Why still no big-font, front-page headlines screaming, “Millions Vote in Historic Middle East Election!” or “Democracy Comes At Last To Iraq” or “America’s Push for Iraqi Democracy Working”?
Besides the politics of gloom–Bush at home and America abroad are always wrong–and the weariness with the violence, there has sadly been too small a constituency for trusting that Arabs should run their own affairs through consensual government.
Remember the ingredients of the good old American foreign policy in the Middle East–the one that operated before the bad-new days of neoconservatism?
One, oil thirst increasingly became the overriding consideration, even in areas like Palestine, Lebanon, or Egypt, where there was very little petroleum, but enough instability to affect the larger allegiance of Islamic oil-exporting nations. Earlier rivalry among Western nations had morphed into collective fear of the ever-growing Chinese-energy appetite–always colored by the specter of past oil boycotts, shooting at tankers in the Gulf, and perennial terrorist threats against the oilfields. So if a nation pumped oil, then its government avoided scrutiny.
Two, anti-Communism was another stimulus, specifically the effort to keep the Soviet Union and its satellites from controlling the Persian Gulf, or using their Baathist surrogates to promote petrol-fed anti-Western terrorism. Much of the mess of the Middle East today derives from a Soviet-style, unworkable, amoral state apparatus imposed upon a traditional tribal society at various times in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen–and our own desperation to support any unsavory autocrat who would stop such Communists. So if a strongman fought Communists, he was O.K. with us.
Three, after the Six-Day War of 1967, we alone supported Israel to ensure that it was not surrounded and eliminated by neighboring Arab autocracies–none of whom had ever held a free election. So if a regime tried to destroy Israel…what else would you expect?
Four, billions of freely circulating petrodollars created creepy ties between Western defense contractors, universities, lobbyists, and think tanks, and illiberal regimes of the Gulf. For every crass Western merchant who insisted on selling advanced weaponry to Arab dictatorships, there was always a subsidized Middle East scholar who could on spec damn American foreign policy and/or excuse Middle East illiberalism. So if a petrocracy spread some cash, it got a pass from the United States.
Five, popular opinion on the Right was swayed by traditional isolationism–none of those crazy people are worth a single American dollar or life–and Cold War realism: we deal with the awful world as it is and let the gods worry about others’ morality. So if all of ‘em stayed over there, that’s all you need to know.
Six, the Left’s multiculturalism was more cynical. Its chief tenet was that no system could be any worse than the West’s. Thus we had no business in applying our moral “constructs” to judge indigenous cultures by criticizing such things as polygamy, gender apartheid, dictatorship, anti-Semitism, or religious intolerance. Arab intellectuals often praised the American Left, but the latter was every bit as intertwined in the old pathological status quo as the most cynical realist. So who is to say that they are brutalizing their own, when we do the same over here?
Most of the time, the American public was oblivious to all this, as long as there were no gas lines and the annual Middle East harvest of American diplomats and soldiers was kept to a minimum. This complacency ended, however, when the Middle East mess that began in November 1979 with the Iranian storming of the American embassy culminated in the attacks of September 11.
Given the past history and current politics in the region, it is no wonder that near-hysterics accompanied America’s radical alternative post-9/11 strategy of attempting to prompt democratic reform–by force in the case of the worst fascistic states like Afghanistan and Iraq, by isolation and ostracism in the case of Syria and Iran, and through often-embarrassing persuasion in the case of the Gulf states, North Africa, and Egypt.
Oilmen feared their infrastructure would be blown up in war or fall into the hands of Islamists if the sheiks fell.
Lobbyists and businessmen could not see why their short-term profits with autocrats were not merely good for the American economy, but could be made to promote the national interest of the United States as well.
Any Leftists who were not simply against anything that America was for feebly argued that democratic reform could only come from within and should arise within the parameters of socialism rather than crass American-style capitalism.
Worse still, the emphasis on democracy came from George Bush, an anathema to the Democrats who otherwise should have supported the new idealism. Anything that went wrong in Iraq was seen as spurring a spike in the polls for Democratic candidates as we entered our third national election since 9/11.
In perhaps the stupidest move in American political history, the mainstream Democratic party got suckered into buying Howard Dean’s shady investments in American failure–and so turned its back on the Iraqi democratic experiment hours before millions went to the polls in that country’s third and most successful free election.
In short, the promotion of democracy has been an orphan policy, without any parentage of past support or present special interests. It proved to be easily caricatured all at once as naïve by the right and imperialistic on the left. Thus on the war The American Conservative is now almost indistinguishable from the Nation.
Only by understanding this labyrinth of competing interests can we see why the most successful election in Middle East history, birthed by the United States, gained almost no immediate thanks or praise, here or abroad.
Yet think of the dividends that are already accruing from this most hated of policies. Voting, along with constitutional rule, a reformed economy, and American military protection of its infancy, alone are undermining both the appeal of the Islamic fascists and precluding a reactionary counter-response by the usual dictators who promise a restoration of order. If the domino trends in Eastern Europe and Latin America are any indication, Iraqi democracy will prove more destabilizing to theocratic Iran than the latter is to the new Iraq. Indeed, the only alternative choice besides the bad one of taking out the Iranian nuclear complex and the worse one of letting it mature to Armageddon, is hoping that democratic fervor spreads across the border from Iraq.
The sight of purple fingers may eventually silence the Europeans abroad and the Left at home. And constitutional governments–even if they voice anti-Americanism as they do in Turkey, or bother our liberal sensibilities as they do in Afghanistan–will be far less likely to attack each other and draw us back in. More importantly, the consistent support for constitutional government relieves us of much of the constant subterfuge and stealthy machinations of supporting this clique or that dictator. Instead, democracy is a transparent policy that reflects American values.
Truly elected leaders of the Middle East will do more to further the interest and security of the United States, and put an end to the al Qaedists, Assads, and Saddams, than all the Saudi Royals, Mubaraks, and assorted kings, generals, and dictators put together.
We don’t need Peoria or even a struggling Eastern European democracy, just the foundations for something that can allow Muslims to follow the lead of those who participate in government in India, Malaysia, or Turkey and accept the rule of law–and don’t strap on bombs to kill Americans with either government help or hurrahs from a disenfranchised mob. And we see results already right before our eyes. After all, there are really only two countries in the Middle East where thousands fight each day against Islamic terrorists who threaten their newly-won freedom–the legitimate governments in Kabul and Baghdad.
So here we have this most amazing paradox of pushing democracy: a policy that is distrusted by almost every entrenched special interest and at odds with every –ism–and yet one that alone can erode Islamic fascism and make the United States more secure. Odder still, the Democratic party at home is the least enthusiastic about the democratic parties in Iraq.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War