The uprisings across the Arab world that began this past December with protests in Tunisia and then Egypt have generated several important debates in Washington and among the foreign policy community more broadly. How should the United States relate to new governments in Tunis and Cairo? Should the United States try to influence transitions to democracy in the Middle East, and if it should, how? What do the revolts mean both for the potential emergence of Islamist political power and for the prospects of extremist organizations? On this last question, the early betting is that, at least in many countries, the uprisings will be good for the former but bad for the latter.
Beyond these questions, which are largely the stuff of policy wonks, development professionals and democracy advocates, there is another intense discussion underway about change in the Arab world. It revolves around a more political question: Do President George W. Bush, the invasion of Iraq and the Bush Administration’s “Freedom Agenda” deserve credit for the current political ferment in the Middle East? It’s easy to dismiss this as a self-interested exercise within the small world of neoconservatives seeking to rehabilitate Bush’s record, and thus their own. The truth is, too, that this question hasn’t really touched off any debate since the uniform answer to this question among those who pose it is a resounding, “yes, of course” and “we told you so.” Yet the discussion over this question does reach beyond Commentary and the Weekly Standard, because these ideas and the people who advocate them cannot be easily dismissed; they remain well-positioned to influence the future trajectory of U.S. policy not only under Republican but also Democratic administrations.
Defenders of various aspects of the Bush legacy offer arguments that come in two forms—in some cases distinct, and in others overlapping. The first form claims that Operation Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent political development of Iraq have had profound effects on the Arab Middle East, making the uprisings in the region possible. This argument is consistent with the notion, widely propagated at the time of the invasion and becoming more prominent as the search for weapons of mass destruction failed to bear fruit, that ousting Saddam Hussein and establishing a democracy in place of his regime would eventually cause authoritarian dominoes to fall throughout the Arab world. At the time, Fouad Ajami likened the Iraq invasion to the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt. It was a dramatic event, he averred, that would shake the Arabs out of their lethargy; nothing would ever again be the same.
The second form of the argument either studiously avoids Iraq or downplays it in favor of a broader claim about the “Freedom Agenda”,...