This essay is the original English version of Michael Rubin's book chapter in La Rivoluzione Democratica Contro Il Terrorismo, edited by Fiamma Nirenstein (Rome: Panorama 2005).
Speaking before the National Endowment for Democracy on November 7, 2003, President George W. Bush argued that the Middle East was capable of democracy. "Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?" he asked. "Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism…? I, for one, do not believe it." he declared.
Many have ridiculed Bush's ideas. There is a tendency on both sides of the Atlantic to equate neoconservative moral clarity with, in the words of former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, "simplisme." Such questions are no longer academic, but rather of blood and treasure. More than 100,000 American troops remain in Iraq, with thousands more in Afghanistan. The U.S. government has expended billions of dollars, for both military operations and reconstruction.
As violence continues in Iraq, all sides agree that the conflict is about democracy. The White House has framed Iraq to be a battleground for democracy. On April 6, 2005, for example, Bush congratulated the newly-installed Iraqi government which he charged with "advancing Iraq's transformation from dictatorship to democracy." In an audio tape released on an Islamist internet site, terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi also indicated democracy to be at the center of his battle, albeit as the symbol of his enemy. Calling democracy "the big American lie," he declared, "A bitter war against democracy and all those who seek to enact it."
The Iraqi Success
As forces from beyond Iraq's borders transform the country into a test case for Arab democratization, Iraqis have hardly been passive players. Iraqis have embraced their newfound freedoms. At a political rally shortly before the elections, an Iraqi began crying. "This is the first time I've ever heard politicians campaign in Arabic," he explained. On January 30, 2005, more than eight million Iraqis braved bombs and bullets to cast their ballots in their first free elections in a half century.
The Iraqi elections were significant for several reasons. Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans and Tunisians might complain about their president, but they have no peaceful options by which they can change their leadership. Iraqis, though, turned out an incumbent at the ballot box. The British Foreign Office and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency may have viewed interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi favorably, but most Iraqis associated their leader with corruption, deteriorating security, and disdain for his Baathist past. Allawi's forfeiture of power in response to electoral rebuff was a watershed not only for Iraq, but also for the greater Arab world.
The Iraqi elections were remarkable for other reasons as well. The empowerment of Iraqi Shi‘ites after eight decades of oppression was particularly important. Their rise to power is analogous to the enfranchisement of South African blacks after decades of Apartheid. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani's inauguration as president is equally significant. Talabani's assumption of power signaled that the Middle East's many peoples would no longer subordinate themselves to the chauvinistic rhetoric of Arab nationalism. His presidency reverberated not only among the Kurds of Syria and Iran, but also among the Berbers of Algeria, the Copts of Egypt, and the Dinkas of Sudan.
While Iraqi political leaders took almost three months to form a government after elections, this was no setback. No Iraqi party among the 111 contesting the election won a majority, although the Shi‘ite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, itself a loose coalition of religious and secular parties, won a plurality with 48 percent of the vote. The shared victory necessitated formation of a coalition. This is itself a milestone for the Arab world. Unlike every other Arab country, Iraq will not be under the grasp of a single ruler or party. Rather, major constituencies will have to negotiate rather than impose.
Willingness to compromise is already evident in the Constitutional drafting committee. Shi‘ites, Sunnis, and Christians actively debate such charged issues as the exclusivity of Islam as a source of legislation and the role of religion in society and federalism. Constitutional deliberations may be contentious, but they demonstrate the willingness of a variety of political factions to settle disputes through negotiation rather than violence.
Many in the American and European foreign policy establishments argued that Iraqis would be incapable of addressing the constitution peacefully. In a November 25, 2003 New York Times essay, for example, Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a doyen of the American foreign policy establishment counseled the division of Iraq into three independent states along ethnic and sectarian lines because of his belief that "Kurds and Sunnis are unlikely to accept Shi‘ite control, no matter how democratically achieved."
