Amid all the hoopla over how the United States should conduct its war in Iraq, very little attention has been paid to what looked like a good idea when President George W. Bush first sought to justify his invasion of Iraq: the spread of democracy to the people of the Middle East.
Indeed, in recent weeks some American pundits and former officials have taken a decidedly dim view of US ambitions in the region. For example, in a much-listened-to radio program, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official, pointed out that democracy should not be an American priority. More generally, Haass has been peddling a pessimistic line on American power, arguing in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that the end of US dominance in the Middle East had arrived. “[B]y tying down a huge portion of the US military, the war has reduced US leverage worldwide. It is one of history’s ironies that the first war in Iraq, a war of necessity, marked the beginning of the American era in the Middle East and the second Iraq war, a war of choice, has precipitated its end.”
Haass is a political ‘realist,’ one whose approach to foreign affairs is defined by advancing American interests rather than defending values. Realism was for a long time the foundation of US policy in the Middle East, and justified Washington’s interactions with despotic regimes; that is until Bush complicated matters by placing democracy at the heart of his regional agenda, even as he continued to uphold good relations with dictators in Arab countries from the Gulf to the Atlantic.
‘Realists’ on the upswing, but they’re still on the wrong track
Haass is not the only realist to take such a jaundiced view of democratization. In summer 2004, Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to former President George H.W. Bush, had this to say to a reporter from the New York Observer: “It’s not that I don’t believe Iraq is capable of democracy. But the notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me.” That Scowcroft and his onetime boss had sponsored a policy in the Middle East that granted America’s despotic comrades wide latitude to suffocate any “primeval instinct for democracy” was left unmentioned.
The question today, however, is whether the US has the same option as it once did to ignore the abuses carried out by its Arab allies—in effect to ignore a capitalist culture of free minds and free markets. The Middle East is changing, and while despotism endures, the alternative to despotism is far clearer today than it was when people like Haass and Scowcroft were at the helm. Against the dictators stand angry Islamists—themselves as undemocratic, if not more so, than the men in power, and often far more destructive. In other words, reheated realism is not really an option anymore in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, when it has become quite obvious that despotism only makes violent Islamism stronger.
That message has yet to sink in among the halls of government and Congress in Washington, where the failure of one foreign policy school tends to mechanically lead to embrace of the other. Because the neoconservatives who gave ideological sustenance to Bush’s Middle Eastern policies after 2001 are said to have failed, the pendulum has shifted back to the realists. The fact is, however, that both sides are guilty of failure in the region. The neocons wanted grand change, but all they have ceded us until now is instability; the realists pray at the altar of stability, but left behind a Middle East with an anti-Americanism that made possible the attacks against New York and Washington. Neither side has offered a convincing template for a new US approach to the region.
However, the neocons did hand us something genuinely new in their defense, hypocritical or sincere, of democracy and human rights. For the US to give up on these values or practices is not only impossible at this stage (since, for all his faults, Bush has imperceptibly welded those concepts into the edifice of Middle Eastern thinking), it is also bad politics. Human rights and democracy are powerful ideas that, when properly defended, give the US considerable leverage in the Arab world. No sensible state surrenders a good thing, even if that means it has to reshape and refine an agenda to convince the agnostics or detractors.
Not many Arabs are willing to give the US the benefit of the doubt on democracy. But no one is particularly eager to be indefinitely ruled by the tyrants who hold sway in the region either. There is room in that gap for a liberal American approach to the region, one that first advances then defends democracy where possible. The approach might be haphazard, deliberate, and contradictory, but a return to a past of benign neglect for human rights in the Middle East is neither feasible nor defensible.