The Palestinian election went reasonably well, the Iraqi election went better than anyone hoped, Egypt may soon become slightly democratic, a possibly honest government in Ukraine has replaced a Cabinet of crooks and occupied Lebanon may soon say good-bye to its Syrian oppressors.
All this has happened since the re-election of President George W. Bush. Each country has different reasons for shifting toward democracy and it would be ridiculous to suggest that Bush deserves all the credit. It would be equally ridiculous, however, to believe that these simultaneous appearances of the democratic impulse are unrelated to the inaugural speech of Jan. 20 in which Bush argued that the safety of Americans at home depends on democracy abroad.
Much has changed since Jan. 20, even our language. For instance, what happened to "the Arab street"? Not long ago, half the world's pundits were warning that the West should at all costs avoid inflaming "the Arab street." That would, we were told, lead to riots, which would lead to radical Islamist governments.
"The Arab street" was a metaphor that acquired something like a veto over policy options. Presumably the angriest strollers of that street have moved to Baghdad to kill democracy-prone Arabs as well as Americans. But they can only be a handful. Where did the rest go? Is it possible the Arab street hardly existed? Can it have been a fiction, invented by the region's despots as an after-me-the-deluge threat to prevent the West from asking tough questions. These would be questions such as, What happened to all that aid money and how much did you pay for your villa in Geneva?
Surely that's the sort of inquiry Hosni Mubarak, the President of Eygpt, and his friends fear. Right now the Americans aren't rude enough to start talking that way, but they could change. It seems likely that Mubarak's announcement of forthcoming elections (real elections, he insists, with competing candidates) owes much to Bush's promises at his inauguration.
The thought that Bush meant what he said must terrify Mubarak. Having been on the U.S. payroll for years, he now knows that there's at least a remote possibility the cheques will stop coming if he doesn't make a start toward the creation of a democratic Egypt, which until this winter was an oxymoron.
Bush's choice to run the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz, can only heighten the anxiety of people like Mubarak. Love him or hate him, Wolfowitz is a brilliant and courageous believer in democracy. He won't hesitate to ask the most painful questions. In the past the World Bank has insisted on open economies. What if it also starts insisting on open societies?
The Lebanese street, for its part, has declared that after a couple of decades Syria should go home. Bashar Assad, who inherited the Syrian presidency after his brother died in an accident, has reacted with a flutter of contradictions, the sign of a government in panic.
And why shouldn't Syria panic? The world knows that Islamic Jihad (responsible for the recent night-club bombing in Tel Aviv) works out of Damascus with Syria's tacit approval. On these security matters, including the arrest of Saddam Hussein's half brother, Assad seems to want the Americans to think he's helping them and the Syrians to think he isn't. He's dancing as fast as he can. Sometimes he sounds pathetic. Two weeks ago he told a reporter from Time magazine: "Please send this message: I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to co-operate."
These changes place Bush on the winning side in his struggle against tyranny. Yet many in the West still consider him incompetent and unintelligent.
Which makes some people, including me, recall Ronald Reagan, that other dumbbell. A confession is involved here. In 1980 I was confident that Reagan, with his limited experience, couldn't be a good president. A slow learner in some ways, I didn't understand, until the middle of his second term, that he was accomplishing what I and all other liberals most passionately desired: the end of the Soviet Empire. In his single-minded way, he forced Soviet reformation and eventually disintegration. This incompetent movie actor produced the result that Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter didn't dream possible.
Now Bush has moved toward something equally difficult, the widening of democracy. Naturally, he won't get any more credit than Reagan did, except among those who would rather examine reality than shelter behind dead ideology.