With the encouraging news of change in the air in Lebanon, Egypt, and the Gulf, coupled with a solidification of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has arisen a new generation of doubters. Not all are simply gnashing their teeth that their prognostications of doom were wrong, but rather often reflect genuine worries about the viability of emerging democracy in the Middle East.
Concerns about illiberal democracy run the gamut. Some fear that Islamists will hijack democracy and install Islamist or other such theocracies. Others worry that the veneer of voting gives legitimacy to otherwise autocratic societies and leaders that will hide their crimes behind the sanction of the “people. “
There is also a vast body of research, both historical and sociological, that suggests democracy is the aftermath of a long slow evolution toward egalitarianism and economic liberalization. Ancient Greek democracy, for example, was an expansion on earlier consensual government. It did not in itself spring forth at Athens in 507 B.C. from the head of Zeus. The revolution that started in 1776, we sometimes forget, was possible because of nearly two prior centuries of English relatively liberal colonial rule, under which small landowners and shopkeepers enjoyed property rights and participated in local councils despite a distant king.
So what makes Americans think we can plop down a democracy on the ashes of Saddam’s Gulag, or see free elections in a Beirut that was once the Murder, Inc. of the 1970s and 1980s? How can we even imagine that Dr. Zawahiri’s dream of theocracy won’t follow from the end of the Mubarak dictatorship?
As the ripples from Iraq and Afghanistan spread, we are warned that success, not failure, is our new concern: The problem is not that the Middle East cannot vote, but that it can–and that the results will be worse than the mess that preceded it.
Aside from the fact that we could never have even dreamed of such a “problem” less than four years ago when an ash cloud hovered over the crater in Manhattan, we need to reflect on a few often-forgotten realities.
First, America had few alternatives. This war was never between good and bad choices, but always a call between something bad and something far worse. The challenge was not about a post-Nazi Germany, which for a decade and a half ruined the old protocols of Prussian parliamentarianism. Iraq was not quite like prompting post-Franco Spain to allow elections when surrounded by European democracies.
No, the dilemma was an exclusively autocratic Arab Middle East. It was a mess where every bankrupt and murderous notion–Soviet-style Communism, crack-pot Baathism, radical pan-Arabism, lunatic Khadafism, “moderate” monarchy, old-style dictatorship, and eighth-century theocracy–had been tried and had failed, with terrible consequences well before September 11.
Only democracy was new. And only democracy–and its twin of open-market capitalism–offered any hope to end the plague of tribalism, gender apartheid, human-rights abuses, religious fanaticism, and patriarchy that so flourished within such closed societies.
It was not just idealism but rather abject desperation that fueled the so-called neoconservative quest to try something new.
Second, while the nature of man remains unchanged, how he communicates has been reinvented. What is bringing the Middle East to the crisis stage is the spread into traditional societies of Western-style popular culture, liberality, and materialism–with all its destabilizing and unforeseen consequences. DVDs, the Internet, rap music, wide-open television and movies–all this and more have titillated once-closed cultures. Globalization also reminded the masses just how far behind the rest of the world Arab society has lapsed under its many faces of autocracy.
But the effects of modernism were not just to reinforce a sense of failure and despair. Just as Western globalization reminds the Arab Street of what it is missing out on, so too it can offer instantaneous encouragement and support for political reform in a way impossible just years earlier. Demonstrations are flashed onto millions of television screens. Dissidents can fly back and forth to the Middle East in hours; and reports from Baghdad to the university lounge stream back and forth across oceans in a matter of seconds.
So a democrat in the Middle East has access to global education, support, and financial backing as never before. While it is accurate to say that there is almost no history of free voting in the Middle East, one can also hope that millions of Arabs see and learn from democracy everyday as they watch European, American, Turkish, and now Iraqi and Afghan democratic societies in action. That the Palestinian territories were right next to Israel, for all the tragedy of that juxtaposition, helps to explain why they are voting in a way impossible in Jordan or Egypt.
