The truly tragic thing about George W. Bush’s fifth State of the Union address was the president’s refusal to acknowledge that anyone might remember what was said in his previous speeches to Congress and the nation.
Three years ago, Bush laid out a vision for developing democracy in the Middle East that at least sounded relatively realistic. Echoing statements he had made during the 2000 presidential debate with Al Gore — when he decried the doomed work of “nation building” — the president admitted that elections in developing democracies might not turn out the way that his neoconservative “brain trust” had promised they would. And he seemed to be O.K. with that.
“Time after time,” Bush warned, “observers have questioned whether this country, or the people, or this group, are ‘ready’ for democracy — as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress.”
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, it is now clear that the president did not begin to understand, let alone appreciate, the consequences and responsibilities inherent in those words.
Bush, a man whose awareness of the world and its complex politics was scant at the time of his election and who has learned little in the ensuing years, appears to have genuinely believed that if polling stations were set up, Palestinians, Iraqis, Iranians, Egyptians and others would elect the local equivalents of Bill Frist, Denny Hastert, George Allen and Jim Sensenbrenner. Maybe, in his worst nightmares, Bush imagined the prospect that a Palestinian Russ Feingold or an Iranian Howard Dean might prevail. But that would be as scary as his cloistered consciousness allowed things to get.
Then the voting began. And Bush found himself confronted with an Iranian government that seems to be interested in developing a nuclear deterrent to U.S. meddling in its affairs, an Iraqi government that has yet to embrace pluralism, an Egyptian government that maintains its hold on power by denying the most viable opposition party its place on the ballot and a Palestinian government led by a party with a campaign strategy that includes armed struggle.
Speaking last night after a series of elections where voters in fledgling democracies placed their faith in extremist parties that are unenthusiastic about “western standards of progress,” Bush had a responsibility to at least attempt to reconcile the new realities created by the results of recent voting. He ranted against “radical Islam” but would not acknowledge its popular appeal. He said Middle East democracies must be allowed to reflect the values and ideals of Middle Easterners, but then proceeded to tell newly elected governments what they must do to meet his — decidedly western — standards.