While the security situation in Iraq remains unsettled two years after the invasion, the January 30 election was a watershed–a historic first step toward democracy in that country. Equally important, the image of millions of Iraqis, bravely defying terrorist threats and going to the polls (and the ongoing democratic transformation in Afghanistan) has had a profound impact on the Middle East. In a very real sense, the invasion of Iraq, once mocked by the critics as the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as a drain on American global prestige, has kindled the flames of liberty throughout the region.
As Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Lebanese Druze community and an erstwhile critic of the U.S.’s regime-change policy in Iraq has put it candidly: “This process of [democratic] change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.” Now, as described in a recent Washington Post article, the much talked-about “Arab street” resonates with praises for the U.S. policies that “light a fire under their [tyrants’] feet.”
Thus, to the evident shock and dismay of the administration’s critics, crisply manifested by a recent headline–”Could George W. Bush Be Right?”–in the left-leaning German magazine Der Spiegel, the Bush Doctrine is working. The administration’s policy, vividly described in Bush’s 2005 inaugural speech, fuses the moral and realpolitik dimensions of American statecraft. Its Wilsonian side rejects the legitimacy of undemocratic regimes, envisioning instead the use of a broad panoply of economic, diplomatic and, in exceptional circumstances, military pressures to promote democracy.
Meanwhile, the Jacksonian component recognizes that the status quo in the Middle East over the past four decades has been a failure–retarding economic growth and producing misery for its people–and that, for several distinct reasons, this state of affairs has harmed American security.
To begin with, although even democratic polities are not immune to the scourge of homegrown terrorism, it is the failed and repressive states of the greater Middle East that have been the primary breeding ground of Islamist fanaticism, xenophobia and terrorism. While militarily prosecuting the fight against remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and assorted jihadis in Iraq properly remains the core component in America’s war against Islamist terrorists, this conflict cannot be won without draining the fetid swamps of oppression, poverty and corruption in the region.
Another adverse consequence of the Middle East’s status quo is the palpable tendency by a number of the region’s oppressive regimes, including Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, Assad’s Syria, and Iran under the mullahs–in part to deflect attention from their domestic legitimacy deficit–to conduct reckless, expansionist, and anti-American policies, seeking to cast themselves as the modern-day Saladins. (This trait is not unique to the Middle East and has been exhibited by many a rogue regime, ranging from Zimbabwe’s Mugabe to Venezuela’s Chavez.)
The U.S.’s ability to bring such regimes to heel has helped expose their military and diplomatic frailty. Since the very survival of these government regimes ultimately rests on their ability to inspire fear and awe, this perception of infirmity encourages democratic forces to challenge them in the streets and press for reforms.
Significantly, the brutal behavior of our enemies, designed to intimidate and frighten their opponents, has instead helped to invigorate the democratic forces. For example, in the process of trying to block the ongoing democratic transformation in Iraq, the Islamist forces have resorted to such illegal combat tactics as wholesale attacks on the civilian population and, in the infamous words of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it.” These developments have helped to delegitimize the jihadis in the eyes of ordinary people throughout the region and expose them for what they are–brutal murderers and thugs, who violate the most fundamental and obligatory precepts of Islam. Meanwhile, the fact that the jihadis have manifestly failed to shake the resolve of the majority of the Iraqi people or to dislodge the U.S. forces has robbed them of much of their mystique as the allegedly invincible Islamic warriors.
These gradual, yet definite, shifts in the Islamic public opinion–some attributable to the administration’s pro-democracy ventures and others stemming from the justifiable revulsion against the excesses of the Islamist forces–are a key strategic development. It is worth recalling that, during the Cold War, a majority of the captive populations living under the Communist regimes admired the West in general and the U.S. in particular, while despising their own rulers. Unfortunately, for a number of years, the populations of the Middle East, while clearly unhappy with their authoritarian governments and generally dissatisfied with their economic, political and cultural plight, also routinely espoused strong anti-American feelings and expressed considerable support for radical Islamist movements. (This state of affairs was not conducive to the democratic transformations and actually buttressed the survivability of the existing repressive regimes in the region.) Although such sentiments have not evaporated overnight, they are now being challenged in the Islamic marketplace of ideas.
Ironically, despite the oft-repeated claims that globalization would bring about the demise of diverse national political traditions and would usher in a homogenized rule of global bureaucratic institutions, America’s unique constitutional and political experience remains highly relevant in today’s world. For example, with our abundant wealth, intellectual vigor and resources, we are taking the lead in creating new global institutions, such as the Community of Democracies. This 21st-century organization, unlike the traditional multilateral institutions, does not give human-rights violators and despots a seat at the table, and serves as an incubator of democratic experience. In essence, America’s traditional democratic identity is helping to shape the new world order of democratic states.
Yet, while the U.S. is leading the global pro-democracy efforts, it is certainly not trying to go it alone. Rather, the president has sought to convince our European and Asian allies that the promotion of democracy–particularly in the greater Middle East–is essential for their security, while the preference for stability, publicly embraced most recently by senior German and French officials, to paraphrase Talleyrand’s famous maxim about Napoleon’s extrajudicial execution of the Duc d’Enghien, is worse than immoral; it is a mistake.
Fortunately, the respect and even veneration for democratic values permeates the institutions of the new united Europe and is strongly espoused by many European countries, including all of the post-Communist democracies of Eastern and Central Europe. Thus, anchoring American foreign-policy goals within our common democratic context has helped to rally the American public opinion and even prompt positive changes among the European publics and elites. In turn, these evolving opinion trends, by buttressing our ability to stay the course in Iraq and Afghanistan, reinforce the impact of the administration’s pro-democracy policies.
Indeed, a robust promotion of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq has important synergistic benefits for the democratic outcomes in other countries in the region, near and far. Freedom does indeed beget freedom. Examples of this democratic shift are abundant.
‐Egypt: pressure to open up the electoral process; Saudi Arabia: allowing municipal elections to be held.
Such democratic political thought and action were unimaginable just four years ago, and are reinforced by the administration’s willingness to criticize publicly not only the rogue Arab regimes, but also such traditional American allies as Egypt’s Mubarak for their undemocratic policies.
This is not to say, of course, that the future would bring about an uninterrupted string of successes. The pace of change would be difficult–a prime example is Syria’s desperate rear-guard action in Lebanon seeking to delay its withdrawal–and reversals can be expected. Even in Iraq, while the Shiite majority has been acting with commendable restraint and, together with the Kurdish leaders, has been reaching out to the Sunni community, the ultimate creation of a stable democracy is not yet assured. This task will certainly not be accomplished overnight.
Meanwhile, as has been most recently demonstrated by the case of Turkey, democratically elected governments do not always support American policies and may even act in opposition to them. However, over time, democratic countries tend to agree and cooperate with each other and are less prone to use force than repressive regimes.
To be sure, America’s new leadership role in the cause of freedom is not cost-free. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many brave young American men and women have died to provide freedom now and ensure security for future generations. Yet, their sacrifice is not in vain. The cause of liberty is always a just cause, and Americans have long recognized the redeeming power of freedom. As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
As our Founding Fathers were aware, freedom and democracy are worth the sacrifice. This is all them more true in the 21st century, when the forces of rogue Islamist regimes and pan-national terrorist organizations continue to pose a grave threat to American security.
–David B. Rivkin Jr. is a partner in the Washington DC office of the law firm of Baker & Hostetler LLP and is a member of the U.N. Subcommittee on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. He has served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Glenn Sulmasy is an associate professor of law at the U. S. Coast Guard Academy. He specializes in international and national-security law. The views expressed herein are his own.