Call it Democracy Deficiency Syndrome. Frustrated by the continuing struggle to build a stable democracy in Iraq, some backers of Saddam Hussein’s removal have taken to opining that one of the most compelling arguments for military intervention in Iraq — the domino effect of democracy throughout the Middle East — now appears to be a bad gamble.
Most sensible people, by which I mean to exclude the Ted Kennedy-Cassandras braying about the second coming of Vietnam, understand that the desperate aggression of a rump of diehard Sunni Baathists and radical Shiites hardly represents the complete failure of the American intervention. But lingering instability in Iraq, paired with the brutal resistance to social, political and economic reforms by repressive Arab regimes, has plainly soured some on the notion that the war has had any appreciable effect on the spread of democracy throughout the region.
Their analysis boils down to this: The idea that ousting one dictator could fuel a blowback against dictators across the region, grounded more in hope than reality, has been an unmitigated bust. We came, we saw, we conquered, but geo-strategically speaking, we came up short.
For skepticism of this sort, take a look at the spring issue of the National Interest, where, in an essay dismissively titled “How Much Does Iraq Matter?” (subscribers only), Morton Abramowitz speculates that, in the broader context of regional transformation, it doesn’t matter all that much. Allowing that reformist Arab governments may emerge in time, albeit with a certain when-hell-goes-Arctic skepticism, Abramowitz nonetheless contends that “to assert that the occupation of Iraq will produce democracy in Iraq, which will then spread like a virus to other countries in the Middle East, is more prayer than analysis.”
This going defeatism is unfortunate because maintaining it means ignoring the recent strides made by democratic movements in several Arab countries. Emboldened by the democratic efforts underway in Iraq, and energized by the rallying cry of basic liberties and human rights, opposition groups have risen up to loosen, if not yet break, the vice grip of Arab authoritarianism. Far from being discredited, President Bush’s vision — that a democracy-bound Iraq would jump-start opposition to the Middle East’s jackboot regimes — has thus proved prescient.
And while the pace of democratic development in the Arab world leaves much to be desired, the upsurge in opposition to oppressive regimes suggests that it is not, as some would have, permanently stunted. Indeed, as Jackson Diehl, a Washington Post columnist and no Bush booster, has noted: “The most underreported and encouraging story in the Middle East in the past year has been the emergence in public of homegrown civic movements demanding political change.”
HERE ARE THE STORIES of some of those movements:
In Iran, voices of opposition long strong-armed into silence by the mullahs, have grown increasingly vocal. Iran’s student organizers continue to lash out at theocratic tyranny, their drive restrained for the time being only by a lack of financial support, the absence of an organized and principled base, and of course the reactionary terror of the Guardian Council’s goon squads.
In Egypt, the region’s most populous country, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, facing concerted pressure from the United States, has softened its line against opposition. Dissident intellectuals, at least those few who have been freed from prison, have strongly pushed for more openness. Freedom of the press has also increased. Newspapers once-gagged by the president’s crackdowns now editorialize against a fifth term for Mubarak. Defiance like that, observers say, only a year ago would have been unimaginable.
In Syria, the Baath Party’s iron grip on power has failed to stifle a swelling opposition. On March 8, for instance, about 25 protesters demonstrated against the vile “emergency laws” used by the Baath to suppress civil rights. Baath security forces smashed the demonstration, but, again, such a demonstration would have been unthinkable before the war in Iraq. Additionally, the Syrian government last month dissolved emergency economic courts, kangaroo affairs used to jail insubordinate businessmen. Four private universities now have opened, and two private banks have begun accepting deposits, although they are barred from foreign exchange. To be sure, these admittedly minor conciliatory gestures do not signal a road-to-Damascus conversion to democracy by Syria’s Baathists. What the regime appears to recognize is that even its brute security forces, effective in crushing small pockets of dissent, will not dam a tide of unified opposition.
In Saudi Arabia, the royal family grudgingly has signed off on a cautious series of reforms, starting with municipal elections unprecedented in the kingdom’s 71-year history. And while fundamentalist Wahabi clerics continue to exercise a near-total writ, it is reportedly possible to discuss such radical topics as the rights of women to drive cars. Further, as Michael Scott Doran has argued, the future of Saudi Arabian reform hinges on who emerges victorious in the struggle between de-facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah and his half-brother, the Wahabi-aligned interior minister, Prince Nayef.
In Algeria, a democratic election, the country’s first, was held last week. After a dozen years of Islamic insurgency, Algerians reelected President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, with his promise of prosperity, in a landslide. Granted, it wasn’t pretty; the defeated candidates accused Bouteflika of rigging the election. International groups monitoring the election challenged that view, however, reporting that they saw no signs of fraud. “It was pretty clear this is what the people wanted,” Bruce George, a coordinator for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe told told the Daily Telegraph. Not insignificantly, it was also the first time the army did not intervene to affect the results.
Democracy also has found champions in some unlikely places. Sayf Qaddafi, the son of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, recently called for Libya to become an open and democratic country. “If it isn’t,” he said, “it will become a reactionary, dictatorial, and fascist Arab country.” The simple future is a tad revisionist, but Sayf seems at least to have his priorities straight.
Arguing that Iraq is a model democracy, even with the most liberal constitution in the Arab world as its foundation, is, concededly, a stretch. No less exaggerated, though, is the implication that simply because Iraq is not yet a beacon of democracy, the Arab world’s ship of reform has not come in. Feeble today, democratic movements are gaining strength, and a democratic Iraq can only hasten their success.
The president, of course, has been an unwavering proponent of this view. Guided by the idée fixe that “stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” he has pushed for democracy across the Middle East, making Iraq the cornerstone. Perhaps that was what John Kerry had in mind, when, stumping in Chicago on Friday, he diagnosed the administration with a peculiar ailment. “This administration has been gridlocked by its own ideology,” he said. Kerry had it quite right. It seems not to occur to him that, in this instance, the disease is the cure.
Jacob Laksin is editor of Aufbau.