What, it might be wondered, occurs to George W Bush as he follows the tumult in North Africa from the safety of his retirement home in Houston? Or to Tony Blair, as he scans the satellite channels from his offices in east Jerusalem? The former president has so far remained silent; the former prime minister has spread himself all over the airwaves with calls for stability. But might there not – should there not – be one question on their minds? Is President Obama succeeding where they so expensively failed?
When the two leaders joined forces to remove Saddam Hussein by force, they did so – however recklessly – to avert what they saw as a threat. But this was not the whole, nor for Bush necessarily, the prime agenda. They saw Iraq as a promising template for democracy in the greater Middle East, and took upon themselves a mission to accelerate the process. With an elected government installed in Baghdad, they dreamt, there would be civil harmony, a secure source of oil and the prospect of the region as a whole falling into line. Even if no one else followed immediately, the character of the neighbourhood would have changed. Iraqis would be grateful to their liberators, and the Arab world would have its beacon for democracy.
How misguided this thinking was has been demonstrated by the past seven years in Iraq and by successive inquiries in the UK. But perhaps the idea that democracy might one day attract disenfranchised Arabs was not as far-fetched as it then seemed. Maybe it was less the idea than the timing, and above all the method, that was wrong.
Barack Obama took a very different approach from that of his predecessor. As presidential candidate, he campaigned against the Iraq war and expressly rejected the imposition of democracy. This might have sounded like elementary common sense, had not a majority of Americans enthusiastically signed up to the war. It was not only the perception of US self-interest. A strand of American opinion regards US-style democracy as so self-evidently good that everyone, everywhere deserves to enjoy it. If that means a whacking great nudge with some sophisticated firepower, so be it.
The Iraq war has been a salutary experience for Americans, though who knows how long this will last? More to the point is that it enabled Mr Obama to win the White House with almost the opposite of Mr Bush's message. Democracy, he argued, was still eminently good but had to come from within. Under his leadership, he said, the US would not dictate to other nations how they should organise their lives.
There were, and still are, plenty of Americans who regard such an approach as defeatist and ducking the country's God-given obligation to defend freedom and rights. In foreign policy everywhere there is a sharp divide between what might be termed idealists and realists. The present British Government comes down firmly on the realist side, though it might not thank anyone for pointing that out. Mr Blair, in contrast, was an idealist trying to persuade a country with its feet rather more firmly on the ground.
Mr Obama did not just yank US foreign policy back in the realist direction taken by his Democrat predecessor, Bill Clinton. He combined that shift with an unusual degree of cultural awareness, most conspicuously in the early overtures he made towards the Muslim countries, trading on his middle name and childhood years spent in Indonesia. One of his first foreign-policy moves was to extend an olive branch, or two, to Iran's President Ahmadinejad – that prominent member of Bush's "axis of evil". His next was a wide-ranging speech that April, addressed to Muslims everywhere. He delivered it in Cairo.
Polite society on both sides of the Atlantic has tended to dismiss both these initiatives as brave, but ultimately doomed. Where, it was asked, as Iran rebuffed approach after approach on the nuclear weapons issue, had Obama's goodwill gestures got him? Had his persistence not simply demeaned the US? The efficacy of the Cairo speech was similarly questioned: nice oratory, pleasing sentiments, but some of the highest praise came not from Arab leaders, but from Israeli moderates – hardly the priority audience he sought to win over.
More than a year and half later, however, the choice of Cairo University looks prescient, and maybe the wrong conclusions have been drawn from Iran. In each country – natural regional powers with proud and distinctive histories – Obama tapped into the same vein of national dignity and the undirected longing of a new and frustrated generation. What he also did, crucially, was to detoxify the democracy brand.
Ahmadinejad may be no more tractable on the nuclear issue now than he was, but it is hard to believe that so many Iranians would have voted for the opposition in the June 2009 elections – and dared to cry "fraud" afterwards – had the idea of democracy still carried the imprimatur of George Bush. The demonisation of the US as a ploy to rally voters carried far less credibility with Obama in charge. Ahmadinejad's continuing intransigence now might reflect his weakness following the post-election challenge, rather than furnishing evidence of strength. Iran is no longer the monolith it was.
Revisiting Obama's Cairo speech, it is immediately clear not only how far he has shifted the US agenda, but how far his commitment to home-grown democracy remains the same. In April 2009, US priorities were terrorism and Israeli-Palestinian peace. As a theme, democracy came in at No 4. But Obama's language shines out as consistent with everything that protesters across the Arab world are demanding now. "Each nation gives life to this [democratic] principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people ... But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose."
As for governments: "No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise."
Maybe Obama's early overtures planted a seed – as the passion of Reagan and Thatcher once did with many young people living under Communism – that is starting to bear fruit across the Muslim world. Maybe it is simply that modern communications, plus the similar politics, economics and demographics across the region, are combining to galvanise discontent. What is evident, though, is that Obama's words have gone with the grain of these societies in a way that the sermons of Bush and Blair did not.
Any social ferment of this order brings huge uncertainty. And it is embarrassing to watch Western leaders struggling to divest themselves of allies from a bygone age. But if you ask which American leader contributed more to the cause of change in the Muslim world, you might not agree – yet – that it was Barack Obama, but you could surely accept that George Bush set it back.
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