A day after George W. Bush gave his big democracy speech and declared the opening of “a great new era … founded on the equality of all people”—a line he delivered at the astonishingly opulent Emirates Palace hotel, where most of the $2,450-a-night suites are reserved for visiting royals—the president flew to Saudi Arabia on Monday. There he planned to spend a day with King Abdullah at his ranch, where the monarch keeps 150 Arabian stallions for his pleasure, and thousands of goats and sheep “bred to feed the guests at the King’s royal banquets,” as the White House put it in the “press kit” it handed out to reporters on the eve of the president’s eight-day Mideast tour. Bush was also expected to take time out to meet with a group of “Saudi entrepreneurs.”
What could not be found on Bush’s schedule was one Saudi dissident or political activist, much less a democrat. Just a day after his speech in Abu Dhabi—and three years after declaring in his second inaugural address that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture”—the president made time for a tour of Saudi Arabia’s National History Museum but not for a meeting with Fouad al-Farhan. Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s most popular blogger, was arrested in Jidda last month for daring to defend a group of Saudis who wanted to form a civil rights group.
OK, you get my point. Bush’s words were, for the most part, seen as empty here. Especially since there was no follow-up. This is a part of the world where tribal sheikdoms have scarcely modified their medievalism, much less embraced democracy—even as their petro-dollars bring in Frank Gehry and other famous names, wrapping their Potemkin city-states in 21st-century glamour. I understand that Bush must engage in some realpolitik at the moment. This is no time to undermine the Arab regimes. It’s important to rally them against Iran’s nuclear program and to enlist them in supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In addition, the worrisome rise of oil prices to around $100 a barrel has given the big producers even more leverage.
But if that’s so, then don’t plan a major democracy speech when you know you’re not going to act on it, with not even a symbolic move of any kind to accompany it. There’s a word for this kind of thing. It’s called hypocrisy.