Despite the pessimism of armchair pundits, Iraqi politicians have painstakingly negotiated such hot-button religious issues such as whether family law should remain under civil law or instead be adjudicated in religious courts. While many Iraqi politicians favor the supremacy of religious judges over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, Iraqi women's groups have served as a check on the excesses of their legislators. Accountability has come to Iraq.
As contentious as discussions about Islam within Iraq's constitutional convention have been debates about federalism. Iraqi Kurds insist not only that a new constitution enshrine the virtual autonomy they have enjoyed since 1991 in the three governorates of northern Iraq, but also an extension of their federal region to encompass the oil fields of Kirkuk, the farmlands and orchards of Sinjar, and borderlands south of the Hamreen Mountains. Non-Kurdish politicians have balked not only at Kurdish expansionism, but also at Kurdish leader Masud Barzani's insistence that the Kurdistan region become a no-go area for the Iraqi army, and that Kurdish militia alone man border and customs posts along the region's borders with Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Debates may be heated, but they are peaceful. Neither Arabs nor Kurds are culturally incapable of democracy.
Iraqi politicians sometimes threaten boycotts and storm out of meetings, but such actions are not a sign of failure so much as the brinkmanship of politics. Many Iraqis politicians privately confide that their threats are often calculated to draw a response from the American embassy, which tends to reward intransigence and posturing. Parliamentary discord is not always a sign of failure; sometimes, it can be a sign that democracy is starting to sink its roots in the Fertile Crescent.
Despite doomsday predictions of civil war, terrorists atrocities have failed to spark significant sectarian strife. Rather, Iraqis have consistently defied the predictions of American and European pundits who insist that Iraqis are culturally incapable of upholding the same standards of freedom, civil liberty, and political participation as do peoples outside the Arab world.
The willingness of Iraqis to remain stoic in the face of adversity and simultaneously embrace democracy is a monument to the desire for freedom and liberty across the Middle East. The growth of satellite television channels and the internet has brought the Iraqi experience into almost every Arab living room and tea house. In Cairo, Sana‘a, and Algiers, ordinary residents can watch the progress of Iraq's political rebirth. Stations like Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya may seek to color their coverage with their own political biases, but Arabs suffering through dictatorships can nevertheless witness contested elections and a rebirth of political rights. The spread of the internet has also made the vibrant debates on the editorial pages of Iraqi papers like az-Zaman and al-Mutamar accessible to those whose local papers filter news through a myriad of government censors.
The Cedar Revolution
Already, Iraq's elections have had an impact beyond its borders. Less than two months after Iraqis marched to the polls, Lebanese citizens arose to demand the same rights to exercise democracy. The spark for Lebanon's Cedar Revolution was the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Across their sectarian and political spectrum, Lebanese saw a Syrian hand behind Hariri's murder. Syrian troops had occupied Lebanon for almost thirty years. In 1989, the Ta‘if Accord ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war, but Western governments turned a blind eye to continued Syrian domination of Lebanon for the sake of that country's stability.
Syrian motivations were far from altruistic. Generations of Syrian politicians have refused to recognize Lebanese independence, instead insisting that Lebanon is simply a part of Greater Syria. In August 1972, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad declared, "Syria and Lebanon are a single country." The failure of the Assad regime to adhere to diplomatic formality underlined Syrian ambitions. Damascus did not maintain an embassy in Beirut because first Hafez al-Assad and then his son and successor Bashar did not wish to signal even implicit recognition of Lebanese independence.
With a combination of military occupation, an omnipresent security service, paid proxies, and outright political interference, the Syrian government managed to keep Lebanese nationalists in check. In August 2004, the Syrian government demonstrated its disdain for Lebanese sovereignty when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sought to have the Lebanese constitution amended to enable Syrian client Emile Lahoud to serve a third term as president. Hariri balked at this proposal. According to the United Nations fact-finder, Assad warned Hariri that his opposition to Lahoud would be "tantamount to opposing Assad himself."
Outraged by Hariri's assassination, and casting aside fear of retaliation from Syrian security services and their proxies, ordinary Lebanese citizens poured into the streets of Beirut to demand democracy and a withdrawal of Syrian forces. With international pressure ratcheting up, Assad withdrew his army from Lebanon in May 2005. A month later, the Lebanese people triumphed--temporarily at least--when Lebanon's parliament picked as their Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a close associate to Hariri and a Lebanese nationalist unwilling to take Syrian orders without question.
