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.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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