Juan Cole: People Power vs. Washington

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Juan R.I. Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.]

The claim that George W. Bush’s war of aggression against Iraq somehow opened up the Middle East to reform is an affront to the brave crowds that have risked their lives to change the American-backed order in that part of the world. Bush’s invasion was followed by no significant reforms in the region, whereas the outbreak of people power today has scared autocratic regimes into making unheard-of concessions. Iraq itself is no shining beacon on a hill for the people of the Middle East, but rather is a target of protests and an object lesson among the protesters of what to avoid....

If Bush’s misadventure in Iraq had indeed been a positive impetus for change in the region, then at least some protesters elsewhere would have credited it as an inspiration. If the U.S. occupation had actually produced a functional, democratic system, so many Iraqis would not have emulated the Egyptian protesters and taken to the streets. Moreover, we would have seen political openings in the years after 2003 in the Arab world. Rather, the reforms are coming only now, impelled by the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt....

The demands of the protesters throughout today’s Arab world have nothing in common with earlier U.S. neoconservative plots. Today’s democratic forces want the right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. They want a better deal economically, and government intervention to ensure the public welfare. They want genuine grass-roots input into legislation and governance. They want an end to censorship and secret police. They want national resources to benefit the common person, not foreign corporations. Their ideals are far closer to FDR’s New Deal than to W.’s White Tie Society. And they are well on the way to realizing their goals in key countries of the region even as the Kleptocratic Bush era recedes into the mists of history, attendant with more major failures of policy than any other regime in American history.

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