As in Iraq, events in Lebanon can transcend borders. Lebanon's greatest export has always been its people. In Saudi Arabia, the Lebanese Diaspora is the bedrock of the business class. In Jeddah, it is these Lebanese who have agitated for greater democratic rights, not on behalf of an external ideology, but rather on behalf of a concept which has become native to Lebanon and, therefore, to the Arab world.
The Cedar Revolution can diffuse throughout the region in other ways as well. Lebanon is a cultural Mecca for the Arab world. From Rabat to Riyadh, young Arab men and women ogle singers in Lebanese music videos which compete for their attention with dour religious programming. While mosque preachers might condemn the West and its materialism, Lebanon glories in it. In coffee shops and private homes, residents of far more repressive countries will see the relative freedom which Lebanese now enjoy. What happens in Beirut is felt throughout the region, especially among Arab youth.
Is European Policy an Impediment to Arab Democracy?
While 24 million Iraqis and four million Lebanese embrace democracy, their new found freedoms are fragile, and the permanence of the transition uncertain. The triumph of democracy is far from inevitable, though. Whether motivated by ideology or love of power, many individuals and segments of society seek to see the democratic wave evaporate. Zarqawi may seek to intimidate through violence while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak works to constrain dissent through the mechanisms of state, but both share the common objective to crush dissent.
The stance of Europe and the United States can tip the balance from dictatorship to democracy. While credit for Lebanese reforms lies primarily in the courage of the Lebanese, joint Franco-American pressure upon the Syrian government ensured that the Cedar Revolution has space to take root. When the West embraces stability instead of democracy, dictators triumph. One of the greatest impediments to Middle Eastern democracy lies not in the Arab world or Iran, but rather in the cynicism of European and American bureaucrats.
Throughout the 1980s, the West viewed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a bulwark against Islamist radicalism. At the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was actively seeking to export revolution throughout the region. While London, Paris, and Washington may have viewed Baathist Iraq as the lesser of two evils, their short-term willingness to ignore Saddam Hussein's excesses not only undermined the democratic ambitions of millions of Iraqis, but also undercut long-term regional stability.
Iraqis interpret the December 20, 1983 handshake between then-Special Envoy Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein not as a diplomatic nicety, but rather as an endorsement by Washington of the Iraqi regime's oppression of Shi‘ites and Kurds.
European political and commercial engagement with Saddam Hussein also backfired. West German firms, with Bonn's acquiescence, sold chemicals to the Iraqi government which Saddam's regime later used to massacre Iraqi Kurds in Halabja and elsewhere. Many Kurds retain bitter feelings toward Germany as a result. Iraqis also are cognizant that the French government sold the Iraqi dictators conventional weapons used to kill far more civilians than have died during the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Many Iraqis suspect that French and Russian opposition to their liberation had more to do with French firms' commercial contracts in Iraq than with any concerns about international law. Within Iraq, the United Nations' reputation is likewise soiled. Iraqis do not forgive Secretary-General Kofi Annan's February 24, 1998 comment, "Can I trust Saddam Hussein? I think I can do business with him," especially as revelations consider to surface regarding the United Nations' corruption at their expense.
The distrust for Western realpolitik is not limited to the political elite. Rather, it permeates Iraqi society. The day after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell unveiled in 2001 a "smart sanctions" proposal which American officials said would ease pressure on ordinary Iraqis, an illiterate Iraqi farmer asked, "Why do they talk about war crimes one day, and reward Saddam the next?" Western diplomats, human rights activists, and academics may have believed they were ameliorating the burden of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis while maintaining pressure on Saddam's regime, but Iraqis living under dictatorship interpreted the move not as an olive branch toward them, but rather as a reward for the dictator.
