Crises have a way of provoking interesting, occasionally useful intellectual debates. September 11 was no exception, forcing foreign policy analysts and policymakers to grapple with bigger ideas. Oddly enough, it was some in the Republican Party who made perhaps the most radical argument, that the attacks that day were, in fact, a direct result of Middle East’s democratic deficit. In the absence of freedom, Arabs lacked legitimate outlets to express their political grievances, making them more likely to resort to political violence and terrorism.
This formed the intellectual justification for the Bush administration’s rhetorical emphasis on democracy promotion and for what would later become the “forward strategy for freedom.” As President George W. Bush and senior officials like Condoleezza Rice were fond of saying, “the status quo is untenable.” The status quo was untenable.
But to draw a link between Bush’s policies and the Arab revolts — as some neoconservatives insist on doing — makes little sense. In Arab eyes, Iraq became a model not of what to do, but what to avoid. That said, actions have unintended consequences.
Would the Arab spring have happened without September 11? With so many variables at play, it is a difficult counterfactual to entertain. What we do know, though, is that the 2000s, alongside Bush’s democracy promotion program, were a breakthrough for democracy in the region. December 12, 2004 saw Egypt’s first explicitly anti-Mubarak protest. Soon, protests became a routine sight in the streets of Cairo. The numbers were rarely overwhelming but a precedent, at least, had been set. Across the region, elections, however fraudulent, offered a semblance of competition. There was something to fight for. Whatever its faults, and whatever its intent, the Bush administration had helped inject democracy and democracy promotion into Arab public discourse.