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

March 28, 2003

Middle eastern democracy

A discussion by some ME experts
Any mission to impose democracy would fail, and stoke further Arab resentment


The debate in the US over the nature of a post-Saddam Iraq pits democratisers (most often those of "neoconservative" views) against pragmatists (usually "realist" by school). Many realists, like Henry Kissinger, support the removal of Saddam's regime but oppose a protracted high-profile US-led occupation of an Arab capital and an attempt to impose democracy on peoples who do not know or want it. They believe that pressing autocratic regimes in Muslim-majority countries towards better government, if not genuine democracy, can be wise if done prudently, but that too much pressure and haste would lead to a disastrous backlash against the US.

In particular, many point to the history of modernisation in the west, and to what we know of contemporary Muslim societies, to show that terrorism tends to arise from those rudely uprooted from rapidly changing societies. The biographies of contemporary Islamist terrorists show the majority to be well-educated, semi-westernised young men on the periphery of traditional societies. Force rapid change on such societies with revolutionary ideas like liberal democracy and globe-spanning market economics, and the result will be an accelerated dislocation that will produce more terrorists, not fewer.

Realists favour improving Iraqi political life, even if the result is still short of democracy-and if a good example there spreads, so much the better. They recognise, too, that a US-led international presence may be necessary for months; no one proposes to bomb, inspect for weapons of mass destruction and then leave others holding the nation-building bag. But realists seek the minimum necessary American symbolic profile, lest the US inherit the heavy baggage of the European colonial legacy, and centuries of Christian-Muslim conflict before that.

Democratisers, by contrast, believe that the US should promote, even impose, liberal democracy in the middle east, certainly on its adversaries and, some say, even on its authoritarian "friends." This we must do to eliminate the sources of rage and frustration that give rise to mass-casualty terrorism. (Poverty elimination alone, they argue, is futile, for the sources of poverty lie in the economic logic of autocracy.) [more]