The United States is tolerating dictatorship in the Middle East because of the unholy trinity of stability, oil, and peace.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell unveiled a bold vision for a more developed and democratic Middle East. He called for institutional democratization and improved women’s rights as well as outlining a new economic partnership initiative—all derived from the new American National Strategic Doctrine.
So far so good. But Powell outlined a grand endeavor that thrusts America into the center of the great debates now raging in the Arab world. Essentially, Powell recognized that September 11 was a grisly overflow of an internal struggle over the future of the Arab and Muslim worlds, a struggle toward which America could no longer afford to act as a mere spectator.
In 1984, Samuel Huntington wrote that “In large measure, the rise and the decline of democracy on a global scale is a function of the rise and decline of the most powerful democratic state.” Now, in the Middle East, the development of democracy depends on the role of the world’s most powerful democracy. Yet, despite the stakes involved there seems to be no recognition in Washington that the only potential engine for change in the Middle East—other than Osama bin Laden’s angry upheaval—is the United States.
The United States has not thus far dedicated the resources appropriate to the magnitude of the vision, which demands no less than a sweeping transformation of the region’s elites.
The State Department is staffed by diplomats too timid in applying American power and unable to break out of the habit of dealing with existing regional elites. These shortcomings guarantee the failure of the vision Powell describes. Real change in the region requires a profound change in the way the United States has dealt with the Middle East for more than a half century.
America must change its policy in three critical ways. It must cease pursuing stability through tyrants and instead redefine who its friends are, brave initial negative Arab reactions and apocalyptic predictions of regional chaos and collapse, and abandon the apologetic tone of its regional policies and demonstrate confidence in its principles.
Roots and Resiliency of Mideast Tyranny
The fortunes of democracy in the Arab world are often examined in the context of the Arab world’s relations with the West. Specifically, it is argued that the Arab world came to reject Western ideas because of the long history of Western colonialism and intervention in the region. But the Arab world in fact did look to the West for new ideas, especially over the last 100 years. Unfortunately, it borrowed from the wrong ideas: communism, fascism, and Nazism.
Moreover, the Middle Eastern adaptation of these ideas has proven to be even more resilient than its European counterparts. While these totalitarian ideologies all eventually collapsed in Europe, they still help define regimes in the Middle East.
Everyone expected that the post-Cold War wave of democratization would have some impact on the Middle East, but that did not happen. Middle Eastern tyrants have proven themselves unexpectedly resilient.
Survival skills, however, are not equivalent to ideological vitality. Following the collapse of Arab nationalism, Islamic radicalism is also exhausted in nations where it has held most sway, such as Iran.
In the present vacuum of ideas, the most important split in the region is not between radicals and moderates, or Arabs and Israelis, or even secular and religious. Rather it is between the elites who still benefit from decaying Arab states on the one hand, and the increasing numbers which oppose those elites on the other.
This split is deepening in a number of places such as in Iran where mass demonstrations calling for greater liberty, secularism, and freedom threaten to topple the regime of the mullahs. Iraqis, who for years suffered under the yoke of the regime of the Republic of Fear, are waiting for Saddam’s destruction.
In Syria, after President Bashar Assad came to power in July 2000, many believed that a new age of greater openness might be awaiting Syrian society. Intellectuals in Damascus and other cities began publicly discussing the development of “civil society” in Syria. Some seventy “dialogue clubs” were established, and the fact that the security services did not crack down on them strengthened the general impression that Assad supports these activities.
The existence of a large, dissatisfied segment of society that resented the regime became apparent overnight. The regime, however, was quick to signal that it had no intention of relinquishing control. In an interview with the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in February 2001, Assad limited the political discourse in Syria to a discussion of the past, and opposed any debate over future change. He also stated that, even concerning the past, the Ba’ath party must not be criticized.
Soon, legal measures were taken against one of the leaders of the reformers, Syrian member of parliament Riyadh Al-Seif. Syrian vice president, Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, explained by stating that “Freedom is not absolute, but rather a relative concept.”
Tunisian journalist Lafif Lakhdhar (who was recently fired from the London-based and Saudi-owned paper Al-Hayat for his liberal views) described the split between elites and masses in the region by noting that “Today, it is the Arab youth who seek the [Western] culture.” The United States should use this existing split between tyrants and their dissatisfied people to its advantage.
In understanding the relations between the Arab world and the West, the United States should insist that the “West” is no longer meaningfully defined around religion since both Israel and Turkey are in the West. It should also not be defined in geographic terms as encompassing the United States and Europe since much of Europe has gone astray and now presents the new ideological challenge of transnational progressivism to liberal democracy.
