The current popular unrest in the Arab world has a lot of lessons for Washington. Undoubtedly one of the most jarring is this: The leak of a simple series of cables from a U.S. ambassador in an obscure country — officially condemned by Washington — may have done more to inspire democracy in the Arab world than did a bloody, decadelong, trillion-dollar war effort orchestrated by the United States.
The toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and America’s much-bedeviled efforts to install democracy in Iraq certainly worried Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Arab autocrats, who were uneasy about George W. Bush’s much-touted “model” for the Arab world. But these leaders are much less disturbed by that nearly eight-year effort than by a few weeks of spontaneous popular eruption in Tunisia, which has now spread to the cities of Egypt and Yemen.
And although the democratic uprising in Tunisia was mostly generated by 20 years of brutality and corruption under the rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it appears very likely that last year's WikiLeaks cable dump helped to light the spark.
The Tunisian protests began among largely college-educated students who had heard about the details of ostentatious high living revealed in disapproving cables from U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec; he had written that “corruption in the inner circle is growing” and that Ben Ali “and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people.”
According to on-the-ground accounts from the Associated Press and other new organizations, many Tunisians felt vindicated by the details revealed in the leaked cables, which social networks helped to spread. Other U.S. diplomatic cables have exposed double-dealing by Yemen's leader, who now faces his own revolt.
The irony for U.S. officials is that while President Bush devoted vast amounts of the country's blood and treasure to establishing democracy in the Arab world — and devoted many speeches to it, including his second inaugural address — he achieved very little progress toward that goal during his eight years in office. Indeed, the places where Bush openly supported democracy, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, have grown only more troubled, their politics ever more intractable.
By contrast, President Obama has seemed to play down democratic themes in the Middle East, openly supporting the Arab autocrats and waxing lukewarm at best in supporting democracy in those countries and in Iran. Yet the Arab and Iranian democracy movements have taken off on his watch.
The developments of the past few weeks have thus done much to resurrect questions about the so-called neoconservative program. In the lead-in to the Iraq war, many critics questioned whether democracy could really be imposed by force or even outside pressure, or whether instead it had to flow organically from the people in order to stick.
Perhaps we will soon find out.