Wittes's central thesis—that the Bush administration was right to try to advance freedom in the Middle East but went about it in the wrong way—will probably find wide acceptance. No U.S. president can eschew democracy promotion as a mission. It is in our national DNA; it is our light unto the nations; it is what we see in our flag. Equally, few will argue with her assertion that "we failed" in Gaza and Lebanon (though there is vigorous debate about Iraq) because elections there are empowering Islamist extremists who have no interest in peace and no enduring interest in democracy. Wittes, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, provides extensive and compelling evidence that the absence of freedom impairs economic, social, and political development in Arab countries. Ergo, since what Bush was trying to achieve was indubitably the right thing although he got a bad result, he must have done it incorrectly. The challenge is to find the right way, and here Wittes contributes many informed and detailed recommendations.
Binyamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky will find Wittes's core argument as convincing as will Barack Obama. Netanyahu praised Bush's focus on democracy promotion and told Congress that there should be enhanced U.S.-Israel cooperation to democratize the region. Not a few Israelis believe in this irresistible and hopeful idea, that Arab democracies would be natural partners for the United States and Israel and peaceful neighbors for the Jewish state.
Is it true? The United States has many "allies" in the Arab world—almost entirely in the thin strata of the ruling elites. Challenging them are, by and large, movements that represent distance from if not outright antagonism toward the United States in addition to hostility and militancy toward Israel. The mass movements in Egypt and Jordan are not at all happy with the peace treaties their governments signed with Israel, and they view strategic and diplomatic cooperation with the United States as the opposite of patriotism.
What we have here is a compelling idea colliding with an inconvenient truth. Wittes's book is a serious and thoughtful contribution to the literature of the freedom agenda. But is she right that doing it differently, we will get a different result?