The Magazine

Democracy in the Middle East

It's the hardheaded solution.

Oct 21, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 06 • By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
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WHAT WILL our invasion of Iraq unleash? Our greatest challenge may be not the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction but the subsequent reconfiguration of the Middle East. What happens inside Iraq on the day Saddam Hussein is gone will reveal American intentions, capabilities, and morality. What we do in Iraq will set the stage for success or failure in the entire region.

If we are to promote some quasi-democracy in post-Saddam Iraq, how will we do it? Iraq is a Muslim country with no tradition of consensual government or even an indigenous vocabulary for "democracy," "citizen," "secularism," or "referendum." The realists remind us that the seeds of constitutional government do not grow in soil that lacks a middle class and the rule of law. They point out that there has never been a truly free Arab democracy in 1,500 years. They are joined by the multicultural, moral relativist, and increasingly isolationist Left, which contends that we have no business dictating to any country the nature of its government.

Perhaps, then, we should allow Iraq to lapse into a purportedly pro-American despotism like Saudi Arabia and Egypt--permit some general, say, like Musharraf of Pakistan, to rise to power on promises to pump oil, rein in terrorists, curb the madrassas, not threaten his neighbors, and reform at some future date. Or perhaps, if the postwar chaos grows overwhelming, we should do as we did in Afghanistan years ago--shrug, declare a victory of sorts, leave quietly, and hope that the feuding Shiites, Kurds, Baathists, and generals we leave behind turn out to be better and weaker than Saddam Hussein.

Conflicting advice comes daily from all sides, from Middle Eastern dissidents, Arabists, Islamic diplomats, and the Europeans. But we should decide for ourselves upon a course of action before we go to Iraq. If we profess support for democracy in Iraq now, before the bombs fall, this assurance to the Iraqi people may help our cause more than a European armored division or a Middle Eastern base. Our commitment to political reform--not to any individual or clique--will give us the military and ethical advantage of consistency, purpose, and clarity.

Americans hope for constitutional governments in the Middle East not because we are naive, but because we seek democracy's practical dividends. Modern democracies rarely attack America or each other. When they fight illiberal regimes, they win. The Falklands, Panama, Serbia, and the Middle East all demonstrate the power of legitimate governments over dictatorships. Yet this pragmatic consideration is often dismissed as starry-eyed idealism. Only belatedly have we advocated democratic reform for the Palestinians, as a remedy for our previous failed policy of appeasement of Arafat and his corrupt regime.

We are not talking of Jeffersonian democracy all at once. First, remove the dictator, to permit a more lawful society to evolve on the model of Panama, Grenada, Serbia, and the Philippines. Keep up the pressure of American and world opinion, international aid, the return of Westernized dissidents, the emancipation of women, and the occasional threat of American force. Let September 11 remind us that inaction can be as deadly as intervention.

IN THE PAST, Americans were told that the Middle East was divided roughly into two camps (plus democratic Israel): the sometime sponsors of terror (Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen) and the so-called moderate dictatorships (Egypt, the Gulf states, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia). Although the latter group ruled without a popular mandate and made use of coercion and intimidation, they nevertheless curbed their brutality and either condemned or ignored but did not openly abet terrorists.

Our State Department has the unenviable task of maintaining workable relationships with these allegedly pro-Western regimes--at a time when some friends and foes are looking more and more alike. Lunatic Iran still pumps oil; the sober Saudis murmur of boycotts. Saudis in the United States are enraged at us; Iraqis living here lobby congressmen to liberate their country. Our tanks and planes can obliterate armies, but they can't stop suicide-murderers. Washington may assure us that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are our friends, yet their citizens comprise the majority of the September 11 terrorists and the detainees at Guantanamo--while Libyans, Syrians, and Iraqis are less likely to join al Qaeda.