WASHINGTON -- At his news conference on Wednesday, President Bush declined an invitation to claim vindication for his policy of spreading democracy in the Middle East. After two years of attacks on him as a historical illiterate pursuing the childish fantasy of Middle East democracy, he was entitled to claim a bit of credit. Yet he declined, partly out of modesty (as with Reagan, one of the secrets of his political success), and partly because he has learned the perils of declaring any mission accomplished.
The democracy project is, of course, just beginning. We do not yet know whether the Middle East today is Europe 1989 or Europe 1848. 1989 saw the swift collapse of the Soviet empire. 1848 saw a flowering of liberal revolutions throughout Europe that, within a short time, were all suppressed.
Nonetheless, 1848 did presage the coming of the liberal idea throughout Europe. (By 1871, it had been restored to France, for example.) It marked a turning point from which there was no going back. The Arab Spring of 2005 will be noted by history as a similar turning point for the Arab world.
We do not yet know, however, whether this initial flourishing of democracy will succeed. The Syrian and Iraqi Baathists, their jihadist allies, and the various regional autocrats are quite determined to suppress it. But we do know one thing: Those who claimed, with great certainty, that Arabs are an exception to the human tendency to freedom, that they live in a stunted and distorted culture that makes them love their chains, and that the notion that the U.S. could help trigger a democratic revolution by militarily deposing their oppressors was a fantasy -- have been proved wrong.
As an advocate of that notion of democratic revolution, I am not surprised that the opposing view was proved false. I am only surprised it was proved false so quickly -- that the voters in Iraq, the people of Lebanon, the women of Kuwait, the followers of Ayman Nour in Egypt, would rise so eagerly at the first breaking of the dictatorial ``stability'' they had so long experienced (and we had so long supported) to claim their democratic rights.
This amazing display has prompted a wave of soul-searching. When a Le Monde editorial titled ``Arab Spring'' acknowledges ``the merit of George W. Bush," when the cover headline of London's The Independent is ``Was Bush Right After All?'' when a column in Der Spiegel asks ``Could George W. Bush be Right?'' you know that something radical has happened.
It is not just that the ramparts of Euro-snobbery have been breached. Iraq and, more broadly, the Bush doctrine were always more than a purely intellectual matter. The left's patronizing quasi-colonialist view of the benighted Arabs was not just analytically incorrect. It was morally bankrupt too.
After all, going back at least to the Spanish Civil War, the left has always prided itself as the great international champion of freedom and human rights. And yet when America proposed to remove the man responsible for torturing, gassing and killing tens of thousands of Iraqis, the left suddenly turned into a champion of Westphalian sovereign inviolability.
A leftist judge in Spain orders the arrest of a pathetic, near-senile General Pinochet eight years after he's left office, and becomes a human rights hero -- a classic example of the left morally grandstanding in the name of victims of dictatorships long gone. Yet for the victims of contemporary monsters still actively killing and oppressing -- Khomeini and his successors, the Assads of Syria, and, until yesterday, Saddam and his sons -- nothing. No sympathy. No action. Indeed virulent hostility to America's courageous and dangerous attempt at rescue.
The international left's concern for human rights turns out to be nothing more than a useful weapon for its anti-Americanism. Jeane Kirkpatrick pointed out this selective concern for the victims of U.S. allies (like Chile) 25 years ago. After the Cold War, the hypocrisy continues. For which Arab people do European hearts burn? The Palestinians. Why? Because that permits the vilification of Israel -- an outpost of Western democracy and, even worse, a staunch U.S. ally. Championing suffering Iraqis, Syrians and Lebanese offers no such satisfaction. Hence, silence.
Until now. Now that the real Arab street has risen to claim rights that the West takes for granted, the left takes note. It is forced to acknowledge that those brutish Americans led by their simpleton cowboy might have been right. It has no choice. It is shamed. A Lebanese, amid a sea of a million other Lebanese, raises a placard reading ``Thank you, George W. Bush,'' and all that Euro-pretense, moral and intellectual, collapses.