February 12, 2008


A New Middle East, After All (Reuel Marc Gerecht, 2/12/2008, The Weekly Standard)

George W. Bush staked his presidency on his response to 9/11: on the proposition that the United States had to defeat the virulent forces loose in the Muslim world directly and militarily. In his last State of the Union address, delivered shortly after his first and only grand tour of the Middle East, Bush reaffirmed his intention to continue the fight everywhere he has committed American arms. It is way too soon to give the president a final grade, and it is surely tempting to flunk him, given the high-wire act the country has endured in Iraq. The denizens of the Middle East, however, will remember Bush as the most momentous American leader since an angry Thomas Jefferson sent men-of-war in pursuit of the Barbary pirates. His successor will not be able to walk away from what he has wrought. Let us consider the issues one by one--leaving aside for another day Iran and the menace of a Persian bomb. [...]

Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria

The Levant has not been kind to the Bush administration. On virtually every issue in this region, the White House has misfired, not fired at all, or been worn out by contradictory aspirations. The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is as it was in 2000: an event controlled by the continuing Islamist evolution of the Palestinian people, who do not in sufficient numbers countenance peace with a Jewish state. The only real question remaining is whether the Fatah dictatorship on the West Bank will evolve quickly or slowly into a spiritual twin of Hamas. Contrary to what has been endlessly suggested by foreign-policy "realists," democracy did not destroy Fatah or undermine the chances for peace. Fatah destroyed Fatah. Westernized secular autocracies have similarly squandered their legitimacy throughout the Middle East ever since World War II. Elections will inevitably give expression to this failure.

No elected Muslim Arab government is likely to embrace Israel for many years to come. President Bush got the order backwards in his post-Annapolis speeches, suggesting that the Palestinians need to be able to envision a complete state living side by side with Israel so that democracy can triumph. Democracy did triumph among the Palestinians--Hamas won. Arab autocrats sign peace treaties with Israel; Arab democrats won't. That explains the Israelis' preference for Muslim dictatorship over Muslim democracy. Believing Muslims first have to figure out how to reconcile parliamentary legislation and the Holy Law; how to accept a Jewish state on land that devout Muslims see as part of the historic umma is much farther down this evolutionary path. Max Boot's parallel with the English and the Scots, who made war on each other for centuries, is apt--but the religious, social, cultural, political, and economic differences between the Jewish Israelis and the Muslim Palestinians dwarf the historic divide between Britain's warring peoples.

The preeminent issue for Palestinians, as for others in the region, is responsibility: Will Muslims become responsible for themselves, ethically and politically? Will they stop blaming others and blame themselves for their problems? It's very difficult to see how the Islamic, especially Arab, world can confront its manifest problems without Muslims, individually and collectively, assuming responsibility for their actions. Democracy is a good idea for the Middle East not because it will improve Western-Muslim relations. Odds are, in the short term, it will do the opposite. Increasingly, Muslims, especially devout Muslims, are backing democratic politics because they see this as the only way to restore legitimacy to government. Democracy, not dictatorship, opens societies to debates, which fundamentalists may well win. Elections that allow fundamentalists a chance to triumph--not police-state repression or antiterrorist pronouncements by the co-opted official clergy of the challenged regimes--are the key to eventually destroying the appeal of the violent extremists. As always, bin Laden is a helpful guide: If he loathes democracy among Muslims, it's a good reason to support it.

Hamas's triumph in the Palestinian elections of January 2006 probably put the last nail in the coffin of the Bush administration's efforts to encourage reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries that drove the spread of modern Islamic radicalism. From the beginning, Bush's democracy-and-reform agenda was largely rhetorical, undermined consistently by America's deference to Saudi oil and the senior cadre of the State Department's Near Eastern Bureau who saw the status quo as a safer bet than the convulsive, unsettling world of representative politics among Muslims. Like those American supporters of Israel who have grown queasy at the sight of democracy on the West Bank and in Gaza, the State Department's senior Arabists see the current regimes as bulwarks against radical Islam. They may admit that these autocracies have helped to radicalize their populations through repression. They may be uncomfortable with the aid these regimes have given to conservative religious forces to thwart more radical religious groups. They may even be distressed to see Egypt's ruler, Hosni Mubarak, harass and jail liberal democratic dissidents and critics (though if the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Francis Ricciardone, is upset by this, he's doing a good job of hiding it).

But they are unwilling to risk the unknown, which is what greater democracy would produce.

Rather, it is we democratizers who are unwilling to risk the necessary outcomes of our own crusade. We should be, if not supporting, at least receptive to the prospect of popular government by Hamas, Hezbollah, & the Muslim Brotherhood, which will be moderated by the demands of their own peoples for improved standards of living and rather easily restrained on the national security level by the ease with which we can annihilate regimes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2008 11:47 AM
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