The visit of King Abdullah of Jordan on Monday posed a test to Bush fairly clearly: would he push friendly Arab leaders towards more democratic practices, or would he give them a pass? With yesterday's press conference, we now have our answer, I think. Bush failed. For that matter, the press corps failed. And America's credibility in promoting democracy in the Middle East took a hit.
Here are the relevant passages from the press conference:
Bush: His Majesty leads a great country in the midst of a part of the world that is changing, changing for the better. And I want to thank His Majesty for his leadership, his understanding about the need for reform, his strong alliance, his clear vision that the world needs to jointly fight terror.
QUESTION: ... (OFF-MIKE) which will also be articulated in the coming (OFF-MIKE). What will be the role of the United States in the coming (OFF-MIKE)? And when it comes to reform, how would the United States help the Arab world and Jordan, in particular, in the peace process? [sic. Personally, I love how the question about reform becomes a question about the peace process. Perfect.]
BUSH: Well, I appreciate that question. First, let's start with Jordan. One of the things we've done is enter into trade negotiations with Jordan so that commerce between our countries can flow better. It's much easier to reform when there's prosperity, when people are able to see His Majesty's vision about a prosperous future. And the other way to encourage reform is to herald examples of reformers, people who are willing to put mechanisms in place that respond to the voice of the people. And His Majesty has done that. We look forward to hearing the results of the conference in Algeria. The foreign minister briefed us on His Majesty's plans and the Jordanian government's plans to have accountability measures in place so as to help measure as to whether or not reforms are going forward.
End of the discussion of reform in Jordan. Not a word about the temporary laws, the struggle over the professional associations, the crackdown on political opposition, or anything else. Not a question, nor a cautious word of concern for the political parties, professional associations, and civil society activists protesting in the streets and fighting in parliament. You'd never know that Jordanian civil society feels under siege and that the battle is heating up. You wouldn't know that Jordanian protestors are trying to adopt Lebanese and Egyptian style tactics - waving the national flag, peaceful protests, using the language of democracy and freedom. Instead, just a full endorsement of King Abdullah's decidely illiberal and anti-democratic program of promoting economic reform and deferring democracy.
Sure, the professional associations can adopt unpleasant political positions, and would neither welcome nor ask for American help. But that isn't the point. The point is that we need to be creating the conditions for fair, democratic, peaceful political competition in Arab countries. We need to do this with our friends, not just our enemies; indeed we'll get far more credit for doing so, since it would prove our sincerity far more than does opportunistic criticisms of countries we oppose for other reasons.
The press corps failed yesterday. They failed to ask Bush the right questions, and they failed to take Bush seriously at his word. Would he push for democracy in allied, dependent Jordan? The answer is no, but the question wasn't asked.
And make no mistake: Bush failed yesterday. If you believe in the importance of promoting democracy in the region, that is. Would he use American influence to gently nudge a friendly leader towards democracy, putting an end to the days of sacrificing democracy to strategic interests in our relations with Arab leaders? No. He would not.
UPDATE: via praktike, Peter Jennings did not fail the test. He asked Abdullah blunt questions about democracy, about torture in Jordanian prisons, and a whole lot more. Nice to see.