As the pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa surprise and inspire the world, now would be an appropriate time for everyone to thank John Lennon. After all, his lyrics in “Imagine” are clearly the catalysts for the transformative moments we’re witnessing. I’d also like to thank the Beastie Boys for telling the world, “You’ve got to fight for your right to party.”
Chances are that the protesters in the streets of Tunisia, in Tahrir Square, in Benghazi, Libya and in the plazas of post-liberation Iraq are not humming those tunes. The courageous people of those countries, showing us all what active citizenry looks like, have their own songs to march to and their own passions that have stirred this movement. The Beatles and Beastie Boys offer good words, but they are not the sparks of this revolutionary spirit.
Which is the same way I feel about my colleague Karol Markowicz’s provocative post asking It’s A Free Country readers to thank President George W. Bush and his agenda to put “democracy on the march” for the events we’re seeing now. Karol quotes a great line from the former president as evidence that he was right about the Middle East. But Bush did a lot more than give a couple good speeches — he launched an unnecessary war that killed countless civilians, cultivated partnerships with undemocratic allies and weakened America’s reputation in that region. Whether Bush genuinely was passionate about democracy in that region, I can’t say. His desire may have been authentic but the events we’re seeing now repudiate his course, rather than reaffirm it.
President Bush believed massive military action would lead to democracy. The current events across the Middle East and North Africa show us a very different route. Civilian casualties were called “collateral damage” and considered acceptable costs of war. Now we cheer for those civilians as they challenge brutal dictators and long-standing regimes. Our approach to the region — under President Bush and his Democratic successor —has relied on Egypt for extraordinary rendition, tolerated false elections in Afghanistan and turned a blind eye to anti-democratic abuses in Pakistan. There may be ways to justify all of these decisions in the name of American security, but certainly not in the name of Middle East freedom.
We can’t know the inner motives of every protester, but if even a fraction of those in the streets pointed to Iraq as a model of the kind of democracy for which they aspired, we would hear that quoted relentlessly by right-wing media. Iraq hasn’t been the model that has inspired this movement. The citizens of other countries don’t wish for an American-led invasion and occupation.
Just because Bush said “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region” doesn’t make it so. A Hezbollah spokesperson could claim that party’s electoral success in Lebanon inspired the uprising. Al Qaeda could claim that discontent with Mubarak’s American ties stirred the unrest. The sons of John Lennon could applaud that the world finally is acting upon the lyrics of “Imagine.”
President Obama went to Cairo and spoke about democratic aspirations around the world in the summer of 2009. Eighteen months later, the people of Egypt ousted their dictator. Should this American president get the credit for igniting the events of Tahrir Square? Of course not. And yet it’s far more plausible than the claim that Bush was a shining example of freedom.
While America has a valuable role to play in supporting the cause of democracy around the world, it would be foolish to take credit for the events of the past two months. The months ahead will show us where this trajectory leads, and we can’t predict the future. But it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see the past and know that George W. Bush wasn’t the inspiration for Tahrir Square any more than the Beastie Boys.
That said, Beastie Boys would probably edge out the former president in a popularity contest here or abroad, so let’s not rule them out just yet.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."