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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

March 02, 2003

Dreaming of Democracy

This fairly long but important piece appears in today's Magazine section of New York Times (free reg req'd) and notes the great difficulty that will follow any attempts to bring democracy to the Middle East after ridding Iraq of Saddam.
[...] The Arab world is hopelessly sunk in corruption and popular discontent. Misrule and a culture of victimhood have left Arabs economically stagnant and prone to seeing their problems in delusional terms. The United States has contributed to the pathology by cynically shoring up dictatorships; Sept. 11 was one result. Both the Arab world and official American attitudes toward it need to be jolted out of their rut. An invasion of Iraq would provide the necessary shock, and a democratic Iraq would become an example of change for the rest of the region. Political Islam would lose its hold on the imagination of young Arabs as they watched a more successful model rise up in their midst. The Middle East's center of political, economic and cultural gravity would shift from the region's theocracies and autocracies to its new, oil-rich democracy. And finally, the deadlock in which Israel and Palestine are trapped would end as Palestinians, realizing that their Arab backers were now tending their own democratic gardens, would accept compromise. By this way of thinking, the road to Damascus, Tehran, Riyadh and Jerusalem goes through Baghdad.

The idea is sometimes referred to as a new domino theory, with tyrannies collapsing on top of one another. Among the harder heads at the State Department, I was told, it is also mocked as the Everybody Move Over One theory: Israel will take the West Bank, the Palestinians will get Jordan and the members of Jordan's Hashemite ruling family will regain the Iraqi throne once held by their relative King Faisal I.

At times this story is told in the lofty moral language of Woodrow Wilson, the language that President Bush used religiously in his State of the Union address. Others -- both advocates and detractors -- tell the story in more naked terms of power and resources. David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who wrote the first two words in the phrase ''axis of evil,'' argues in his new book, ''The Right Man,'' ''An American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein -- and a replacement of the radical Baathist dictatorship with a new government more closely aligned with the United States -- would put America more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe the Romans.''

It's an audacious idea, and part of its appeal lies in the audacity. It shoves history out of a deep hole. To the idea's strongest backers, status-quo caution toward the sick, dangerous Middle East is contemptible, almost unbearable. ''You have to start somewhere,'' says Danielle Pletka, a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group. ''There are always a million excuses not to do something like this.'' Who wouldn't choose amputation over gangrene? If we have the will and imagination, the thinking goes, we can strike one great blow at terrorism, tyranny, underdevelopment and the region's hardest, saddest problem.

"It's called magical realism, Middle East-style,'' says Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Exactly how, he wonders, would this chain reaction occur? Arab countries are stuck between autocratic governments and Islamist opposition, he says, and ''our invasion of Iraq isn't going to remove those political forces. They're going to be sitting there the next day.'' The war, which is vastly unpopular in the Arab world, is far more likely to improve the fortunes of the Islamists, he says, and provoke governments to tighten their grip, than to ventilate the region with an Arab spring.

The chances of democracy succeeding even in Iraq under American occupation are highly questionable, Carothers argues. War seldom creates democracy; according to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor, of the 18 regime changes forced by the United States in the 20th century, only 5 resulted in democracy, and in the case of wars fought unilaterally, the number goes down to one -- Panama. Democracy takes root from within, over a long period of time, in conditions that have never prevailed in Iraq. For democracy to have a chance there would require a lengthy and careful American commitment to nation-building -- which could easily look to Iraqis and other Arabs like colonialism. Nor can we be sure that democracy, in Iraq or elsewhere, will lead to pro-American regimes; it might lead to the opposite. ''The idea that there's a small democracy inside every society waiting to be released just isn't true,'' Carothers says. ''If we're pinning our hopes on the idea that this will lead to a democratic change throughout the region, then we're invading for the wrong reason.'' Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment, adds, '''We've suffered so much that the only alternative is democracy' -- as soon as you say it, you realize there's a mile between the beginning and end of that sentence.'' [more]