Jun 1 2005

The Great Emancipator

Media credit Bush for “democratization” of the Mideast

Failing to find weapons of mass destruction or an Al-Qaeda/Saddam Hussein connection almost two years after it invaded Iraq, the Bush White House fell back on its second-tier justification for the invasion: that occupying the country would start a domino-chain of democratization throughout the Middle East.

In the wake of the January 30 Iraq elections, pundits and journalists eagerly spread the new White House-friendly conventional wisdom: Bush’s Iraq policy had inspired pro-democracy activists in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Palestine. Suddenly, the faltering military occupation was proof of the clarity of Bush’s alleged long-term vision.

“Lately, even the harshest critics of President Bush have been forced to admit maybe he’s right about freedom’s march around the globe,” announced NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (3/8/05). “What if we are watching an example of presidential leadership that will be taught in American schools for generations to come? It’s an idea gaining more currency.”

If Williams meant that it was gaining currency among mainstream journalists, he was certainly correct. Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey (3/14/05) wrote of the “raucous noises of newfound freedom” in Beirut, “the heart of a Middle East shaking to life in a convulsion of newfound expectations.” “In many spots dotting the Middle East,” editorialized the Minneapolis Star Tribune (3/13/05), “the seeds of democracy appear to be sprouting.”

CNN pundit Kate O’Beirne marked the change this way (3/12/05): “We’re seeing a wholly different Arab street. We’re seeing people taking to the streets against tyranny, in favor of democracy, friendly to us and our allies, and that is a crucial thawing.”

Three cheers or two?

Time magazine (3/14/05) reported that Bush’s long-held convictions were finally bearing fruit: “Ever since George W. Bush came into office in 2001, he has talked off and on about bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East—a goal regarded by many as completely laudable but utterly unrealistic.”

Newsweek’s Dickey (3/14/05) imagined Bush critics on their heels, arguing that “there’s suddenly so much good [news] that the Bush administration finds itself basking in vindication. The old arguments for invading Iraq—the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein’s ephemeral ties to Al-Qaeda—have faded into the background.” (Of course, “old arguments” usually “fade” when major media stop paying attention to them.)

The spectrum of debate in the U.S. media seemed to go from those who declared that Bush got everything right (“Three Cheers for the Bush Doctrine” was the headline of a Charles Krauthammer piece in Time—3/14/05) to those who thought Bush was merely mostly right. Taking the latter position in an article headlined “What Bush Got Right,” Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria (3/14/05) noted that elite parlor talk was beginning to accept that Bush had been vindicated: “Whether or not Bush deserves credit for everything that is happening in the Middle East, he has been fundamentally right about some big things.”

To Zakaria, even Bush’s parochialism and ignorance are a kind of strength: “People have often wished that the president had traveled more over the years. But Bush’s capacity to imagine a different Middle East may actually be related to his relative ignorance of the region. Had he traveled to the Middle East and seen its many dysfunctions, he might have been disheartened.”

Democracy, Iraq-style

The “Bush was right” line really took shape after the Iraq elections, which seemingly demonstrated the idea of Arab democracy for the first time. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it (2/26/05), “People around the Arab world look at voters in Iraq and ask, Why not here?” A week later, Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, 3/4/05) argued that the Iraq election “led to the obvious question throughout the Middle East: Why the Iraqis and not us?” Newsweek’s Dickey explained on NBC Nightly News (3/6/05) that “elections in Iraq seemed to break open the whole logjam of stagnation that’s been in the Middle East for a long time.”

If the Iraqi elections do have a democratizing effect on the Middle East, though, it’s not clear how much credit the Bush administration should get, since it was long opposed to the idea of democratic elections in Iraq; only popular pressure within Iraq, led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most influential Shiite leader, forced the U.S. to back down. (See page 11.)

U.S. News & World Report (3/14/05), while crediting the administration for “helping” with elections, acknowledges that this was not Bush’s original script: “Iraq’s poll occurred almost despite U.S. plans; Washington had originally opposed an early election and shifted reluctantly only after sustained pressure from Iraq’s leading cleric.” Few other mainstream accounts recalled this history.

