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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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.