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Islamic Democracy?

by Victor Davis Hanson

The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East, by Reuel Marc Gerecht (Hoover, 148 pp., $19.95); Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism, by Charles Hill (Hoover, 170 pp., $19.95)

For much of the post-war era, what is known as the Arab world has been hostile to the United States. Our alliances with the liberal democracies of Western Europe, coupled with leadership of the free world after the war, tarred America with the brush of colonialism and earned us more envy even than clients.

Oil dependency, of course, distorted the relationship. The Gulf exporting sheikdoms were quietly amused at how our so-called liberal principles so easily dissipated when it came time to supply American expertise and security to these illiberal plutocracies. Support for Israel, especially after 1967, enraged the proverbial Arab Street. The Middle East had always proven receptive to totalitarianism, replacing its sympathy in the 1940s for Nazism with Soviet-style statism, as countries as diverse as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen at various times became clients of Communist Russia.

Periodically, these Cold War tensions broke out in conventional conflicts that threatened world peace, most notably in 1947, 1956, 1967, and 1973, over the security, and often the very fate, of Israel. During the 1970s and 1980s, Palestinian-inspired, and often Communist-supplied and -trained, terrorist teams targeted American embassies, diplomats, airliners, and tourists. Middle East oil embargos, cutoffs, and boycotts almost shut down Western economies in 1973–74 and again in 1979–80. By the 1990s, a new, more radical Islamist movement had absorbed and refocused most anti-Western terrorism. And yet, despite serial attacks on U.S. interests from Saudi Arabia to East Africa, the U.S. did little in response, considering al-Qaeda little more than a bothersome buzzing fly in need of an occasional cruise-missile swat.

September 11, of course, changed all that. In response to the murder of 3,000 Americans on our own soil, there arose a new policy — variously derided as neoconservatism, “nation-building,” or “democratization” — based on new diagnoses and remedies for the old sickness in the Middle East. Autocratic governments, both pro-U.S. authoritarians and anti-American totalitarians, co-opted popular anger at government-induced poverty and oppression by forging a devil’s bargain with Islamist terrorists. The regimes redirected the people’s hatred away from the king, dictator, or theocrat, and onto America and Israel; and they supplied the Islamists with stealthy sanctuary, arms, subsidies, or all three. The post-9/11 American antidotes for this pathology were to 1) remove the authoritarians (e.g., the Taliban and Saddam Hussein), 2) pressure even pro-U.S. dictators to free up their societies, and 3) generally give lip service to democratic reform.

Sometime around 2006, during the terrible insurgency in Anbar Province, and at the height of Bush Derangement Syndrome at home, the above therapies were abandoned, as we tried to wind down Iraq and Afghanistan and, once again, leave such unpleasant people to stew in their own juices. That fallback policy of gradual accommodation with Middle East realities was embraced under a new, politically correct multicultural veneer and renamed “reset” diplomacy — only itself to implode amid the sudden outbreak of Arab unrest in 2011.

So now there is no American consensus. Right-wing realists advocate either isolationism or “more rubble, less trouble” punitive retaliation. Neocons point to success in Iraq but are troubled by Afghanistan. And the Left is exasperated that their former advocate of the War Powers Act is bombing Libya without congressional authority and seems to have outdone George W. Bush in his use of Predator drones and renditions. Barack Obama’s new 2011 rhetoric sounds a lot like the Bush platitudes that he used to caricature in 2007–08.

Both Charles Hill and Reuel Marc Gerecht supported the initial Bush efforts at democratization, and now, albeit in varying degrees, argue that such radical change can still end positively for the U.S. At the outset, know that both books were written before the 2011 unrest: an upheaval whose final course remains still uncertain, but will in some measure either validate or undermine the theses of both these extended Hoover Institution–published essays. (Although a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, I am not affiliated with its Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, out of which these two publications emerged.)

Charles Hill locates the rise of radical Islam within a much longer, centuries-old challenge to the very notion of the Western nation-state. Even within a brief treatise, he offers plentiful examples of prior would-be destroyers of the existing Western order — Ottomanism, Napoleonic megalomania, Prussian militarism, Nazism, Japanese fascism, and Stalinism. In these serial challenges, either Britain, some allied states of Western Europe, or, later, the United States — or all of them in concert — prevailed and reestablished a global system based on the integrity of the secular nation-state; norms of international relations, conduct, and commerce; and advocacy of consensual government and individual rights. It is within that larger context that the threat of, and response to, radical Islam have fallen.

Hill knows too much about both literature and history to be bothered by the pessimism of the present times, much less does he suffer from the Western disease of multiculturalism that sees all competing ideologies, religions, and systems as inherently equal. Instead, he understands that our present global affluence and freedom are the logical result of Western-inspired values, and their continuance rests still on a strong and confident United States and its allies.

