PAUL GIGOT: The other theme that struck us in the president's speech to Congress was his determination to build on the success of the Iraq elections and advance democracy in the Middle East. Spreading freedom and democracy was also the central theme of his inaugural speech two weeks ago and this time he added some specifics.
PRESIDENT BUSH: The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future. And the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East. Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region. And we expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom.
Today, Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terror. And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.
PAUL GIGOT: Joining us for this part of the discussion is Bret Stephens, a member of the editorial page board who has spent a great deal of time covering the Middle East.
Peggy you wrote that you liked the State of the Union address better than you liked the inaugural, in part I gather because it was somewhat more rhetorically modest and restrained. Do you think this was a signal of the president stepping back at all from his grander explanation of his ambitions?
PEGGY NOONAN: No, I think the president in the State of the Union address became more rhetorically or tonally tethered and low key, while being uncompromising about his program -- certainly in terms of specific countries. Interestingly, his being specific about Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc. sometimes when you're saying to somebody "You'd better change buddy" and you make it that direct sometimes it's jarring. But sometimes it's just good because nobody misunderstands and everybody gets what you're saying. So he was very direct, not jarring and there was rhetorical, a lot of stuff not like we're going to impose anything on you, but we urge you to make progress. We will stand by you as you go towards freedom. We expect you not to harbor terrorists.
So rhetorically, I thought it was a far superior work, while in terms of his policy, I don't think he rolled anything back.
BRET STEPHENS: I think it was congruent, both in spirit and in direction with what he was saying in his inaugural. Bush has put regimes on notice. He did so in 2002 with the State of the Union speech talking about North Korea, Iran and Iraq and now he's added to that list. Syria is a serious problem for the United States right now and if the Syrian regime doesn't change its attitude, the United States is going to have to take action. Right now we know that former Bathists, including Saddam Hussein's former vice president, his former number two, is organizing the insurgency from Damascus. We know this and yet the United States hasn't even undertaken a single Predator strike at any targets in Syria, including terrorist training camps and technological facilities that they're using to move equipment, men, material into Iraq to support the insurgents.
PAUL GIGOT: One of the things I've found most striking and I think is the largest change of policy is the president's explicit, as you pointed out Peggy, explicit reference to our allies in the Middle East or at least seeming allies -- Saudi Arabia and Egypt. You never hear that kind of direct reference to them to move on and to go ahead with democracy. Dan, that's going to present some problems isn't it on a practical policy level...
DAN HENNINGER: Sure.
PAUL GIGOT: ...because we have to live with these people obviously. They are presumably our friends.
DAN HENNINGER: Well, I think the short answer to that is history happens, things change and...
PAUL GIGOT: 911
DAN HENNINGER: Yeah, well more than that. Policy in the Middle East was set in the 1950s and for the entire Cold War period we encouraged stability there. We did deals with these people because of the Soviet threat to Persian Gulf oil. That's gone now. Also Iran is becoming a nuclear power. We have just had a big election in Iraq. 50 percent of the voters were women. Arafat is dead. The Palestinians have had an election and you have the other course of events that Brett was just describing. Events have changed. The status quo has changed and we need a new diplomacy to deal with that. It's the job of people like Condoleezza Rice to come up with the new way of dealing with the Saudi Arabias of the world.
BRET STEPHENS: That's exactly right. We right now give the Egyptians something in the order of $2 billion dollars a year for what? Just about four days ago the Egyptians arrested the head of an opposition party on specious charges and put him into jail for 45 days. What kind of regime are we supporting there? Hosni Mubarak is about to stand for his fifth re-election. He will now have been essentially the pharaoh of Egypt for 25 years. The Egyptians play an on again off again role in the Middle East peace process. They sometimes help us. They sometimes don't. What are we getting for our money with Egypt?
PAUL GIGOT: But the argument Bret has always been that the alternative is worse. That if you don't get Hosni Mubarak you get the Islamic Brotherhood. That if you don't get the House of Saud you get Osama bin Laden. That is the argument that smart people, Burzynski, Skowcroft have used for years. Why change now?
BRET STEPHENS: So-called smart people. Look, throughout the peace process this conventionally wisdom used to say you have to support a strong guy like Arafat because if you don't support him you're going to get Hamas. Well an interesting thing happened literally within days after Arafat died. A poller, Kalil Shikaki, a Palestinian poller took a poll of Palestinians and Hamas's support declined immediately after Arafat's death. Why is that? The reason is very simple. Hamas' popularity grew because it was able to present itself as a clean, uncorrupted Islamic, virtuous party compared to the corrupt, repressive and incompetent Palestinian Authority besides which was being supported by the United States. Once the United States stopped supporting the autocrats, the Islamists couldn't present themselves as the better alternative to them.
And so Hamas' fortunes have been on decline, not just militarily vis-a-vis the Israelis, but also politically within the Palestinian system. You saw that. The Palestinians were given a choice last month between a field of candidates. Who did they plum for? They plum for the most moderate candidate in the field. I think that's healthy.
PAUL GIGOT: Bernard Lewis' point is that where America is most detested in the Middle East by the people in the countries where we support dictators. Ironically we're most popular in a place like Iran where we don't support the government. But Peggy doesn't this put some onus on President Bush? For example, if in Egypt they arrest a parliamentarian or they arrest a dissident like they did last year with Saad Ibrahim, the U.S. State Department didn't speak up very loudly about that. If we don't now isn't that hypocrisy going to be noted and pointed out again and again in the Arab world?
PEGGY NOONAN: Oh, I suppose so. But life is complicated. There is something new in the president of the United States speaking of the great and grand. I think that was his phrase -- the great and grand nation of Egypt -- in his address and yet saying you must make more progress. Two, in a beautiful sophisticated and sort of soft power and maybe more direct then that way to side the American republic with those who seek to be free is very much in the American tradition and seems to me a very good thing to be doing now. But I don't think you can go forward in that way and assume life is perfect. And the minute you say it, oh my gosh everything's going to change and....
PAUL GIGOT: But Peggy you know...
PEGGY NOONAN: ...we don't have to be friends with any people who we find to be specious, alarming or totally bad guys.
BRET STEPHENS: It's amazing how much has happened in a year that we don't even talk about. For instance, less than a year ago Algeria had a free election. Basically the first free presidential election in the Arab world. Then you saw something on the other side of the Muslim world in Afghanistan a few months after that. Then with the Palestinian Authority. Then in Iraq. In six days Saudi Arabia is going to have low level municipal elections. Maybe they're not consequential, but note this; it's the first free election in Saudi Arabia since 1963. I think that tells you something about something genuinely new happening in the region.
DAN HENNINGER: And women in Saudi Arabia are speaking out publicly in support of participating in those elections.
PAUL GIGOT: Dan, we only have about 30 seconds left. We just had this extraordinary election demonstration of popular will in Iraq. As we look back at this two years or maybe five years from now are we going to find that this event was one of those watershed moments which really did open our eye to the fact that freedom and democracy were moving ahead rapidly in the Mid East?
DAN HENNINGER: I think so. I think it's going to be analogous to the solidarity movement in Poland. It's going to break the dam open and I think it's going to be very hard to hold these waters back.
PAUL GIGOT: Okay Dan.
PEGGY NOONAN: It reminds us change can happen.
PAUL GIGOT: Last word Peggy. On that optimistic note. Thank you. Next subject.