Did Bush bring democracy to the Middle East?

February 24th, 2011

It’s hardly been eight years since the United States invaded Iraq, toppled Saddam Hussein and installed a democratic regime in a region where authoritarian rule is the norm. And now the entire Middle East, from Algeria to Yemen, is being rocked by anti-government protesters demanding that their leaders step aside and make way for democracy.

So were the neoconservatives right? Is George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” – which included the notion that the Iraq War would create a beacon of democracy in the region and that other states would soon follow – finally starting to pan out?

President George W. Bush shakes hands with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, in 2003. (AP)

To put it lightly, no. The Iraq War actually had the exact opposite effect. The entire Arab and Muslim world was united in opposition to the war, which increased support for the region’s tyrants. And soon after Hussein was removed, the country practically fell into a state of civil war.

The people of the Middle East saw this, and many decided they’d rather suffer the oppression of a dictator than risk the violence of a weak democracy.

Even today, Iraq is still no model for democracy. Political parties are divided largely along ethnic and religious lines. Corruption is rampant. The government struggles to deliver basic services like electricity, clean water and sewage services. And after last March’s elections, which were delayed for months as a result of political fighting, it took nine months for politicians to form a new government.

However, while Bush’s Iraq War was in no way a catalyst for the current revolutionary fervor in the Middle East, he can still claim partial responsibility for the unrest in a different way.

The global economic recession took place on Bush’s watch. And while he surely cannot take all the blame, he undoubtedly played an important role in its origin and had six years to do something to prevent it.

Since most Middle Eastern economies are somewhat insulated from the global economy, it took a while for the global recession to effect the region. However, when it finally did (some time in 2009), the consequences were brutal.

For example, economic growth in Tunisia, which averaged five percent in the past decade, shrank to three percent in 2009. Egyptian economic growth, meanwhile, shrank to five percent in 2009 after averaging seven percent between 2005 and 2008. When you combine these numbers with a large and increasingly educated youth population, especially in Tunisia, the result is social unrest.

The recession has also forced many Middle Eastern leaders to cut crucial government subsidies to citizens for items like food and oil, which has helped set the stage for protests in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran.

George W. Bush, therefore, can claim some credit for the democratic movements in the Middle East … but only because he was an idiot.