I have previously commented on the problems faced by the President’s freedom policy in the Middle East, which is a top-down, command-oriented, essentially aristocratic culture. Even after the advent of the “Arab spring,” it seemed to me that, if we wanted the democrats in the region to advance their cause, we should expect no warm expressions of gratitude from them: they will either do what we want, or say what we like.
Or so I thought. Of course, as the President’s recent trip to Latvia and Georgia – a kind of “Russian sandwich,” with Putin in the middle – illustrated, the freedom policy isn’t restricted to the Middle East. We might well expect gratitude from the newly liberated countries of the old Soviet empire. But even in the Middle East, among the reformers there, minds may be changing. Two bits of evidence:
In Georgia, the English-language newspaper The Messenger asked its readers the following question:
If you had a chance to meet President George Bush and his wife Laura Bush, what would you talk to them about and what you ask them to do for Georgia?
Some of the answers were practical (“I would ask President Bush to visit Georgia more often. Why? The roads and buildings in the center of Tbilisi were repaired and painted because of Bush’s visit.”), some complained about corruption – but some were thankful and quite moving:
“I will go to the square to meet with President Bush so that I can have the chance to see him and listen to his speech. This happens once in a century and I will not miss this chance. It will give me something to tell to my grandchildren. I would tell them that I met President Bush in Georgia. As for what I would ask him, it is to visit our country more often and nothing more. The U.S. is already doing so much for Georgia and I think it knows well what we need. So I think I would not ask him anything, just greet him.” Natalia Vasopova, housewife, 57
“I think that nobody should ask Bush or his wife anything because Bush himself knows better than anyone else what Georgia needs and what spheres in Georgia should be improved. The people should just greet him and give him a cordial welcome. This will be an unforgettable moment in our lives.” Tamuna Iashvili, unemployed, 29
The second hint of change comes via Big Pharaoh, the Egyptian blogger. He links to an American blogger in Cairo who visited the headquarters of Ayman Nour, the reformer, and describes the following scene.
So we are sitting there waiting with everyone else and the gentleman next to us started asked us where we were from etc. Yeah, we are Americans and came to see what is up. He made some comment about Mubarak being a dictator and how he loved Americans. Trained that Egyptians are brilliant at separating Americans from the US administration, I gave him the old, “Yeah well Bush is dumb and does not understand the region”. All of the sudden, my friend and I were the center of hostile attention by all those in earshot. You would of thought I insulted the Pope on Sunday. I then was subjected to multiple people explaining that I was wrong. All the previous American presidents were supporting dictatorships but Bush – well he understands and is smart. Another chap tried to outdo his party colleagues by saying “and the FM Condaleeeeza is very clever” as he pointed to his temple. I quickly readjusted and said, “Well maybe you’all are right.”
I won’t make too much of this – but I’m pretty sure this encounter would have developed differently just a year ago.