The illiterate farmers were right. When U.S. troops rolled into Baghdad, they occupied a palace complex on the Tigris River. First General Jay Garner and then Ambassador L. Paul Bremer established their office in the cavernous, marble Republican Palace. Huge crystal chandeliers dangled in the hallway. Gold inscriptions of Saddam Hussein's sayings were engraved into the wall above the dining hall. Hundreds of U.S. diplomats, aid workers, and intelligence officials occupy the building. While many journalists have described the palace and its characteristics, few mention that, having been bombed to ruins in 1991, it was rebuilt entirely under sanctions. Whatever their intentions, the easing of sanctions strengthened Saddam's hand.
Engagement and amelioration failed. Had the West taken a harder line toward Saddam Hussein--perhaps even supporting the 1991 uprising in which Iraqis seized 14 of 18 governorates in the course of two weeks--then democracy might have taken root much quicker at a cost far less prohibitive.
The Failure of Critical Engagement
Nowhere has engagement failed so starkly as with Europe's dialogue with Iran. For more than a decade, the European Union has sought to engage Tehran, both in diplomatic discussion and with trade. At a time when oil prices were low, European Union trade subsidized the Iranian economy. Between 2000 and 2003, European Union-Iran trade increased from $12 billion to $20 billion. But rather than encourage reform, European trade convinced Tehran that it would not be held accountable for its behavior. The Islamic Republic's application of capital punishment increased in proportion with European trade. European officials remained silent even as the regime's judiciary publicly hanged minors such as 16-year-old Atefe Rajabi, convicted in August 2004 of "acts incompatible with chastity" after a trial in which court officials denied her legal representation.
Many European leaders say that their engagement policy bolsters reform. European Union External Affairs Commission Chris Patten, for example, said, "Everybody who supports the reform process in Iran will welcome the steps we have taken." He was wrong. Iranian reformists subsequently issued a statement condemning the European Union's "mercantilist policy" toward Iran. Iranians reject the Western peace and human rights activists who argue that dialogue and trade bring reform. Europeans may complain of American unilateralism in the Middle East, but from both a Washington perspective and from the Middle Eastern street, the European Left's embrace of dictators has undercut its credibility.
The reasons for ordinary Iranians' rejection of the European engagement are many. In 1997, Iranians elected Muhammad Khatami to be the fifth president of the Islamic Republic. European leaders, journalists, and parliamentarians embraced the new leader as a symbol of reform as had initially many Iranians. But while Iranians had a realistic sense of their president and his failings, European officials whitewashed his record. Officials like Chris Patten, Jack Straw, and Gerhard Schroder ignored the fact that, during Khatami's tenure as minister of culture, he banned 600 books. According to the memoirs of Grand Ayatollah Hossein ‘Ali Montazeri, once Khomeini's deputy, it was during Khatami's tenure as the Islamic Republic's ideological guardian that the ruling council summarily executed 3,000 prisoners deemed politically irredeemable. While Iranians struggled with a figurehead they had determined to be insincere in his desire for reform, European officials ignored his record and embraced Khatami, thereby casting aside more authentic proponents of dissent and reform.
The courage of dissidents is the catalyst upon which reform rests. In Iran, many Western officials have ignored dissidents, undercutting their standing and morale. Tim Guildimann, for example, served as Switzerland's ambassador to Tehran between 1999 and 2004, in which capacity he also represented American interests. During his tenure, he became a staunch advocate for Western rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. In meetings with U.S. officials and at Track II talks, he would speak about his contacts with former president and Expediency Council chairman ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and other senior regime officials. But, upon his retirement, he could not name a single dissident with whom he had met in his five years in Iran.
While Guildimann symbolizes missed opportunities, far more deleterious to the cause of democracy was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage who, in a February 2003 interview, labeled Iran a "democracy," even as Iranians protested the Guardian Council's disqualification of hundreds of office-seekers.
Despite the lack of Western support for Iranian democracy, events in Iraq have emboldened Iran's citizenry. When Iraqis of various economic, sectarian, and political backgrounds agreed to a Transitional Administrative Law which enshrined basic political rights, protestors in both Iran and Syria demanded equivalent rights. As the Iraqi Kurds work to enshrine federalism into Iraq's new constitution, Iranian Kurds are agitating for the same privileges.
