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Grudging Respect

GIVE LIBERALS CREDIT. Rather than churlishly dismiss signs that the White House may have jump-started Middle Eastern democratization, most liberals have taken the responsible course and applauded recent developments in Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. “The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances,” wrote the granddaddy of liberal opinion, The New York Times editorial page. Ted Kennedy seconded that sentiment on ABC’s “This Week”: “What’s taken place in a number of those countries is enormously constructive. It’s a reflection the president has been involved.” Hardly the peevish response many conservatives privately expected.

But, if liberals aren’t blinded by partisanship when assessing the dramatic events of these last few weeks, their response does have a certain grudging quality (reflective perhaps not only of discomfort with George W. Bush, but also regret that Bill Clinton did not make democratization in the Middle East his obsession). One detects this reluctance especially in the tendency to dwell far more on potential setbacks than opportunities, and to focus on advances in parts of the world where the administration can’t plausibly claim credit. Take, for example, the preeminent liberal blog, Daily Kos, which spent thousands upon thousands of words chewing over Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. So far, it has featured only two short posts on Lebanon’s equally stirring Cedar Revolution— and both were notable mostly for their pessimism.

This is unfortunate. The administration’s record of foreign policy cynicism and ineptitude is not easily forgotten (or forgiven). But it is precisely because of this track record that liberals must speak with a strong voice in the coming debate about democratization. Let us not lose sight of what is at stake. Democratic governments in Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt would constitute dramatic improvements in the lives of millions of people and put the three most contemptible regimes in the region—Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia—under intense pressure to reform. Were that effort to succeed, it would represent a significant blow against terrorism and a significant improvement in the security of the United States.

But liberal democracy is more than just regime change and elections. It can succeed only if it is cultivated—which means devoting time and money to building civil institutions like a free press, nurturing liberal political parties and politicians, and generally inculcating liberal values through all available means, including popular culture. The administration has neglected many of these vital tasks in Iraq. There is little reason to expect it to perform much better in Lebanon. That makes it all the more incumbent upon liberals to offer detailed initiatives of their own.

In fact, given the administration’s global reputation, it is hard to imagine its democratization efforts succeeding without domestic support from liberals. The United States, after all, comes to the project with dirty hands, having shown disdain for democracy in the twentieth century by toppling popularly elected leaders and supporting authoritarian governments when it served our narrow interests. The administration has, in many cases, only worsened these perceptions, most obviously at Abu Ghraib and Guantnamo, which had a devastating impact on world public opinion. American liberals, who have denounced these developments, will be central to persuading the world of the sincerity of U.S. intentions.

Beyond this contribution, liberals must realize their own future is at stake. Should democratization succeed with Democrats deeply involved, they will be able to claim a share of the credit. But, should it succeed despite their puerile detachment—or, worse, their objections—Democrats could well be branded as the party that opposes bringing human rights and responsible governance to people who don’t yet benefit from them. And that could change U.S. politics for a generation.

More immediately, liberals must realize that they have to be willing to support the Bush administration in the Middle East if they want to have anything to say about democracy elsewhere in the world. Liberals rightly accuse the White House of talking up its democratic successes in the region while downplaying backsliding in places like Russia. But the same logic applies to the left. How can liberals be outspokenly in favor of democratization in Russia but only tepidly endorse it in Lebanon, just because an administration they detest might get credit for it? The answer is that they can’t. When it comes to democracy-building, there’s enough credit—and enough work—to go around.

This article appeared in the March 21, 2005 issue of the magazine.