If 2003 was a year when, realistically or not, there was hope for liberalism in the Middle East, this past year was most certainly one in which that hope collapsed. Initial optimism that a capitalist culture of free markets and free minds might emerge from the fall of the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein has been replaced by deep pessimism. The region is retreating toward its extremes, leaving little room for open societies.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this phenomenon is the performance of supposed Arab liberals. That the United States approached its invasion of Iraq in the most unconvincing of ways, that it never quite understood what it needed to do to stabilize the country after its triumph, is undeniable; however, the moment that Saddam’s savage regime fell, it was a rare occasion that liberals should have used in their own struggle against the dictators repressing them. Instead, they seemed moved primarily by anti-Americanism, so that many of the region’s liberals stood side by side with their oppressors, but also Islamists, in condemning the US, oblivious to the fact that this was unlikely to buy them a reprieve.
Following the Republican defeat in the American midterm elections in November, it became clear to the Bush administration that things had to change in Iraq. President George W. Bush’s idea of a democratic project in the Middle East was already on life support thanks to the Iraqi conflict, and the elections may have pulled the plug. With Americans inclined to fall back on a default foreign policy imposing more caution overseas, the idea of advancing democracy in a region where even liberals can’t seem to like America has become a low priority.
That’s why the key question today is not just whether the US and Western democracies in general should readily abandon democratization in the Arab world and even Iran, but also whether they should jettison all thought of using force or coercion in trying to promote open societies.
The answer to the first question would seem obvious. The US has always put democracy at the center of its public rhetoric in the Middle East, but that didn’t mean it was necessarily transformed into policy. On the contrary, successive administrations, adopting a “realist” policy of advancing interests instead of values, accepted dictatorial regimes as allies, as long as they were “our dictators.” Talk of democracy was there as a convenient fig leaf to camouflage such cynicism. So, what is needed today is to take the rhetoric and place it at the forefront of policy, but in tandem with a more hardnosed assessment of how to advance democracy.
Democracy will not bloom like a hundred flowers in the Middle East, but it may, in its own many imperfect forms, bloom, or be sown, in specific locations in the region, as it was in Lebanon in 2005. Based on such successes, the US, but also the European democracies, can use these countries as wedges or stepping stones toward greater change elsewhere. Interests are fine, but the most enduring interest the Western democracies have in the Middle East—and also the most enduring interest of the peoples of the region—is pluralistic democracy and free markets.
Whether this agenda should be advanced by coercion or force is more controversial. The European Union has often been derided as “speaking softly and carrying a big carrot.” Indeed, the EU has often imagined that grand political change could be brought about solely through dialogue and economic inducements. That method has failed, as the Barcelona process has shown: virtually none of Europe’s southern Mediterranean partners have become more politically liberal in the 11 years since the process was initiated, and even their economies have remained largely under the control of state institutions, regimes, or both.
The limitations of a big carrot hardly mean the US and the EU should resort to force at the turn of a hat. However, nothing but arms were ever going to remove Saddam, and nothing but coercion was going to get Syria out of Lebanon and keep it that way. Force may not be a pleasant word to describe advancing one of the more enlightened human traits—the search for liberty—but sometimes force works. And as 2006 comes to a close, as illiberal groups and states in the region reaffirm their authority in the face of US setbacks, that lesson may be one the people of the region think of more often in the not-too-distant future.