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Bush's Legacy: Dashing Democracy in the Arab World

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President Bush was still giving lip service the other night to the fading goal of creating "a functioning democracy" in Iraq and "advancing liberty" across the Middle East. Although his escalation plan is fatally flawed in ways too numerous to count, those goals certainly remain worthy.

Unfortunately, the chaos that Bush has unleashed in Iraq has destroyed any meaningful chance of achieving them. Not just today, and not just in Iraq, but probably for generations to come across the whole Arab world.

In part this is because Bush's Iraq adventure has confirmed a primal fear in the Arab imagination, the fear of 'fawda,' or chaos. Bush justified his invasion on the 'freedom' narrative of history that we learn as children in the west. But the Arab's have a very different historical narrative, and Bush's failure to understand it will be one of his most tragic legacies.

The western 'freedom' narrative goes something like this. In the bad old days, our ancestors suffered under tyrants like George III and Louis XVI. Then came a series of great revolutions that ushered in freedom and liberty. Our task today is to preserve our hard-won liberties and guard against any return to tyranny.

Bush appears to believe that this narrative is universally embraced. But the Arab narrative could hardly be more different.

In the Arab version of the 'bad old days,' their ancestors suffered not from tyranny but from 'fawda,' usually translated as anarchy or chaos.

The strong preyed upon the weak, women could not walk the streets in safety, violence and anarchy made life miserable. Then came Mohammed, who established the divine authority of Islam. Society became ordered, stable and safe. Fawda was banished.

Arab children are taught that one of the worst sins on earth is to challenge stability and order, since this invites a return to the horrors of fawda. Hence the famous Arab saying: 'Better a century of tyranny than one day of chaos.'

This narrative goes a long way to explain why the Arab world is so resistant to the messy workings of democracy.

And it also indicates that if anyone wants to promote democracy in that region, they must decisively challenge this deeply ingrained suspicion that democracy will inherently lead to horrific chaos, rather than a Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness.

Yet Bush has done the exact opposite.

From the very first, when he failed to stop the fawda-like looting of Iraq, the connection between our invasion and chaos was made explicit.

Confirmation that democracy equals fawda was made even more explicit when the Iraqi people voted, waved their purple thumbs for the news cameras, and were rewarded by mass anarchy and mass murder.

The inevitable result is that TV viewers all over the Arab world see a clear confirmation of the historical narrative they learned on grandpa's knee: If you replace strong leaders, however flawed, with elections and 'freedom,' the result will be disaster.

This connection has been strengthened by the President's policies in Palestine and Lebanon. In both cases, Bush pushed for elections and democracy. In both cases, the people have been rewarded with violence and instability.

In a very real sense, the Bush administration has handed the forces of Arab reaction a great gift by essentially 'proving' the connection between freedom and fawda. This, sadly, has dashed the possibility of democratic reform in the Arab world. Pro-democracy advocates are in full retreat. Who wants to end up like Iraq, Palestine or Lebanon?

Frankly, I seriously doubt whether President Bush, Secretary Rice or any of their enablers even know of the fundamental Arab concept of fawda, or of its profound ramifications.

In their simplistic conception, the whole world exists in a post-Jeffersonian mind-set in which freedom is good, tyranny is bad, and the good guys are distinguished from the bad by their love of liberty.

The very idea that an entire civilization might have been raised with a very different viewpoint is almost impossible to conceive for someone as densely incurious as Bush.

Tragically, his denseness has played powerfully into the hands of anti-democratic forces in the Arab world. And 20,000 troops can do nothing to fix that now. That harm will take generations to undo.