It is not just Iran's ethnic minorities that have grown bold in their pursuit of democracy. Iran boasts more than 100,000 active weblogs, making Persian the third-most common blogging language after English and French. As Iraqis pursue new freedoms irrespective of the controversy in European circles as to how they were won, Iranian bloggers have juxtaposed Iraq's newfound rights with their own restrained freedoms, and have become increasingly outspoken in their demands for democracy. The bloggers' activities have struck at the regime's insecurities. Iranian authorities have responded, launching a crackdown which has landed leading bloggers like Arash Sigarchi, Shahram Rafihzadeh, and Rozbeh Mir Ebrahimi in prison.
The bloggers are only the tip of the iceberg: Many other Iranians have cast aside fear of the authority's repression to agitate for change. Imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji, for example, suffering on a hunger strike smuggled a letter from prison declaring, "If I die, Supreme Leader Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei will be responsible for my death since the Prosecutor General is directly answerable to him. I have protested against the absolute powers given to the Supreme Leader as they contradict the principles of democracy."
Ganji's willingness to risk life for democracy may be a direct consequence of the willingness of some Western officials to stand up for democracy. Responding to his deteriorating health, the White House issued a statement on July 12, 2005, declaring, "Mr. Ganji is sadly only one victim of a wave of repression and human rights violations engaged in by the Iranian regime. His calls for freedom deserve to be heard." If European leaders joined Bush's call, the balance might shift in Iran from tyranny to freedom.
Sacrificing Palestinian Democracy
Iran is not the only example of European embrace of stability at the cost of democracy. From the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, American, European, and Israeli officials supported a Palestinian dictatorship on the logic believing that a strongman could better deliver Palestinians to a peace accord with Israel. The strategy failed. Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasir Arafat refused to abandon terrorism, seeing violence as both a negotiating tactic and, when applied against Palestinian civilians, a method to enforce discipline. The European Union, meanwhile, provided ten million euros monthly to subsidize Palestinian Authority salaries. Patten insisted that "the EU has not seen any hard evidence that the EU funds have been misused to finance terrorism," but former Federal Bureau of Investigations analyst Matt Levitt found that Arafat regularly exaggerated his needs by thirty percent, doctored exchange rates to net his terror fund 16 cents of every euro dispensed by Brussels, and even applied EU salary subsidies to fund Fatah, a group responsible for shootings and suicide bombings.
History has underlined the failure of the West's embrace of Palestinian dictatorship. At Camp David II, Arafat failed to accept the peace deal agreed to by his own negotiators and refused to propose his own plan. Instead, the Palestinian Authority planned an intifada in order to pressure Israel to make concessions. On August 24, 2000, several weeks before Likud leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, Palestinian Authority Justice Minister Frieh Abu Middein declared, "Violence is near, and the Palestinian people are willing to sacrifice even 5,000 casualties." Imad al-Faluji, the Palestinian communication minister, told a Palestinian radio program that "Arafat ordered preparations for the current intifada immediately after the Camp David summit, as part of the negotiating process with Israel."
Violence culminated in 2002, when Palestinian suicide bombers struck Israeli buses, cafes, and nightclubs almost daily. Sharon ordered Israeli troops into the West Bank, routing Palestinian terror cells but drawing howls of protest from European and American diplomats alike. Many officials called on the White House to council restraint and encourage a re-engagement between Israeli officials and the Palestinian leader. Bush refused traditional diplomacy and declared that democracy should be a precursor for peace. On June 24, 2002, he declared, "If liberty can blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire men and women around the globe who are…equally entitled to the benefits of democratic government." Despite some subsequent wobbling over the Road Map, the Bush administration stayed generally true to the principles enunciated by the President. Arafat remained in isolation, unwilling to embrace real democracy, until his November 2004 death.
What followed was an indication that the Bush emphasis on democracy was neither naïve nor impractical. With Arafat gone, and Saddam Hussein's subsidies for suicide bombing severed, Palestinians seized an opportunity for a political rebirth.
