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ROBERT KUTTNER

What rise in freedom?

FREEDOM IS breaking out all over, so it seems. To hear supporters of George W. Bush, it's all due to the president's courageous decision to risk his presidency on the Iraq War.

Here's the storyline: Just as Bush's neoconservative advisers planned, ousting Saddam transformed not just Iraq but the balance of power in the Middle East. It gave ordinary Arabs and Muslims a sense of democratic possibility. Once Saddam went down, the other dominoes started falling.

Just read the headlines: Syria, respecting America's new muscle, is thrown off balance. Lebanon, long Syria's puppet, is demanding liberty. Egypt's despotic president (and US client) Hosni Mubarak is suddenly promising fair elections. Saudi Arabia's local elections are more authentic than usual. On the Palestine-Israel front, there's suddenly progress. Iran is negotiating about shutting down its nukes. And in Iraq itself, the process may be a mess but something real is happening.

Wow! If this picture is true, let's nominate George W. Bush for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The only trouble is, the picture isn't true.

For starters, each of these events has its own dynamics. The new Israel-Palestine reality reflects the death of Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon's decision to seize the moment, defy his party, and do a ''Nixon to China" by dismantling some Israeli settlements in Arab lands. This shift has nothing to do with Bush or Iraq. Indeed, the Bush administration has been less active in promoting a Palestine settlement than any in memory. (Watch out, when Fidel Castro finally dies and democracy comes to Cuba, Bush will take credit for that, too.)

Saudi Arabia remains a dictatorship and an intimate ally of the Bush administration. The prospect of genuine democracy breaking out there soon is laughable. Egypt, a place where the CIA sends highly sensitive prisoners to be tortured, is a similar story. If Iran is negotiating about its nuclear ambitions, it is thanks to European diplomacy and over US objections.

Lebanon's instability dates to the 1920s, when the French split it off from Syria as a Christian enclave. The French formula gave the Lebanese Christian Maronites power over what soon became a larger Muslim majority. The consequences: on-and-off civil war and Syrian protectorate of Muslims. Lebanon is reminiscent of other colonial legacies in places like Rwanda, Vietnam, India, and Iraq, where Western powers played brutal ethnic games of divide and rule. The United States has tried to intervene in Lebanon before and each time got its fingers burned.

What the whole Mideast region has in common is a sense of bottled-up popular grievances, many of them directed against the United States for propping up dictators that served American military and corporate interests (including, once, Saddam Hussein).

If genuine democracy breaks out, Bush might not like it. Al-Jazeera, the Arab world's mirror image of Fox News, is the closest thing to free Arab language media -- and the Bush administration keeps trying to strangle it. By the same token, the eventual government that emerges in Baghdad is not likely to be both genuinely democratic and pro-American.

But Bush is right that people everywhere want to be free. However, the fitful expansion of democracy has been more the fruit of local struggle and complex diplomacy than American military intervention. That's true of South Africa, where Bush's pals viewed Nelson Mandela as an untrustworthy Marxist; it's true of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, and the rest of the former Soviet empire.

Often, astute diplomacy and civil society initiatives work where invasions can't. The little-remembered Helsinki Process of the 1970s traded a US guarantee of no Western-sponsored ''regime change" in the Soviet bloc for Moscow's loosening of the screws. Civil society blossomed. American conservatives hated the deal. But before the Russians knew it, the Berlin Wall came down.

Bush is also right that democracy is contagious. As Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker after the Iraqis managed to hold an election, ''One can marvel at the power of the democratic idea. . . . Perhaps it can even survive the fervent embrace of George W. Bush."

So, rather than rejecting his odd embrace of universal freedom, let's hold Bush to his words. Let's have no double standards for despotic allies of convenience. Let's not manipulate other people's democracies behind the scenes. And if democracy is good enough for Iraqis, let's defend what Bush has not yet wrecked of democracy at home.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.


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