The West should also not be defined around culture, since that would mean that there is a hopeless clash of civilizations between it and the Orient. Instead, we should define the West as a community surrounding a body of ideas. In that definition, Arab liberals living under dictatorships are a part of the Western community, and the fault line runs between them and us versus their governments, and not between us and them.
To encourage freedom in the region, the United States does not necessarily need to go to war everywhere, as it will probably do in Iraq. In many cases it only has to decide to fully support liberal-democratic forces within the societies and carefully sever ties to the regimes.
Take the Heat, Stay in the Kitchen
Every assertion of American power is accompanied by a shrill chorus warning that many in the Arab world will resent us and believe that their world is under assault in the name of democracy. The danger, often mentioned, is that this will generate a “rally around the flag” reaction, driving the region’s peoples even further into the grip of their tyrants.
Several weeks ago, a Palestinian from the American-Arab Anti-Defamation Committee argued on Voice of America television that President George W. Bush should not have made his June 24 speech.
“America never cared about our reform and didn’t intervene to help us reform under Clinton, when the peace process was the key item on its agenda,” he argued. “But,” he continued, “Bush’s speech was unacceptable; it was a clear American interference in internal Palestinian affairs.”
The United States is thus in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. To paraphrase Bernard Lewis, half the region will hate us for being imperialists and the other half for not being imperialist enough, and not imposing freedom on them.
The United States should expect, but not accept, such complaints from people in the region. Most of these arguments reflect the anxiety of the very elites which a successful regional transformation would have to replace. Second, history, from Slobodan Milosevic to the Taliban, teaches us that it is rare indeed that a tyrant has managed to meaningfully rally liberal democrats around his flag in war, as few people really long to die for a rejected oppressor.
Moreover, if there is a danger that liberals will be forced to support their oppressors, then the war must meticulously and strongly be defined as a war on behalf of the liberals for freedom. This would define the conflict, not between nations, but between forces of freedom and repression within and across nations.
Another argument is that any liberal-minded reformers working too closely with the U.S. government will be tainted as American puppets and lose legitimacy among their own people. This might be true in some cases, but it should not be overstated.
Over the years, America has been friendly to many despots in the region from Saudi sheikhs to Yasser Arafat, Bashar Assad, and Hosni Mubarak. Despite their close association with the West, these despots did not lose legitimacy and were not considered American puppets by their population.
In fact, only in one case in the last three decades, that of the shah of Iran, was a regime brought down partly because it was seen as too closely associated with America. American support, if carefully conducted and if largely directed at creating economic opportunities, does not need to be the kiss of death for Arab liberal democrats.
Don’t Repeat Past Mistakes
At the end of the Cold War, many failed Arab regimes were left orphaned and dying. Rather than encouraging Arab peoples to liberate themselves, the United States offered these dying regimes—from Arafat to Assad—a deal: enter a peace process or a “coalition” with the United States against Saddam, al Qaeda, etc., and the United States will suspend its principles when it comes to the Middle East.
At the same time, Arab regimes sent separate tailored messages to their own people and to America. To their own people, they insisted that repression was required to fight the mighty Israelis, with whom they are still at war, as well as the Western colonizers. To America, they justified the continued societal distortions as necessary for fighting terrorism.
America, therefore, embraced the illusion that the elites were more progressive than their populations. But it never noticed that the governments themselves led the chorus of incitement not only through their official media organs, but through their schools so that the next generation would again be locked in conflict with both Israel and with the West.
The United States cannot seriously talk about democracy in the region and continue to coddle the Saudi regime. It cannot talk about freedom and not forcefully confront Egypt for arresting human-rights activist and American citizen Saad Eddin Ibrahim. The United States is tolerating dictatorship in the Middle East because of the unholy trinity of stability, oil and peace. If we continue to support existing elites instead of encouraging their democratic opposition, then we will lose the battle for the street.
The oppressive corrupt elites in the Middle East rely on regional and international allies, rather than on their own people for their survival. Therefore, it is natural that the opposition to these regimes will also transcend national boundaries and turn to the United States for help. Those in the region who struggle for their own freedom should be regarded as at the forefront of America’s battle against militant Islamism.
Secretary Powell has outlined a vision that can address many of these demands. But to do so, he must fundamentally rethink how the United States conducts itself in the region. The United States is engaged in a far broader war than it suggests, a war for no less than the radical transformation of the politics of the region.
Regimes and elites will have to be changed across the Middle East, not only in Iraq. But the real victory in the long term will only be achieved after the war is over, when we launch policies that nurture and support the forces that will foster freedom—a transformation as great as that achieved in Germany and Japan in the wake of World War II.
For freedom to win, America must not abandon it, but wield its idea as its most effective weapon.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on December 25, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.