The Magazine

Democracy for Muslims--Sort Of

His administration's policies don't match the president's rhetoric.

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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As for what occurs to the Middle East's rulers when they read such comments by our diplomats, they probably ruminate on how good it is to rule in an age when non-Muslims show such deference to the culture and traditions--many of which arrived via London, Paris, and Berlin--that give them unchallenged dominion. They might also think that, next time the State Department issues a human-rights report about their countries, there should be two entries under state-sponsored torture: those "interrogated" strictly for domestic reasons, and those "interrogated" at America's request.

WE CAN ALSO SEE elsewhere the limitations of America's concern for democracy in the Muslim world. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's surrogate Persian service has ceased to exist. Radio Farda (Radio "Tomorrow"), which is essentially an American pop-music station, has replaced it. Though RFE/RL's service was hardly an aggressive on-the-ground radio in the tradition of RFE/RL's Cold War era Eastern European services, the Persian service had developed an important following among student dissidents, who are the cutting edge of freedom in clerical Iran. Though the "independent" Board of Broadcasting Governors oversees America's foreign-language broadcasting, the bureaucratic truth is that if senior voices at the State Department and the National Security Council had wanted to, they could have prevented the death of Radio Liberty, which is how the Persian service was known in Iran.

It is worthwhile to remember that the State Department opposed the creation of RFE/RL's Persian service in 1998. It was deemed an unfriendly, provocative signal to send to Tehran, which seemed to be blossoming with progressive clerics under the tutelage of President Mohammad Khatami. Today, Secretary Powell and Deputy Secretary Armitage have certainly not echoed President Bush's support of the student demonstrators. For anyone interested in the spread of democracy in the Muslim Middle East, Iran is easily the most important country. Yet, with the occasional exception of the president, the administration remains quiet. It appears that a wholly misplaced fear of tarnishing the students' fight with an endorsement from the Great Satan is diminishing the chances that Iran could become a democratic bellwether for the region. Oddly, America's willingness to help those struggling for individual liberty seems inversely proportional to the willingness of Muslims to fight. As the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum recently remarked, it's a good thing Ronald Reagan didn't think this way about Communist Poland.

The Muslims in the Middle East may still, however, luck out. There is a chance that war in Iraq and the creation of a functioning Iraqi democracy could shake the region into a more liberal order. The effort to build an Iraqi democracy could also prompt the United States to back democracy less timidly elsewhere. It is also possible that another massive al Qaeda attack inside the United States could reinforce the wake-up call that we received on 9/11 about the politically dysfunctional nature of the Middle East. Such an understanding, of course, will collide with Washington's increasing counterterrorist liaison relationships with undemocratic but "pro-American" regimes.

The administration, then, is wavering on the spread of democracy in the Middle East. We may need the miscalculations of Saddam Hussein and the bravery of Iran's students to get the American government to move decisively in the direction the president has claimed to endorse.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.