Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Wall of Faith and History


“President Bush, for his part, says one reason to forge democracies in the Middle East is that terrorists are produced by nondemocratic societies. Young people, goes this line of thinking, grow up frustrated in such societies, having no legitimate outlets for their demands; so by overturning the despotisms we can eliminate "the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder." It is a plausible theory, and even a persuasive one.

On the other hand, it is refuted by Western history. In the 1960's and 1970's, terrorism became rampant - one thinks of the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Weathermen - in Italy, Germany and the United States, all of them free countries. Democracy, if it is a cure for terrorism, is at least not an infallible one.

For the moment we cannot judge for sure whether the president's theory is valid: it has not been put to the test. The older order in the Middle East has not been overthrown; until it is a new one cannot be constructed.

One lesson of recent history is clear, however: the prospects in the Muslim world would be brighter if both the tearing down and the building up were done by Muslims rather than by us. Berliners brought down the wall; yet it was we who overthrew Iraq's dictator, not the Iraqis. And in large part it was we who arranged the election for Iraq's national assembly - although only the magnificent courage of the Iraqi people in voting at the risk of their lives made it possible.

Now that assembly has begun its deliberations, against long odds. Secessions of ethnic and religious minorities may take place; at some point an authoritarian leader may emerge; a theocracy might take power. All we can do is help and hope. But as for claiming victory and heralding an unstoppable tide of democracy, it is far too soon.

…without depreciating the value of these halting first movements toward democracy, we should be aware of how limited - for a variety of reasons - they are. They may go in the right direction but are just at the beginning of the road, and most can be expected to encounter strong opposition before they move much further.

A distinctive feature of the events of 1989 in Germany that is not found in the Middle East in 2005 is that those who manned the Berlin Wall were no longer willing to defend it. The Communist regimes had lost faith in communism and in themselves; they offered no resistance when the crowds pulled down the barricades.

That is not true of our adversaries, or even many of our friends, today in the Middle East. The jihadists believe in their cause with a fanatic ardor. Taliban raiders continue to harass the democratically elected regime in Afghanistan. It is not clear whether armed groups will respect the Palestinian truce. And even if Syria should withdraw from Lebanon, the dictatorial regime in Damascus is not dissolving itself, as Moscow's did after 1989; on the contrary, any withdrawal would be part of a larger plan to consolidate its hold on domestic power.

Nor are the forces on our side necessarily fighting for democracy, as they were in Berlin. The demonstrators in the streets in Beirut were not demanding democracy, but asking for independence - which is rather a different thing.

In turn, what the men in the presidential palaces offer is closer to a hesitant gesture than to a radical break with the past. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who has held power essentially unopposed since 1981, now proposes to amend his country's Constitution to allow opposition candidates in presidential elections. But the best guess is that anyone who runs will be a mere token candidate. And in Saudi Arabia, where voting was decreed and did occur in February - for the first time in its history - the election in question was merely for municipal councils, and the voter turnout was low. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are close allies of the United States, and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that their reforms are merely cosmetic, instituted to satisfy Americans and to appease foreign critics.

The contrast could hardly be greater with what happened in the Iron Curtain countries in 1989 and the 1990's, or even in Ukraine a few months ago, when the people refused to accept half-measures and demanded instead full and honest elections and real democracy.

But of course the lands of the Arab Middle East - as is often pointed out - have had no significant experience of genuine democracy. Even the promise of democracy that has been held out to them has not been of the real thing
con·cept: A Wall of Faith and History