Democracy is a great idea; open elections are ideally the best way to choose governments; dialogue with everyone is wonderful in theory. But in the Middle East, unfortunately, as a policy this would be a disaster.
It is not Western policy but local conditions which are going to determine whether there will be democracy in the Arabic-speaking world. In my book, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), I analyze both the debate and the existing groups. The assessment must be pessimistic.
Would we like to see liberal democracy and moderation prevail with rising living standards and more freedom? Of course, but the real question is what effect certain policies would have.
The Western debate gets stranger and stranger. Among the policymaking classes, there’s a prevailing view that the Bush administration was a disaster. The rather misleading description for those who advocated a U.S. policy of promoting democracy and overthrowing dictators—’neo-conservative’—has become among such people a curse word implying stupid and evil.
Why, then, does the debate seem to be between those who now run most Western governments and want to engage with the worst, most dangerous extremists and those who want to promote democracy by opening up the political process to the…worst, most dangerous extremists.
Whatever became of good old-fashioned Realism, the breakfast of champions in diplomacy for centuries? Realism, a term that has been hijacked lately far more than Islam, means to base a policy on the actually existing situation rather than one’s wish-list, building alliances on the basis of common interests.
It does not mean: embrace your worst enemies while kicking those with common interests in the groin. Nor does it mean acting like the nerdy kid groveling in the hope that it will make the popular guys like him. And it also doesn’t mean ignoring adversaries’ ideologies and goals.
Is it really so hard to understand that U.S. policy should be based on working closely with Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon (moderates, not Iranian-Syrian agents), Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Gulf emirates? Is it really so hard to understand that U.S. policy should also be based on combating Iran, Syria, Sudan, Hizballah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhoods, as well as al-Qaida?
We saw what happened in Iran after experts predicted in 1978 that anything would be better than the Shah and that moderates would inevitably prevail.
We saw what happened with the Palestinian elections for while Fatah was no prize , Hamas is far worse and eager for bloodshed.
We are about to see what will happen with Lebanese elections which are nominally democratic but influenced by Iranian-Syrian money and intimidation, as a government emerges likely to lead Lebanon into the Iranian bloc.
In Turkey, the several-times-elected AK regime, although still presented internationally as a model moderate Muslim government, is engaged in systematically Islamizing institutions and taking the country down a road leading closer to Tehran than to Washington.
I do not like saying this because I know many courageous liberal dissidents and would like them to win. U.S. and Western policy should always press for their rights, against their imprisonment.
But why should the United States pursue a policy that we have every reason to believe will be catastrophic: namely, pushing for a situation in which radical Islamists are more likely to take over.
Examples have been given of people who might be expected to be liberal preferring to back Islamist parties. But Egypt is virtually the only place this seems to be happening. Elsewhere, people who might be expected to be liberal are supporting the existing regimes out of fear of Islamists. I think that Egypt is a misleading case for that reason. And in Egypt, the leading ‘liberal’ group has now been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood and spouts a very radical anti-American line.
Do we really want to contribute to subverting the Egyptian regime, with all its faults, and making the Brotherhood more powerful? The reaction is arrogance on the part of the radicals and despair among the moderates. The liberals conclude, you hear this all the time in Turkey, that America wants the Islamists to win.
I don’t prefer this situation. I don’t like it. But in a world where Islamists seek to overthrow nationalists, in which an Iranian-Syrian led alliance is trying to gain hegemony in much of the region, I feel that Western policy needs to back the regimes against the revolutionaries.
There are some ethnic or religious communities which have an interest in supporting a moderate democratic approach. At present, this includes Iraqi Kurds and Shia; Lebanese Sunni Arabs, Christians and Druze; and the Berbers of the Maghreb. These are, however, special cases.
There are also very systematic campaigns to full well-intentioned, gullible Westerners. These are often carried out by having moderate statements in English directed to a foreign audience and revolutionary extremist ones in Arabic directed at one’s own society. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has created a very nicely done English-language site that would make it seem the organization is something between the Democratic Party and the March of Dimes.
If the West engages with Hamas, Hizballah, and the Muslim Brotherhoods, while working to create a situation in which these groups can compete for power more effectively, the results will be disastrous both for the West and for the Arabs who become victims of the resulting Islamist regimes. No argument, no matter how sincerely heartfelt or superficially clever, alters that fact. That is a tragedy but in policy terms it is also a necessity to deal with the reality of Middle East polities and societies.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).