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.

The events of the last year prove that both extremist and moderate governments in the Middle East are riding a tidal wave of resentment. Governments of both kinds seek to survive largely through bribery, oppression, and censorship, and by scapegoating Israel and America. This they hope will postpone an accounting with their people. In the absence of elections, free speech, or any public audit of government finances, our "friends" must divert the attention of their restless populations to the bogeyman of the West. Yet at root, the Arab masses probably hate us less than they abhor their own governments for lack of freedom and economic progress. If Islamic zeal were the cure for what ails these regimes, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran would be pillars of stability.

The pathologies of the Middle East are urgent and will only get worse if left alone. The last two decades of ruined economies have brought nothing but disaster. The unusually candid "Arab Human Development Report 2002," issued by leading Arab intellectuals under the auspices of the United Nations, provides the details. An exploding population (38 percent is under 14 years of age) will have to fight for scarce resources: The 22 Arab countries have a combined gross domestic product less than Spain's. The wealthiest 85,000 Saudi families have overseas assets of $700 billion. Labor productivity fell between 1960 and 1990, while it soared elsewhere. Even Africa outperformed the Arab world in rates of economic growth and the incidence of constitutional government between 1975 and 1990. More foreign books were translated into Greek than into Arabic last year. The report speculates that half the youths in most Arab countries desire to emigrate--usually to the lands of the infidels, Europe or the United States.

In response to this depressing state of affairs, an exasperated United States has tried everything from appeasement to confrontation--everything except systematic, sustained, and unqualified support for democratic reform. On that score, our experience in Afghanistan is encouraging. A year ago, no country in the Middle East was more lawless, anti-American, or brutal than Afghanistan under the Taliban; today, our intervention has produced a more consensual government, and refugees are going home. A secular and democratic Turkey, meanwhile, proves that Islam is not intrinsically incompatible with liberal society. And reforms in Qatar promise hope for eventual elections; Qatar's liberality explains the absence of a Saudi-style backlash from the populace, as well as the regime's willingness to work with us on energy and defense.

The "realist" rejoinder is that elections in the Middle East are a onetime thing. In Iran, the ouster of the autocratic shah made way for an election, after which the mullahs destroyed democracy; Khomeini's death only brought in more fanatics. Arafat rigged an election and hasn't held another. Jordan's parliament is a façade behind which King Abdullah rules by kowtowing to Iraq, Syria, the Palestinians, and the United States. The very idea of elections brought disaster in Algeria.

Yet even these dismal scenarios are instructive. The fact that the mullahs were elected in Iran has put an enormous burden of legitimacy upon them; their abject failure may better serve the long-term interests of the United States than the Saudi royal family's success. Palestinians too are talking more about the need for fair elections than the need to keep Arafat in office. America has much to gain when democracy works, while autocratic regimes profess stability but are volatile under the surface. Better to deal with a subverted democracy: At least its people will soon realize that they, not the United States, are responsible for their disasters.

THE PROBLEM with the old realpolitik is not just that it is occasionally amoral but also that it has been tried and found wanting. Short-term stability has left unaddressed the festering long-term problem of Arab development. The rot now overwhelms us.

We must try something new, out of self-interest. We need to prevent more Egyptians, Kuwaitis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Saudis from murdering more Americans, as their "shocked," subsidized, and protected governments shrug, send condolences, and remind us that their "friendship" should earn them immunity from U.S. bombs. The world is not static. What worked for the last fifty years--a mixture of concern for oil, opposition to communism, and profits from weapons sales--no longer justifies supporting duplicitous dictators who can scarcely feed their own people in a region awash in petroleum. The end of Soviet-sponsored communism means we no longer need fear that elected socialists will turn into Communist props.

We cannot continue to treat symptoms rather than the etiology of the disease. We have used restrained military force to send a message to the occasional megalomaniac who boasted of killing Americans. So we bombed Qaddafi; blasted the Sudanese; sent cruise missiles into Afghan caves; shelled Lebanon; and hit Iraq in the no-fly zones. It was a tit-for-tat strategy, originated by Reagan, institutionalized by the elder Bush, and popularized by Clinton.

The advantage of a reactive strategy seemed to be that it let Americans go on living without much disruption or cost in lives and treasure. But September 11 taught us otherwise: The terrorists and their hosts saw that we offered no sustained threat to their operations, and they seized their chance. Now, they will not be content with blowing up an embassy or a ship. They deal in symbols and shock, and so will always, like carnival barkers or professional wrestlers, be seeking to meet or exceed their prior achievements.

The alternative to the old realpolitik is a brand new strategy oriented toward ending the entire apparatus of autocracy and creating in its place the conditions for future political legitimacy and economic growth in the Middle East. Rather than fearing the uncertainty that this would entail, we should understand that sometimes temporary chaos may be better than enduring stasis.

Indeed, this is the course on which we have embarked in Afghanistan--as revolutionaries of sorts, rather than Pollyanna interventionists or cynical isolationists. The verdict is still out on the stability of the Karzai government, much less the country's long-term prospects. Clearly, though, the present government gives Afghanistan its first ray of hope in three decades. Before September 11, Pakistan was considered a humane place compared with Afghanistan; now the Karzai government arguably holds more promise than Musharraf's dictatorship. And yet under American pressure, Pakistan today offers some improvement over a year ago, when we largely ignored its anti-democratic pathologies. Could the nascent, legitimate Afghanistan--backed by American and European aid, the return of dissidents and exiles from the West, an influx of social workers, the emancipation of women, the establishment of schools, and the threat of force--offer hope elsewhere in the Middle East?

