnings of a long, uncertain process. Elections mark the first step of a fledgling democracy, not its endpoint. Rallies can sire repressions. Freedom itself is a thin reed without the security, laws, and institutions to uphold it."

And, one might add to that list, leadership by example. The Bush administration still gives skeptics plenty of reason to be critical of its policies -- including the sanctioning of torture by foreign "allies" in the region. Even some "on the right side of history" agree how dark a cloud that casts over any dawn of true democratic reform in the Middle East.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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