The Middle East was long corrupted by bad ideas from the West; the remedy is for the West to side with the beleaguered people against their corrupt governments.
July 15, 2003
by Meyrav Wurmser
Bush’s vision continues an American tradition—demonstrated after World War II—of fighting wars not only to counter a direct threat but also to secure other people’s endangered freedom. Far from being imperialist, America employs power not to control, but to liberate. In developing its bold vision for a more democratic Middle East, the Bush administration embraced this American tradition.
The American intervention in the Middle East became inevitable after the World Trade Center attacks—which were themselves a grisly overflow of the glaring deficit in freedom that exists across the Arab world. Those attacks exposed Washington policymakers to the abyss of Arab politics. It taught American policymakers that the freedom deficit in the Arab world was no longer an internal Arab issue. The lack of freedom in the Arab world was causing the region to act against America, the ultimate symbol of liberty in the world.
Many times in the past, Western observers have described the problematic nature of the relations between the Middle East and the West. Often we were told 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 one hundred years. Unfortunately, what it borrowed were the wrong ideas: communism, fascism, and Nazism—all forms of tyranny and totalitarianism, which were born in the West and were adopted by the region’s despots. Moreover, the Middle Eastern adaptations of these ideas have proven even more resilient than their European inspirations. Whereas fascism, communism, and Nazism all eventually collapsed in Europe, they still define regimes in the Middle East. At the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of many of the more murderous ideologies of the twentieth century, the general expectation in the West was that the Middle East would also democratize, but that did not happen. Middle Eastern tyrants have proven themselves stronger and more resilient than expected. The Arab version of totalitarianism has outlived its European catalyst.
Today, realizing that it imported the worst the West had to offer, the Middle East is in an ideological vacuum, which makes it an appropriate time to try to export liberal democratic ideas to it. Both extremes of the Arabs’ world of ideas, Arab nationalism and Islamic radicalism, have collapsed. They not only failed to become tools for returning the region to its past days of glory, but they also brought into existence some of the world’s darkest tyrannies. Even bin-Ladenism, the new local challenge to the West, appeals to only a relatively small number of people at the margins of the region who are made disproportionately powerful by access to Saudi oil wealth and the global influence of Wahhabism.
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 secularists and religionists. Instead, it is between the elites who still benefit from Arab tyranny and the increasing numbers of people who oppose them. In more than one place in the region, this split is deepening. One example is the situation in Iran, where mass demonstrations calling for greater liberty, secularism, and freedom threaten to topple the regime of the mullahs. In Iraq, people who suffered for years under the regime of the Republic of Fear largely welcomed their American liberators. In a variety of other dictatorships, such as Syria, where the regime has so successfully oppressed the opposition that we cannot be sure what the people think, there are nevertheless initial signs of this split. After President Bashar Assad came to power in July 2000, many in Syria believed that a new dawn, an age of greater openness, might be awaiting their society. Almost immediately, intellectuals in Damascus and other cities began publicly discussing the development of civil society in Syria, and some seventy “dialogue clubs” were established throughout the land. The fact that the security services did not crack down on them strengthened the general impression that President Assad supported 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 to relinquish control. In an interview with the London-based daily Al Sharq Al Awsat in February 2001, President Assad limited the political discourse in Syria to a discussion of the past, and quashed any dialogue about possible social or political changes. He also stated that in any discussion of the past, the Ba’ath Party could not be criticized. Soon thereafter, the government took legal measures against one of the reform leaders, Syrian member of parliament Riyadh Al Seif. Syrian vice president Abd Al Halim Khaddam explained, “Freedom is not absolute, but rather a relative concept.” Tunisian journalist Lafif Lakhdhar (who was recently fired from the London-based, Saudi-owned paper Al-Hayat for his liberal views) described the split between elites and masses in the region by noting, “Today, it is the Arab youth who seek the [Western] culture.”
The United States should make an asset out of this split between Middle East tyrants and their dissatisfied people. In understanding the relations between the Arab world and the West, we should insist that the “West” is no longer meaningfully defined by religious conflicts, such as Christendom versus Islam, given that both Israel and Turkey are members of the West. Nor should it be defined in geographic terms, encompassing the United States and Europe, for much of Europe has gone astray and now presents a new ideological challenge, transnational progressivism, to liberal democracy. The West should also not be defined in cultural terms, as that would imply a permanent clash of civilizations between it and the Orient. Instead, we should define the West as a community surrounding a body of ideas. According to that definition, Arab democrats living under dictatorships are a part of the Western community, and the fault-line runs not between us and them, but between a coalition of us and them versus their governments.
Without a doubt, many people in the Arab world will resent these efforts, believing instead that their world is under assault by imperialistic forces operating in the name of democracy. The danger often mentioned by Western observers and Arab elites is that this will generate a “rally around the flag and the leader” reaction, driving the region’s peoples even further into the grip of their tyrants. In fact, some in the Arab world claim that the conflict between President Bush and Arab governments could hamper the democratization process and weaken the position of Arab reformers. The United States thus faces a “dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t” attitude from the region regardless of what it does. To paraphrase Professor Bernard Lewis, half the region will continue to hate us for being imperialists and the other half for not being imperialist enough, by which he means failing to impose democracy on them. The United States should expect these arguments and complaints from people in the region and keep in mind that history—from Slobodan Milosevic to the Taliban to Saddam Hussein—teaches us that it is rare indeed for a tyrant successfully to rally democrats around his flag in war, because few people long to die for an oppressor. Moreover, if there is a danger that Arab democrats will be forced to rally around the flag of their oppressors, then it is important that Western leaders meticulously and strongly define any such conflict as being on behalf of the democrats against their tyrannical dictators, creating the line of conflict not between nations, but between forces of freedom and repression within and across nations.