In January 2005, Palestinians marched to the polls. Their contest was neither as free nor fair as the Iraqi elections, for the Palestinian Liberation Organization retained an iron grip during the campaign on bureaucracy, security, and media. Nevertheless, the Palestinian elections were far freer than any that had preceded them.
Jordanian columnist Salameh Nematt voiced a linkage acknowledged more in the Arab street than in Europe. Commenting in the pan-Arabic daily al-Hayat on November 25, 2004, he wrote, "It is outrageous and amazing that the first free and general elections in the history of the Arab nation are to take place in January: in Iraq, under the auspices of American occupation, and in Palestine, under the auspices of the Israeli occupation."
Democracy has taken root in the Middle East. Sparked by the Iraq war, Arab columnists debate the meaning of democracy, the nature of reform, and the parameters of dissent. While the ultimate expression of Middle Eastern democracy is uncertain, the change sparked by Bush's belief in democracy as a pillar of foreign policy continues to reverberate throughout the region.
His actions demonstrate his seriousness. On August 15, 2002, Bush warned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the U.S. would not supply Egypt with new foreign aid in response to the jailing by an Egyptian kangaroo court of a leading democracy activist. It is the White House, and not traditional NGOs, that is leading the drive to cool relations between the United States and the Saudi autocracy, despite continued American dependence on oil. The era of cynical realpolitik is over, and the age of principle has begun.
The age of dictatorship and autocracy should pass. Their representatives should not be toasted in the West regardless of their oil wealth. Diplomats and policymakers can smugly dismiss the notion that men and women around the globe are entitled to the benefits of democracy, despite the rejoicing of Afghans, Iraqis, Lebanese, and the growing chorus of Iranians and Palestinians demanding freedom.
European Commission officials; daiquiri diplomats, and armchair academics have lost the morale high ground. Their policies have done irreparable harm to those suffering at the hands of dictators and terrorists. Engaging dictators may be easy in the short-term, but it undercuts democracy and ensures future trouble. Europe might chide American unilateralism, but the United States should not abandon the defense of liberty, even if it means going it alone.
While Western critics have condemned Operation Iraqi Freedom as a cause of terrorism rather than a spark for democracy, evidence suggests otherwise. Terrorism directed against Western targets pre-dated the occupation of Iraq. The democratic wave sweeping across the Middle East did not. Even in the most autocratic of societies, emboldened dissidents have challenged dictators. In Damascus, for example, Aktham Naisse openly called for the repeal of the Emergency Laws upon which the Syrian regime derives dictatorial power. In Libya, Fathi el-Jahmi, a former provincial official, demanded openly that Muammar Qadhafi hold contested elections. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, dissidents have called for electoral reform.
The democratic wave is fragile, though. Libyan security has returned Fathi el-Jahmi to prison. Aktham Naisse is out on bail. Hosni Mubarak continues to harass opposition candidates with spurious lawsuits and arbitrary detention. On July 20, 2005, Yemeni troops opened fire on protestors, killing 16. But, despite the dangers, across the Middle East dissidents and ordinary citizens alike are courageously confronting dictators and demanding democracy.
The forces unleashed by the U.S. campaign in Iraq have swept across the region. Many in the West, distrustful of Bush and angry at the process which led to the Iraq war, are willing to sacrifice the Middle Eastern liberty upon the altar of their own political animosity. They may point to the latest car bombing and argue that the White House has open Pandora's Box. They need not be right.
In Iraq and Lebanon, ordinary citizens have seized the initiative to show they seek a better, more democratic future. Both Americans and Europeans should lend democrats across the Middle East their support. With all due respect to Vedrine, it is the European politicians that are guilty of simplisme. Dialogue with dictators backfires. Europe and the United States should stand together for freedom. The Middle East is ready.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at AEI.
Related Topics: Iraq, Middle East politics | Michael Rubin
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing list
This text may be reposted or forwarded so long as it is presented as an integral whole with complete and accurate information provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.