Falling dominoes

Following Iraq’s election, the democracy dominoes apparently fell over next in Lebanon, where the February 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri seemed to energize an opposition movement calling for an end to Syrian military occupation and dominance over Lebanese politics.

The bold imagery of the Lebanese protests, similar to the “Orange Revolution” demonstrations in Ukraine, had media buzzing with excitement. CNN’s Anderson Cooper gushed (3/14/05), “It was just an incredible day, one of those days you were just so glad you were here to actually see it for yourself. . . . There was a real sense of people trying to get together in this country, in this land, which has been so divided into factions. You saw people coming together today, and it was a truly remarkable sight.”

This preferred story of “people coming together” was complicated by Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group that staged a March 8 rally, larger than any of the anti-Syrian rallies up to that date, in support of Syria and against U.S. meddling in Lebanese affairs. This left some pundits grasping to make the argument that Hezbollah’s apparent strength was really just masking its weakness.

NPR reporter Mara Liasson commented on Fox News Channel (3/7/05) that Hezbollah was out of step: “You would think if they had that kind of strength and real support among the people that they would ally themselves with this great wave of popular support for change, and for Syria getting out, and for nationalism. The fact they haven’t, I think, tells you how weak they must be.” In other words, if Hezbollah’s pro-Syria position was really popular, it would taken an anti-Syria position.

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman made a similar argument (3/10/05): “The fact that Hezbollah had to resort to a mass rally, just like the Lebanese democracy movement’s, is itself a victory for the democrats,” he wrote—as if Hezbollah had not been holding mass rallies for years.

“Arid soil”

But historical context was glaringly absent from coverage of Lebanon. Commentators frequently cited a quote from Walid Jumblatt, a leader of Lebanon’s Druze ethnicity who until recently was fervently pro-Syrian (Washington Post, 2/23/05): “This process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. . . . When I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.”

Certainly that’s an outlook that many in U.S. media were happy to hear. But its accuracy was questioned by University of Michigan scholar Juan Cole (Salon, 3/16/05): “Lebanese have been holding lively parliamentary campaigns for decades, and the flawed, anonymous January 30 elections in Iraq would have provoked more pity than admiration in urbane, sophisticated Beirutis.”

Media discussions that treated democracy as a foreign “gift” relied on two condescending ideas: that Arabs cannot bring about democratic change on their own, or are somehow ill-equipped for it in the first place. (“Democracy Taking Root in Arid Soil,” read the headline of an Austin American-Statesman editorial—3/1/05.) So U.S. media consumers might be forgiven if they were under the impression that Arabs or Muslims agitating in public for democracy and against oppression was an entirely novel development.

U.S. News & World Report (3/14/05) called the series of rallies in Beirut “as unprecedented as it was diverse”—although mass rallies are a longstanding feature of the Lebanese political scene. NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell (3/8/05) spoke of “the powerful appeal of democracy as Arabs see their neighbors voting for the first time”—a remarkable assertion, considering that Arabs are probably aware that their “neighbors” in Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere were voting long before George W. Bush took office.

Oppressive allies

In the midst of the media triumphalism about democracy, U.S. allies were behaving most undemocratically—without attracting much media interest. On March 6, Turkish police brutally suppressed an “unauthorized” demonstration before World Women’s Day. Tear gas and police batons were used to break up the demonstrators, who were reportedly calling for equal rights and equal pay (AP, 3/6/05). Despite the graphic imagery available, this democratic demonstration elicited little media interest—a brief mention on CNN (3/6/05) stressed that there were “no reports of serious injury.”

And in Bahrain, where King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is a close U.S. ally, tens of thousands marched on March 25 to demand that the country’s elected officials be granted real political powers. The activism received almost no significant mainstream media attention.

One can’t help but wonder if the media’s fascination with Mideast democracy rises and falls according to whether or not such developments can be connected positively to White House policy. Perhaps it was fitting that ABC anchor Peter Jennings (2/28/05) introduced a report on protests in Lebanon this way: “ABC’s Terry Moran has been watching this today from the perspective of the White House, and he reports tonight that the Bush administration thinks this is very good news.” Intentionally or not, Jennings captured an essential truth about media attitudes: As long as journalists report on international events “from the perspective of the White House,” whatever happens will be seen as good news for the White House indeed.