Democracy is now the rule, not the exception, and the Arab world is not so much in fear of going out on a limb as of being left behind.
Finally, there were historical accidents that helped to isolate the Arab world in ways that precluded the democratic evolution now going on in unlikely places like Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Most important was the curse of oil. Petroleum made the Middle East the battleground of the Cold War, where the West excused right-wing autocracy if it promised to keep Communists out and keep the oil flowing. Petrodollars, in turn, warped the economy, allowing corrupt elites to avoid structural reforms and to stave off internal revolt by bribing the masses with entitlements, which only created greater appetites and resentment all at once. Nigeria, Venezuela, and Mexico are proof enough how petroleum either ensures a corrupt status quo or makes it even worse.
It was not so much the creation of Israel but the startling success of the Jewish state in a sea of Arab failure that so distorted Middle East political discourse–and out of envy and pride diverted all indigenous failure onto the Jews. Their liberal and successful nation, in an otherwise inhospitable terrain, was a daily reminder of what could be possible in such an impoverished region. The Israelis, after all, had plenty of enemies, no oil, few people–and yet thrived in the desert in a manner unthinkable in Egypt, Jordan, or Syria.
There is still oil and there is still Israel. Yet slowly there has grown a new realism about both. While elite Westerners may drive to their ‘no blood for oil’ rallies in upscale cars, in the Middle East most acknowledge that oil in not stolen, but hawked at sky-high prices.
The villain is no longer the old idea of Aramco or ‘big oil,’ but the absence of transparency that allows an Arab elite to rake in billions without popular scrutiny. For all the hatred of Israel, millions in the Middle East are beginning to see that Arafat was more a kleptocrat than a leader, and that Israel, not Syria, got out of Lebanon.
In Iraq, we do not see mass rallies castigating Americans for the presence of oil tankers in the Gulf or protests daily damning the Jews. Iraqi democrats control their own oil and have enough problems with car bombs and Islamists without wasting time blaming them on Israel.
None of us know whether we are witnessing the foundations of radical and positive changes in the Middle East, or false starts and brief detours from the usual pathologies. Many of us have written of the perils in thinking that mere voting is ipso facto the answer. But for better or worse, here we are and we can only press on in ways that transcend even threatening tyrants and encouraging reformers.
For our own part, the United States desperately needs an energy policy, one that combines alternate energy sources, radical conservation, nuclear power, and increased fossil-fuel production–and transcends shrill partisan debate. It is critical to curb our petroleum appetite not just to help our economy, curb foreign debt, and address trade imbalances, but more importantly to lower the world price of oil, and thus to keep obscene profits out of the hands of petrocracies that so easily appease terrorists and deform their economies. The only thing worse than a dictator is a rich oil-fed dictator whose failures are masked by largess.
Finally, the United States must somehow forge a policy of consistency. True, a Gen. Musharraf is a neutral of sorts, and on occasion a convenient ally in hunting down terrorists. But for all his charm and the need to work with Pakistan, he is still a dictator, and a bullet away from a nuclear theocracy. Selling him high-priced F-16s is perhaps good policy in the short-term, but inconsistent with spending American blood and treasure for elections in Iraq and Afghanistan. It ultimately will send a terrible message to both Pakistani democratic reformers and to the world’s largest democracy in India, which not long ago itself was on the verge of war on its border.
Sooner rather than later, Americans must also face the embarrassing fact that giving billions to the Egyptian dictator Mubarak, providing good-behavior money to the king of Jordan, and now giving jets to a Pakistani autocrat are all in the long-term as damaging to the United States’ efforts to reform the Middle East as they are in the present smoothing the ruffled feathers of hurt strongmen.
The next problem we face is not that we have pushed democracy too abruptly in once-hostile lands, but that we have not pushed it enough into so-called friendly territory. It is, of course, dangerous to promote democracy in the Middle East, but more dangerous still to pause in our efforts, and, finally, most dangerous of all to quit before seeing this bold gambit through to its logical end–an end that alone will end the pathologies that led to September 11.