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Kuwaiti Women Make Their First Visit to the Polls

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Yesterday, Kuwaiti women went to the polls for the first time ever. But you'd never know it from the media muteness. Why wasn't Laura Bush over there, photo-opping with newly empowered females? Why no remarks from the President about this landmark moment in electoral estrogen? The Iraqi election was a visual frenzy of purple ink. And remember the hoopla when women trudged to the polls in Afghanistan and the White House trotted out their best Susan B. Anthony finery to celebrate post-Taliban equality? Why the avoidance now?

Simple. The president wants to distance himself from this event because most Americans probably think that Kuwaiti women have been pulling the lever for years. It's hard to explain away the fact that it took 15 years after we went to war to liberate Kuwait, to finally give women the opportunity to vote. And not all women, mind you, only women who follow Islamic law. (You can find that on the official Kuwaiti Information website.) If it's taken this long to change a tiny slice of the culture in Kuwait, what message does that send about the timeframe in Iraq?

In his second inaugural, written by the recently departed Michael Gerson, Bush said "We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right." There seems to be very little clarification going on right now in the Middle East. And that's because the divisive war in the Iraq -- and the killing and torture we've been responsible for -- have left us without any standing to influence the human rights context anywhere in the region, if not the world.

Kuwait is only a strategic ally. Any claim that they share American values is absurd. The country is governed by Islamic law (which, on second thought, could be superior to Scalia law) and formal political parties are banned. (On second thought again, perhaps that is increasingly in line with American values.)

Kuwait reminds us that the neocon mission of using American power projection as a force for moral authority is mere posturing. We're kissing Kuwait's butt, and the neighboring butt of Saudi Arabia, and issuing pronunciamentos about "friendship" because these dictatorships control vast reserves of oil, and are opposing vast reserves of Islamic fundamentalists.

Describing the Saudi kingdom, Amnesty International writes, "There are still scores of political prisoners and possible prisoners of conscience. Saudi Arabia continues to use flogging and amputations as punishments. Executions, beheadings with a sword, occur regularly and are disproportionately carried out against foreign nationals." All this is tolerable because Kuwait and Saudi Arabia re also are participating in the global economy. American corporations are making a killing from Dubai to Riyad. All those tasteless malls, brutalizing skyscrapers and Prada boutiques are comfortingly familiar. They are becoming us. So the Middle East is far more palatable than the Commies ever were.

But underneath that is a structural reality: All that Bush and Cheney have done, post 9-ll, is transplant the Cold War model of supporting any anti-Communist kleptocrat they could buy off -- from Trujillo to the Shah -- to the current band of criminals. Who happen to be opposed to Islamo-fundamentalism for their own self-interest and survival.

And don't expect his to change any time soon. The Democrats were, and will be, no better being effective advocates for human rights in the Middle East. After all, Kuwaiti women weren't liberated during the Clinton years. (It's much easier to be a moral hero in resource-free, economically meaningless Africa). Prince Bandar may believe in Allah, but when it came to schmoozing both sides of the aisle he was a famously glorious agnostic. The Republicans may bitch about the evil of moral relativism, but their tolerance of a range of human rights violations in the Middle East -- including the ongoing brutal treatment of migrant workers as Human Rights Watch has reported -- is as morally flip-floppy as you can get.