History provides more encouragement than we might think. Cynics in 1945 warned us that Japanese terrorists would make an American occupation of mainland Japan impossible. The traditions of Japan were Asian and authoritarian, they said, and we should not confuse a desire for Western weapons and industry with any capacity for democracy. Yet we plunged in, and in five years Japan had become the sanest and most humane society between San Francisco and Beijing. Rather than search for a Westernized leader, we took on the greater burden of establishing institutions in a completely foreign landscape. Simultaneously, Germany and Italy, both historically unstable republics, were transmogrified from fascist killer states into liberal republics almost overnight.

We poured in aid, brought their rehabilitated governments into the world community, interfered with their school systems, empowered women, stationed troops to monitor recidivism, sought out moderates, dissidents, and exiles, helped to draft constitutions, tried the guilty--then crossed our fingers that the people's inclusion in decision-making and enjoyment of personal freedom would bring a new maturity and responsibility to society. Today, without the specter of a global and nuclear Soviet Union to make "regime change" difficult and distort elections, we are once again free to promote democracy in unlikely places.

THERE ARE NOW MILLIONS of exiles from the Middle East residing in Western countries who want Western liberalism to take root in their native lands. Democracy has no rival in French Marxism, Communist nostalgia, or Baathist nonsense. Unlike communism, Islamic fundamentalism does not even purport to bring progress and equality. Nor has it a nuclear patron with global reach, like the old Soviet Union. We need not fear a universal Islamic fundamentalism. It may thrive in Saudi Arabia, where fanaticism of one sort or another is the only way to foment revolution, but it has alienated the masses in theocratic Iran, now that the extremists have lost the romance of tormented idealists and are seen as accountable for their institutionalized oppression. We also have an ally in global popular culture. However crass, free expression subverts theocracy and dictatorship.

We must not be naive. Establishing lawful rule in lawless places entails real costs and dangers. Thus, war or the threat of force may be the necessary catalyst. Germany and Japan did not abandon fascism voluntarily. Noriega and Milosevic had to be forced out. Armed resistance can bring profound change because defeat brings humiliation, and humiliation sometimes precipitates a collective change of heart. The Eastern Europeans, and eventually the Russians, broke free because they saw the Soviet Union was exhausted, had lost the Cold War, and was near collapse. When the generals and colonels of Greece and Argentina brought military ruin and embarrassment to their countries, they fled. South Korea and Taiwan were born out of war; they survived and eventually democratized because America vowed to protect them with force.

In the Middle East, there will be no change until Saddam Hussein is defeated and what he stands for is shown to lead only to oblivion. The use of military power must be decisive, producing a rout, not a stalemate. Were we to intervene and then hesitate or otherwise lose, we might achieve the opposite result from that desired--encouraging strongmen to "stand up to" the United States.

A second price we must be willing to pay is the lengthy presence of American troops. They are still in Germany, Italy, Japan, and South Korea. All that prevents the violent overthrow of democracies in Latin America and their replacement with dictatorships is fear of the Marines. Taiwan remains free only because of the proximity of American carriers and submarines. We already have thousands of soldiers in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia: They could just as well protect democracies as keep a watch on or support tyrants.

A third burden we must assume is that we must expect and not fear anti-Americanism. Newly created democracies will not necessarily love us. Look at postwar France, which resented the United States mere months after it was liberated. Arabs may feel some identification with Europe, given their former colonial relationships, geographical proximity, and shared distrust of American power, even as their children may prefer the American way. Regardless, we must remember that, while we are at war with no democracy, we have had to intervene in a lot of autocracies in the last twenty years. Far better to suffer the chastisements of a democratically elected Saudi parliament for, say, our rejection of Kyoto than to stand by while the Saudi royal family bankrolls the spread of extremism around the world.

Finally, with the Cold War a thing of the past, we must rethink our dealings with caretaker dictators who make noises about moving toward the rule of law, press freedom, and markets but deliver little meaningful reform. The old rationale for bearing with mere authoritarians has crumbled away with the passing of the expansionist Marxist-Leninist totalitarians. Without ever losing sight of our preference for peaceful change, we need to reassess, carefully and thoroughly, the usefulness of propping up strongmen in the name of stability, when to do this is to flout the aspirations of long-suppressed peoples and forget our national principles. Muslims in autocratic Pakistan are dangerous to us, but those in democratic India are not.

Democracies do not spring perfect from the head of Zeus. Even mature democracies are flawed--look at Florida's elections and Wall Street's scandals. Yet, as Leon Aron has argued in these pages, infant democracies--even those prone to Russian-style kleptocracy or to autocratic lapses of the Peruvian variety--are preferable in the long run to the alternatives.

In the Middle East, everything has been tried except freedom. Confronted over the years with Arab Communists, Islamic extremists, and every manner of dictator, American policy-makers have juggled the imperatives of countering Soviet expansionism, fighting terrorism, and protecting world commerce in oil. Through it all, the region has remained beset by abject failure. Yet we need not despair and turn isolationist. We must rather accept that the world itself has changed since the Cold War; and in our own national interest, we must make sure that our policies evolve with it. September 11 thrust before us the infiltration of terrorist sleeper cells into the West, the appeasement of murderous Islamists by Arab dictators, and the terrorism on the West Bank. In the process, we lost the easy option of propping up the status quo--and the Islamic world lost the privilege of being different.

Victor Davis Hanson is author of "An Autumn of War" (Anchor, 2002) and visiting Shifrin professor of military history at the United States Naval Academy. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the academy.