The Arab upheavals of 2011 have inspired wildly inconsistent Western responses. How, for example, can one justify abiding the suppression of dissidents in Bahrain while celebrating dissidents in Egypt? Or protect Libyan rebels from government attacks but not their Syrian counterparts? Or oppose Islamists taking over in Yemen but not in Tunisia?
Such ad hockery reflects something deeper than incompetence: the difficulty of devising a constructive policy toward a region where, other than in a few outliers (Cyprus, Israel, and Iran), populations are predominantly hostile to the West. Friends are few, powerless, and with dim prospects of taking control. Democracy therefore translates into hostile relations with unfriendly governments.
Both the first wave of elections in 2005 and the second wave, just begun in Tunisia, confirm that, given a free choice, a majority of Middle Easterners vote for Islamists. Dynamic, culturally authentic, and ostensibly democratic, Islamists advance a body of uniquely vibrant political ideas and constitute the only Muslim political movement of consequence.
But Islamism is the third totalitarian ideology (following fascism and Communism). Preposterously, it proposes a medieval code to deal with the challenges of modern life. Retrograde and aggressive, it denigrates non-Muslims, oppresses women, and justifies force to spread Muslim rule. Middle Eastern democracy threatens not just the West’s security but also its civilization.
That explains why Western leaders (with the brief exception of George W. Bush) shy away from promoting democracy in the Muslim Middle East.
In contrast, the region’s unelected presidents, kings, and emirs pose a lesser threat to the West. With Moammar Qaddafi long ago chastened by American power and Saddam Hussein removed by American-led forces, the egomaniacs were gone by 2003 and surviving strongmen largely accepted the status quo. They asked for little more than to be allowed quietly to repress their populations and noisily to enjoy their privileges.
A year ago, Western policymakers could survey the region and note with satisfaction that they enjoyed reasonable working relations with all the governments of Arabic-speaking countries, excepting Syria. The picture was not pretty but functional: Cold War dangers had been thwarted, Islamist ones mostly held off.
Greedy and cruel tyrants, however, present two problems to the West. By focusing on personal priorities to the detriment of national interests, they lay the groundwork for further problems, from terrorism to separatism to revolution, and by repressing their subjects, they offend the sensibilities of Westerners. How can those who promote freedom, individualism, and the rule of law condone oppression?