Is freedom still marching?

A year ago, the president celebrated "remarkable developments" in the Middle East. Have they all gone to "shit"?

Published July 17, 2006 8:31PM (EDT)

For all the focus on words the president said today when he thought the microphone was off, we've been thinking a lot about something he said while staring straight into a microphone about a year ago.

In his weekly radio address on March 5, 2005, George W. Bush celebrated "remarkable developments" in the Middle East. "In the last five months, we have witnessed successful elections in Afghanistan, the Palestinian Territory and Iraq; peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Beirut; and steps toward democratic reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The trend is clear: In the Middle East and throughout the world, freedom is on the march."

The president wasn't the only one feeling optimistic then. As Slate's Fred Kaplan wrote at the time, what seemed like a string of foreign policy successes had even "the blue states of America" wondering whether Bush had been right all along and whether the war in Iraq would "uncork a white tornado that's whooshing democracy across the region and beyond."


Maybe it's a good time to check in on the president's list.

Afghanistan: No less of an authority than the Voice of America reports that "daily violence" is now routine in Afghanistan, which is now suffering through its "bloodiest year" since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. More than two years after the president declared the Taliban "no longer ... in existence," Afghan officials said today that the group has taken control of two towns in the southern part of the country.

Palestinian territories: According to an AFP report, Israeli warplanes destroyed the Palestinian Foreign Ministry building in Gaza today. At least 85 Palestinians have been killed in fighting that followed the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. Reuters says that the yellow flag of Hezbollah is "flying off the shelves" of stores in Gaza.

Iraq: Coordinated car bombs killed dozens of Iraqis at a Shiite market south of Baghdad today in what the Washington Post calls "one of the most brazen assaults in months of sectarian fighting." (Maybe it was more retaliation for what the New York Times called a "brazen daytime rampage" that killed more than a dozen Sunnis last week.) Meanwhile, three more American soldiers were killed in Iraq today, bringing the U.S. death toll to about 2,552.

Beirut: Israel attacked Beirut's port and other targets across Lebanon today as Hezbollah fired rockets deeper into Israel. The U.N.'s Kofi Annan and Britain's Tony Blair are calling for an international force to help stem the violence, but the Bush administration seems to want no part of it. Pentagon officials say the United States is sending military vessels, airliners and cruise ships to help evacuate Americans from Lebanon as the president declares that all would be better if Syria would just get Hezbollah to "stop doing this shit."

Egypt and Saudi Arabia: The two countries joined Jordan and several other Arab states over the weekend in condemning Hezbollah for its "unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts," but the condemnation comes, the New York Times reports, not from some movement toward democracy but rather from fear of Iran. "There is a school of thought, led by Saudi Arabia, that believes that Hezbollah is a source of trouble, a protégé of Iran, but also a political instrument in the hands of Iran," Jordanian sociologist Adnan Abu Odeh tells the Times. "This school says we should not play into the hands of Iran, which has its own agenda, by sympathizing or supporting Hezbollah fighting against the Israelis."

To be fair, Bush said in his 2005 radio address that the "road ahead will not be easy" and that "progress will sometimes be hard." You could call that understatement, or you could call it false hope for a plan, such as it was, that was never going to work in the first place. From the perspective of at least one former director of the National Security Agency, it's looking more like the latter. In a new piece for the Nieman Watchdog, retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom says a "reverse domino theory" may be playing out in the Middle East now. "The escalating conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas could become a new Arab-Israeli War," Odom says. "And it is precisely our actions in Iraq that have opened the door for Iran and Syria to support Hezbollah and Hamas actions without much to fear from the U.S."

The word from the White House today? The only problem is those dastardly terrorists and the people who support them. Asked once whether the United States might have to contribute troops to an international force in the Middle East, White House press secretary Tony Snow punted and then asked, "Did I dance well enough on that one?" Asked again about U.S. troops, Snow said: "We have lots of them. They are elsewhere." Is that a problem? "No, no," he said. "The problem is that you have a terrorist organization in Hezbollah that is financed by Iran, that is housed in Syria, that has been making threats of total war and seems to believe that its fortunes rise when other people's misery flares up."

You could call that a "remarkable development" in the Middle East, only it isn't remarkable at all. What's remarkable is only that anyone ever thought that the war in Iraq could make the situation any better.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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