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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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.