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From 9/11 to Arab Spring

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
September 11, 2011
The Daily


From the days of Woodrow Wilson through Franklin Roosevelt's “Four Freedoms” to Jimmy Carter's human rights policy, the United States had long supported the expansion of democracy in the world. Under Ronald Reagan, the map of freedom grew far larger as elected governments replaced dictatorships in Latin America as well as South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. But the Arab world had always been seen as an exception: There, kings or dictators ruled, and the United States accepted that arrangement. In the Arab world, we embraced what looked like stability and tacitly agreed that Arab culture or Islam — take your pick — made democracy impossible.

Sept. 11 destroyed that approach to the Middle East. While a then-almost unknown organization called al Qaeda had attacked the United States before 9/11, and while Muslim democracies in Asia showed that there was no contradiction between Islam and freedom, American policy had not changed. President George W. Bush faced an intellectual and policy challenge: He wanted to understand how this terrorist threat had emerged and grown — and what could be done to destroy it. To understand, as the great scholar Bernard Lewis titled a book in 2002, “What Went Wrong?” in the Middle East.

One theory was offered and was widely popular in the State Department and CIA: The United States was hated because of our support for Israel. Change that policy and all would be well; we would be rehabilitated in Arab eyes. Bush rejected that view because he believed the deepest grievances felt by Arabs were not about Israel but about their own lives. As Bush put it in 2003, “In many Middle Eastern countries, poverty is deep and it is spreading, women lack rights and are denied schooling. Whole societies remain stagnant while the world moves ahead.” Bush's analysis was that “even when these nations have vast natural resources, they do not respect or develop their greatest resources — the talent and energy of men and women working and living in freedom.” The solution, as he saw it, was that “The good and capable people of the Middle East all deserve responsible leadership. For too long, many people in that region have been victims and subjects — they deserve to be active citizens.”

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