Democracy seems to be fermenting in the Middle East, a welcome development for a region long noted for its political and economic backwardness. But human liberty, not just an election, is the ultimate goal. The road to build liberal societies remains long, twisting, and fraught with danger.
The pursuit of liberty has resulted in human dramas both exciting and tragic. Ancient republics descended into despotism; medieval Europe endured endless bloody struggles for both political and religious freedom.
Britain deposed kings on its way to parliamentary democracy. The French Revolution replaced despotism with despotism. Europe's liberal revolutionary wave in 1848 quickly receded, leaving authoritarian monarchical shoals. World War I destroyed autocracy, yielding vulnerable democracies that in turn succumbed to totalitarianism.
The post-World War II "iron curtain" sealed hundreds of millions of people into brutal national prisons. Newly independent colonies tended to hold one election before adopting dictatorship. Many of the democracies emerging from the end of the Cold War, such as Russia, have proved to be flawed and fragile.
Now autocracy is shaking in the Mideast. Iraq has held elections; Egypt is promising political pluralism; the Lebanese have risen up against domination by next-door neighbor Syria. Saudi Arabia has held local elections, while Palestinians have chosen a more moderate leader to replace Yassir Arafat.
These are all positive, and possibly wonderful, developments. They are positive since they offer the hope of genuinely free societies at the end of the rainbow. They are wonderful if such systems eventually develop.
THE PARTISAN DEBATE OVER President George W. Bush's responsibility has shed more heat than light. The administration obviously deserves credit for the Iraqi elections; its efforts almost certainly advanced reform in Egypt.
Elsewhere the president's rhetoric might have affected the political atmosphere, but its impact should not be exaggerated. Yassir Arafat's death and popular weariness with years of unproductive violence triggered change among the Palestinians. Saudi reforms follow the regime's recognition that royalist rule is vulnerable to jihadist violence.
Sparking the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon was the horrid assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Citizens of Lebanon, which long has held elections, looked more to the nonviolent protests in Georgia and Ukraine than to anything in Iraq. Most Lebanese doubt the contrary claims by opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, until recently busy applauding the killing of Americans and Israelis.
Moreover, the trend towards democratization, though a very welcome side effect of the Iraq war, does not necessarily justify the invasion. The costs remain too high: More than 1,500 dead and 11,000 injured Americans. More than 1,000 children who lost a parent.
And no end to casualties in sight. Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, observes that insurgencies elsewhere have typically lasted from seven to 12 years.
The war will have cost more than $200 billion by the end of this year. According to congressional estimates, the total over the next decade could run two to three times that. America's freedom values also are risked by the military and security measures necessary to prosecute foreign wars.
Moreover, terrorism threatens even more. "Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti- U.S. jihadists," CIA Director Porter J. Goss recently warned Congress. The military is suffering enormous strain, finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the personnel necessary to garrison Iraq and guard against other threat. America's international credibility with regard to other dangers, including Iran and North Korea, has suffered severe damage.
YET THE BATTLE BETWEEN the President's acolytes and antagonists should not obscure the fact that the Mideast's democratic sprouts might turn into regimes that respect the life and dignity of the human person. However the Iraqi experiment turns out, it would be difficult for the result to be worse that Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. But we still must be concerned about the result. Popular desires for democratic governance and freedom from foreign domination are basic and vital. Unfortunately, they do not guarantee protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And if the early democratic blooms die off, or become deformed, yielding majoritarian tyranny, the result will be a tragic lost opportunity.
Many signs are negative. In Iraq thousands of Christians have fled, most to neighboring Syria, one of the administration's "outposts of tyranny." Iraq's frontrunning Shiite candidate for prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, has promised to introduce Islamic sharia law. Paul Marshall of Freedom House worries that "Islam undefined" might become "the constitution behind the constitution" in Iraq. And irrespective of what the constitution ends up saying, the real question is how Iraqis ultimately govern themselves.
On one side in Lebanon is Druze leader Jumblatt, who has blamed the CIA for 9/11 and vilified Israel. Last December he declared: "The killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq is legitimate and obligatory."
The alternative is Hezbollah, which represents much of the majority Shiite population. Hezbollah has mixed terrorism with public service, and its members criticize the U.S. as virulently as they do Israel.
Hamas did well in Palestinian elections. It has been rapidly gaining on Fatah in the polls and might win upcoming legislative elections.
Jihadists prospered in Saudi Arabia's recent municipal balloting. The radical Muslim Brotherhood could win a free vote in Egypt.
No one can predict what would happen if Washington's ally Pakistan suddenly implemented the President's democratic rhetoric. Nor would any American want to ask the public in any Arab state what it thinks of Washington's occupation of Iraq or support for Israel.
The U.S. should not oppose democracy in response. Doing so put America on the wrong side of history in such diverse countries as Iran and Nicaragua. Indeed, the mullahs likely would not be in power in Tehran today but for Washington's backing for the Shah. However, Americans inside and outside of government must pay as much attention to the development of a vibrant and tolerant civil society as to the holding of elections.
GIVE PRESIDENT BUSH credit -- he has been willing to advance what originally seemed like a Quixotic crusade, pushing democracy in the Mideast. But, warns former top Pentagon aide Dov Zakheim, democracy "isn't a short-term enterprise or one that can be won by force of arms."
Our real goal should be liberty. For without liberty, democracy risks becoming just another tool of tyranny, on behalf of a majority rather than a minority.
How to foster liberal, tolerant peoples and societies is far more complicated than detailing election procedures or providing campaign training. Encouraging today's delicate democratic sprouts to flourish and eventually replace the barren tyranny that continues to dominate the Mideast poses an enormous challenge to all of us.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. He also is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
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