By Fareed Zakaria
I couldn't help but notice a speech this week by a man who has all but disappeared from many of our radars.
In a rare public speech, former President George W. Bush said: "America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East. It only gets to choose what side it is on ... America's message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom."
Over the years, and long before the start of the Arab Spring, Bush has been consistent in pressing his freedom agenda in Africa and the Middle East — in fact, the world over.
It's an optimistic conservatism that contrasts strongly with the pessimism of many other conservatives.
Take for example Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last November called the Arab Spring an "Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave."
The irony is that in his deep suspicion about the Arab Spring, Bibi has a strange bedfellow — the Saudi monarchy.
It's not often that you see Israel and Saudi Arabia agree on policy, but the two share a general fear of the upheavals in the Arab world.
So much so, in the Saudis' case, that they recently hosted a conference to bolster the very opposite of modern democracy: monarchies.
Five Saudi neighbors were invited to Riyadh — Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Each is a monarchy, and each a member of the group known as the GCC, or the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The Saudis' hope is to turn that group into a more closely-knit federation — something like the European Union, they say. They feel a union of monarchies would serve as a bulwark against the region's turmoil and democracy.
But it turned out that for now, the GCC agreed to disagree. You see, many of the smaller members fear Saudi domination.
So what were the Saudis thinking?
Well, Riyadh has a complicated role in the Arab Spring.
On the one hand it is arming Syria's opposition. But one could argue that intervention is driven by sectarian concerns: it wants to support a Sunni opposition fighting an Alawite leader. The Saudis see the Alawites as basically Shia. And Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, is also supported by Iran, the great Persian, Shia rival to Saudi Arabia.
In most other instances, Riyadh has essentially used its deep pockets to try to contain the Arab Spring.
In Bahrain, it sent thousands of troops to help crush a rebellion. In Jordan and Morocco, there are reports it is bribing the kings to make fewer concessions to democracy, for fear of the example they would set to other monarchies.
At home, the Saudis dole out patronage to gain support. They have given tens of billions of dollars in assistance to the unemployed and they’ve increased salaries of soldiers and public servants. Gasoline costs some 50 cents a gallon there, an eighth of what Americans pay.
The Saudi story is, of course, more nuanced than a simple story of carrot and stick. The monarchy was popular; it was even before its latest round of largesse. And Saudi Arabia is perhaps unique in the Arab world in that the general population is more conservative than its leadership. So while Riyadh may be ridiculed in the West for not allowing women to drive, it must also weigh the potential backlash from its far right if it abruptly changes course on social policies.
But at some stage, demographic and economic changes in Saudi Arabia will force it to move with the times. Even oil wealth cannot insulate you from modernity forever.
Arab democracies will be messy, complex and even nasty at times. But they will have the legitimacy that comes with public participation, which is inevitable in today's world.
And that's why in the long run, Netanyahu is wrong ... and George Bush will probably be proven right.