If public statements are anything to go by, the Bush administration has elevated democracy promotion in the Mideast to the top of its agenda.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced the formation of a U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative that will support groups struggling for freedom in the region. “We reject the condescending notion that freedom will not grow in the Middle East, or that there is any region of the world that cannot support democracy,” the secretary said.
But his pronouncements and similar statements from President Bush ring hollow to many. We can’t afford to promote democracy in the Middle East, cynics argue, because to do so would lead to the rise of anti-American regimes and undermine the war on terrorism. This is not an argument that even democracy’s most fervent advocates can easily dismiss, considering how many of our current allies aren’t exactly pillars of democratic rectitude: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain the list is a long one.
What would happen if any of these countries suddenly held elections? It’s impossible to know, but recent experience isn’t encouraging. In 1992, Algeria held legislative elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front, a theocratic group committed to the principle of “one man, one vote, one time.” If the army had not nullified the vote setting off a civil war that has cost 100,000 lives Algeria might easily have gone the way of Iran. Islamic extremists also fared well in Pakistan’s Oct. 10 elections. Fundamentalist parties won 52 of 272 seats in the National Assembly and captured control of two key provinces bordering Afghanistan that have been a hotbed of al Qaeda activity.
These successes are not necessarily the product of widespread popular support for radical Islamism, but simply to the fact that under repressive regimes theocratic parties are often the only organized opposition. It’s a safe bet that if elections were held today in other Muslim nations, the results would be equally catastrophic. A Pew Research Center poll recently found that only 6 percent of Egyptians hold a positive view of the United States.
As Richard Haass, the State Department’s director of policy planning, warned in a speech on Dec. 6: “Unrestrained zeal to make the world a better place could make it worse.”
So does this mean that the United States should leave off all this democracy guff and stick to the “sonofabitch” theory of foreign relations: “He may be a sonafabitch but he’s our sonofabitch,” as Franklin D. Roosevelt famously, if perhaps apocryphally, said of Anastasio Somoza? No, that’s a dangerous course, too. As we’ve seen in countries ranging from the shah’s Iran to Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines, dictatorial rule, while outwardly stable, is often surprisingly brittle.
By aligning ourselves with dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, we’ve incurred the enmity of their people. In our own self-interest, we need to do more to promote liberal norms in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia so that these societies learn to settle differences with flapping gums instead of blazing guns. But that’s a long-term process and can’t be pushed too hard in the short-term for fear of undermining the war on terrorism.
That fear does not apply, however, when it comes to promoting democracy among our enemies, starting with Iraq and Iran. They’re already waging war on us; it’s simply not possible that the alternative to the existing regimes in those countries could be any worse from our perspective. So let’s overthrow the current rulers and turn their countries into laboratories of democracy.
In a way, and without conscious design, this is already the strategy the United States has been pursuing in recent years. We have toppled hostile regimes in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, replacing them with more liberal institutions. The results of these experiments are still uncertain. None of those places is a multicultural paradise, nor is it likely to become one. But the current situation is infinitely better, and more democratic, than the status quo ante bellum.
Iraq is next on the democratization list. Once U.S. troops invade and occupy Iraq, they will have no choice but to create a liberal national government. It’s simply impossible to imagine U.S. forces handing power to some general a mini-Saddam and washing our hands of the place, as a few people in Washington still advocate. That’s not the American way. We come as liberators spreading freedom. Which is not to say that Iraq can easily be made into a perfect democracy, or even a Turkish-style democracy, but that’s what we will have to shoot for.
Democratic developments in Iraq may send out ripples across the Middle East that will topple other despotic regimes. Or not. If not, we will have to help the process along. Iran seems particularly ripe, since the “Iranian street” is already in revolt. Here again, as opposed to Saudi Arabia or Egypt, we have nothing to lose by working against the government, which has murdered and taken hostage hundreds of Americans over the past two decades.
Military action is not out of the question, especially if Iran gets close to completing its nuclear reactors. But military action may not be necessary if we focus the full array of U.S. power against the Islamic regime, as we once did against the Soviet bloc. This means radio and television programming, covert support for dissidents and rebels, diplomatic pressure, public statements by the president (let’s hear more about the “axis of evil”), sanctions, financial sabotage everything our wiliest, most ruthless operators can think of to bring down the ayatollahs.
Beyond Iraq and Iran, another likely target of opportunity is the Palestinian Authority. President Bush, in a summer speech, already made it U.S. policy to replace Yasser Arafat and democratize his regime. This must remain an urgent priority. Until a Palestinian version of Ehud Barak comes to power, the “martyrdom operations” will continue.
Mr. Haass denied, in his Dec. 4 speech, that “American talk of democratization is designed to overthrow regimes throughout the Middle East or to be used somehow as a punitive action against those who are perceived as anti-American.” That’s exactly what a senior State Department official should be saying for public consumption. But the reality is that democracy is a powerful weapon. It should be aimed unsparingly at our enemies first. Our friends we can worry about later.
Max Boot is the Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.