So despite the contemporary gloom in recession-plagued and war-weary America, Hill sees real progress since 9/11 and thus urges renewed support for a multifaceted strategy of allying ourselves with millions of reformers in the Middle East, who, he believes, would prefer some form of constitutional government and membership in the global order to both Iranian-style theocracy and one-man autocracy of the Saddam Hussein brand. Hence, he argues for occasional military force to kill terrorists or marginalize dictators who attack their neighbors, support for the Arab state in its efforts to defeat transnational pan-Arabism or the reinstitution of a caliphate, advocacy of the rights of women (who are integral to political moderation and economic progress), strict global enforcement of nuclear non-proliferation, and proud emphasis on Western liberal values, centering on freedom of the individual.

In sum, Hill believes that the contemporary West and its sympathizers have the winning hand in the Middle East. But the degree to which we and our friends are successful in seeing stable constitutional republics arise in the Middle East — prosperous, non-nuclear, and without gender apartheid — depends a lot on whether the U.S. remains engaged and firm.

What would that entail? Largely more of the same winning formula: staunch defense of human rights, advocacy of constitutionality, military strength and deterrence, and unapologetic defense of Western values. What occasioned, then, Hill’s book? For the most part, worry over the public depression that followed from the expenditure of blood and treasure to stabilize Iraq, the terrible acrimony at home during the period from 2003 to 2007, and the initial Obama-administration promises of “reset” diplomacy that often seemed more like nonjudgmental multiculturalist diffidence.

If democracy were to prevail, writes Hill, Islam would have to change and that would be all to the good: “‘True’ democracy — as a procedural mechanism in a procedural international state system — would have to provide for the dispersal of power and the circulation of power-holders and thus be not only compatible with but indispensable to ‘true’ belief.”

Gerecht’s equally brief essay adopts a similar remedy, albeit one less philosophical and historical, and more focused on the nature of contemporary Islam, especially its more radical expressions since 9/11. He wastes no time in confronting our dilemma head-on: Westerners clearly support democratic reform when it is a question of ending the regimes of the virulent Iranian theocrats, the thuggish Bashar Assad, the nightmarish, genocidal Saddam Hussein, or the mad Colonel Qaddafi — although less so after the Iraqi violence, during which Americans soured on the expense of blood and treasure on behalf of what seemed sullen and ungracious allies. But the real rub comes with pro-Western dictatorships that claim they have put a lid on Islamic extremism in return for American money, alliance, or exemption from human-rights criticism: Why should we help topple our “friends,” only to see our enemies win ensuing plebiscites, especially given the troubling paradox that illiberal autocrats often seem more liberal than their illiberal grassroots publics?

As he has argued in the decade since 9/11, Gerecht says that Arab strongmen only feign support for the U.S. while privately encouraging home-grown dissidents to turn on us, on the pretext that Washington, not Cairo, Tunis, or Amman, made the Arab Street poor and unfree. The Middle East public, Gerecht believes, is anti-American and seemingly illiberal not necessarily because of radical Islam or intrinsic hatred of the West, but because it has been so abused and manipulated by its own governments, often with a Western wink and nod.

Thus the only way to end these sick relationships is through the messy catharses of democratic change, for clearly there is popular discontent with both Iranian-style theocracy and Egyptian-style autocracy, the common theme being an oppressive police state that ruins the economy. The trick for the West, Gerecht further thinks, is to promote democratic reformers, concede that under intermediate referenda angry anti-Westerners might come to the fore, but ultimately trust that democracy within an Arab Islamic context will, for all its unpleasant rhetoric and distance from the American town hall, prove far better for the masses, and hence far better for America as well.

Gerecht has offered a hastily written afterword to take into account the 2011 uprisings, in which he suggests that the present unrest is day by day proving the validity of his theses. Yet as the news changes hourly, and events in Egypt seem to offer more pessimism than hope, readers might challenge Gerecht’s upbeat appraisal of the Muslim Brotherhood:

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, an organization born and raised in clandestine opposition to foreign occupation and domestic dictatorship, has many profound misgivings about democracy. There’s not a fundamentalist alive who doesn’t have misgivings. But what is extraordinary to note about the Brotherhood, since the rebellion in Tunisia began, is the extent to which it has publicly and passionately embraced the idea that democracy is the only legitimate political system for Egypt and the rest of the Muslim World.

As for the Islamist and often illiberal direction of Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan, who rose to power democratically, Gerecht acknowledges the dangers, and the shrill rhetoric, but is confident nonetheless that the Ataturk legacy, the affinity for and influence from European culture, and the intrinsic liberalizing mechanism of constitutional government will all constrain Erdogan’s Islamist ambitions. In other words, we may not like his anti-Western slurs and obnoxious gestures, but Erdogan’s presence has had the ironic effect of quieting extremism and channeling it within the political realm — just as democracies are wont to do.

Let us hope that Gerecht is correct, and that we can put to rest the warning that Islamists, as in the cases of Iran and Hamas, do indeed favor truly free and open democratic elections — but only one time; or rather, let us concede that even such elected thugocracies are not quite the end of the story, as we see from current popular Iranian and Palestinian unhappiness with both illiberal regimes. Hill and Gerecht are neither messianic neocons nor naïve idealists, but experienced skeptics who came to their advocacy of American support for sweeping constitutional change in the Middle East not as a first option, but as a last resort after a half century of assorted failures.

– Mr. Hanson is a classicist and historian, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

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