Another argument that is likely to be raised is that any democrat working too closely with the U.S. government will be tainted as an American puppet and lose legitimacy among his own people. This might be true in some cases, but its likelihood should not be overstated. Over the years, America has been the ally of many dark despots in the region: from the rulers of Saudi Arabia to Bashar Assad in Syria and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Despots never have any legitimacy when they come to power; what “legitimizes” their rule is their willingness to use brute force against their people. Today, in fact, the very concept of “legitimate governments” in the Middle East is almost meaningless. It would be cynical to give in to the claim that a dictator who came to power by force is somehow more legitimate than his pro-Western democratic opposition. American support, if carefully conducted and largely directed at creating economic opportunities, will not be the kiss of death for Arab liberal democrats.
Finally, in order to make the Middle East more democratic and less dangerous, U.S. policymakers must engage in some soul-searching over America’s historical role in the region. They must face the inevitably awkward and painful discussion that genuine democratization in the Middle East will entail, because it will require them to consider America’s contributions to the regional and international conditions that gave rise to the attacks of September 11.
At the end of the Cold War, many failed Arab regimes were left orphaned and dying. Rather than obliterate these limping tyrants, the United States offered them a deal: America would throw them a lifeline if they entered a peace process or a coalition with the United States against the likes of Saddam and al Qaeda, and thus deliver the illusion of stability to the rest of the world. In turn, Arab regimes sent two tailored messages, one to their own people and one to America. To their own people, they insisted that repression and societal distortion were unfortunately necessary to fight the mighty Israelis, with whom they are still at war, as well as the Western colonizers. To America, the Arab regimes justified the continued distortions and repression as the prerequisite for delivering stability and staying engaged in the peace process or the war against Saddam and al Qaeda. Many Americans, therefore, accepted as truth the illusion that the elites were more progressive than their populations. We never noticed, and were not told, that it was the governments themselves that were leading the chorus of incitement, not only through their official media organs but also through their schools, so that the next generation of young Arabs would also be locked in conflict with both Israel and the United States.
Hence, although the attacks of September 11 were themselves carried out by Muslim radicals, the perpetrators had plenty of company. A peculiar partnership had arisen between repressive regimes and the repressed, often radical, Muslim opposition. Many Arab regimes have struck a Faustian deal with both their religious and secular radical opposition forces: the radicals have been free to engage in terrorism and have even received official encouragement, funding, or support, as long as the violence was directed only at the West. And in order not to endanger their friendship with the West, regimes across the Middle East insisted that these terrorist acts be executed in ways that would not incriminate them or expose their double-dealing. Many Arab regimes, some of whom are considered friends of the United States, waged this covert war on the West to coopt the radicals’ message, to channel rage and bitterness outward onto the West and away from themselves, and to stifle the potential reemergence of domestic assassinations and terrorism directed against their own regimes.
This was an entirely destructive strategy, not a sour pill swallowed with temporary distaste. Many Arab regimes crushed their opposition ruthlessly but did little to alter their own endemic corruption and repression, which had fueled the rage to begin with. Fomenting anti-Western sentiments was a matter of survival for these dictatorships, a way of riding the tiger of growing resentment among their impoverished, oppressed populations. The very regimes considered friends by the West—Saudi Arabia, pre-1990 Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and Syria—fanned the flames of hate and encouraged anti-Semitic and anti-Western sentiments.
After September 11, America could no longer stand passively on the sidelines; it had to act in order to preserve its own safety. As a result, America has begun to reexamine its policies toward the Middle East. The United States cannot seriously talk about democracy in the region while continuing to coddle the Saudi regime. It cannot talk about freedom and not forcefully confront Egypt for arresting human-rights activists such as the American citizen Saad Eddin Ibrahim. If the United States continues to support existing elites instead of encouraging their democratic opposition, it will indeed lose the battle for the Arab street. Likewise, if it seeks reform through stability, it will attain neither.
To win the War on Terrorism the United States must realize that it is engaged in a struggle for no less than a radical transformation of the politics of the Middle East. In many cases this will not be a military matter at all, requiring only that the United States fully support liberal-democratic forces within these societies while isolating their regimes politically. Long-term victory in the War on Terrorism will only be secured when America launches policies that nurture and support the forces that foster freedom in the Middle East—a transformation as great as that achieved in the wake of World War II. At that point, regimes and elites will change across the region, not only in Iraq.If and when Iraq becomes the first-ever Arab democracy, then the cause of freedom will indeed have begun to take root in the region. That will spell the imminent end of the Arab tyrants’ wars on their own peoples. Until then, it remains critically important for Western leaders to keep that final goal—the rise of democracy in the Middle East—well in sight.
Meyrav Wurmser was formerly a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute.
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