Around the time this article will appear, the United States will be preparing for a congressional election that may have a decisive impact on capitalist culture in the Middle East—in other words, on the stated aim of the Bush administration to advance liberal democracy in Arab countries, so exchanges of ideas and money are free, and peoples freer.
To be sure, that project is already half a way down into the grave, and dirt is being shoveled over it. Only administration stalwarts still publicly defend the notion that Iraq is a democracy in the making. With American casualties dramatically on the rise, and supporters of the war increasingly doubtful about the conflict’s outcome, there is not only little conviction that advancing Iraqi democracy is even relevant anymore, but there is also a sincere worry among pro-Bush Republicans that Iraq may be the reason why they lose their majority in the House of Representatives.
Death by committee
Then there is the fact that the Bush administration has named a high-level commission, the Iraq Study Group, to shape a new approach to the conduct of the war. The head of the group is James Baker, the former secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. The silky Baker, for all his expertise, was never someone much concerned with democracy and human rights. A political “realist,” but also someone close to Big Oil, his priority was usually to advance American national interests in the Middle East in collaboration with what the Washington Arabist establishment has called “our traditional allies.” That means primarily Saudi Arabia and Egypt, neither democratic paragons, along with other regimes having little concern for the tropes of capitalist culture.
The war in Iraq and also the rise of Iran have only strengthened these regimes in American and European eyes. With Tehran batting away international efforts to end its uranium enrichment and the West increasingly fearful that Iran is close to building a nuclear device, neither Washington nor the EU is keen to destabilize their Arab allies with calls for more representative and open political systems.
That would be understandable, if policy were about the here and now. But the reality is much more complex. The very reason why Iran appears so threatening to the Arab world—and the reason why Iraq seems to pose such a threat to its neighbors—is that the Arab states are not democratic. As they confront increasingly difficult challenges in the region, their regimes have the added burden of knowing they face a serious legitimacy problem at home. And where there is a problem of legitimacy, there is a problem of stability and predictability. Which Arab regime can be sure its people will defend the state if it is threatened?
The irony is that while the Arab regimes deny democratic legitimacy to their own people, the American democracy project in the Middle East, or what remains of it, might well be permanently terminated thanks to an American democratic happening. The outcome of the congressional elections remains unclear, but in late September and October what seemed like a commanding Republican advantage suddenly began to collapse. First, a National Intelligence Estimate suggested that the Iraq war, rather than damaging terrorism, had allowed it to proliferate in the country. Then, Bob Woodward’s new book, “State of Denial,” further brought home that the administration had lied about Iraq. And a scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican caught sending lewd messages to congressional pages, harmed Republican chances when it was revealed that the party’s leadership had tried to conceal his behavior.
Democracy threatens grand design
A Democratic victory in the House would probably not substantially alter the Bush’s Iraq policy in the short term. However, it would deeply change the framework of the debate. Facing a more hostile House, President Bush would have to make concessions on Iraq. This wouldn’t necessarily be bad, given that American policy today seems utterly ineffective, but it is also very unlikely that democracy would be a priority if the Democrats’ aim—and perhaps that of quite a few Republicans—is to pave the way for an exit from Iraq. One doesn’t build a capitalist culture while booking passage home.
So Bush’s grand democratic ambition for the region would sink without a trace, its death to be formally declared in two years’ time when the president leaves office. That would be a shame, and many would be right in saying that Bush was to a large extent to blame. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that if the US returns to a policy of condoning undemocratic regimes in the Middle East, American interests will be further threatened. Thugs often make for very unreliable allies.