Commentary

Democracy and Demagoguery in the Middle East

One of the more puzzling aspects of the Iraq misadventure has been President Bush’s serene confidence of ultimate success amid the mounting evidence that the mission is crumbling. We now have some important insights into Bush’s thinking from a recent interview with National Review editor Rich Lowry and other conservative journalists. Lowry quotes the president extensively regarding prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

What emerges from Bush’s remarks is the picture of a man who largely rejects the role of culture in determining political values and systems. Embracing the “universality of freedom”, he states bluntly that “Muslims desire to be free just like Methodists desire to be free.” He adds that “nothing will change my belief.” Later, he states that governments can transform societies (citing the example of Japan after World War II) and that the emergence of governments based on liberty is “inevitable.”

Bush’s view is not merely simplistic, it is profoundly dangerous. The president assumes that when people in the Middle East and people in the West speak of freedom, they have the same concept in mind. There is virtually no evidence to support that belief. For all too many people in the Middle East, freedom means the ability to live the way the local mullah tells them that they ought to.

The foundation of an effective democracy is not some subjective desire of a person to live in freedom (however defined)—it is the willingness to allow fellow citizens, who may have different values and lifestyles, to live in freedom. That crucial spirit of tolerance is tragically underdeveloped in Middle Eastern societies. So is a pervasive attitude that political, economic and religious disputes must be settled solely by peaceful means.

Without those two pillars—the essence of a vibrant civil society—prospects for even quasi-liberal democracies in the foreseeable future are extremely dim. Even in Turkey, where these conditions are markedly stronger than in Arab countries, the political system is, at best, a shaky, rather illiberal democracy. Putting in place the mechanisms of electoral democracy before the necessary cultural conditions are strong (as the United States has done in Iraq) is likely to make bad situations even worse. Pushing for democracy without those crucial preconditions is akin to trying to build a house from the roof down.

Elections in such an environment will merely empower political demagogues and religious extremists. It is no accident that voters in Iraq spurned the more tolerant, secular parties who sought to reach across the Sunni-Shi’a-Kurdish divides and instead supported blatantly sectarian parties. The fallacy of assuming that democracy is a panacea for the Middle East was even more graphically confirmed by the elections in the Palestinian territories, when Hamas routed the more moderate (though hardly tolerant) Fatah.

That is not to say that Middle Eastern societies will never be ready to implement Western-style liberal democracy. There is no anti-democracy gene in human DNA. Societies change over time, and the emergence of stable, liberal democratic systems in the Middle East might well occur at some point in the future. But it’s not likely to happen in the next generation or two, and for the president to base U.S. policy in the region on the expectation that it will is irresponsible.

It was unfortunate, but perhaps understandable, that President Bush held naive beliefs about the inevitability and imminence of a regional democratic tsunami in 2003 when he launched the Iraq War. Given the bruising experiences of the past four years, however, clinging to such assumptions is simply inexcusable. We need a far more prudent and realistic Middle East policy. Let us hope that the next president will embrace one.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is author of the recent study “Escaping the Trap: Why the United States Must Leave Iraq.”