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The Democracy Lie

President Bush and his supporters are taking credit for spreading freedom across the Middle East. But where changes are genuinely occurring they have nothing to do with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
 
 
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Is George W. Bush right to argue that his war to overthrow Saddam Hussein is democratizing the Middle East? In the wake of the Iraq vote, anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon, the Egyptian president's gestures toward open elections and other recent developments, a chorus of conservative pundits has declared that Bush's policy has been vindicated. Max Boot wrote in the Los Angeles Times , "Well, who's the simpleton now? Those who dreamed of spreading democracy to the Arabs or those who denied that it could ever happen?" In a column subtitled "One Man, One Gloat," Mark Steyn wrote, "I got a lot of things wrong these last three years, but looking at events in the Middle East this last week ... I got the big stuff right." Even some of the president's detractors and those opposed to the war have issued mea culpas. Richard Gwyn of the Toronto Star , a Bush critic, wrote, "It is time to set down in type the most difficult sentence in the English language. That sentence is short and simple. It is this: Bush was right."

Before examining whether there is any value to these claims, it must be pointed out that the Bush administration did not invade Iraq to spread democracy. The justification for the war was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda—both of which claims have proved to be false. And even if one accepts the argument that the war resulted, intentionally or not, in the spread of democracy, serious ethical questions would remain about whether it was justified. For the purposes of this argument, however, let's leave that issue aside. It's true that neoconservative strategists in the Bush administration argued after 9/11 that authoritarian governments in the region were producing terrorism and that only democratization could hope to reduce it. Although they didn't justify invading Iraq on those grounds, they held that removing Saddam and holding elections would make Iraq a shining beacon that would provoke a transformation of the region as other countries emulated it.

Practically speaking, there are only two plausible explanations for Bush's alleged influence: direct intervention or pressure, and the supposed inspiration flowing from the Iraq demonstration project. Has either actually been effective?

First, it must be said that Washington's Iraq policy, contrary to its defenders' arguments, is not innovative. In fact, regime change in the Middle East has often come about through foreign invasion. Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser intervened militarily to help revolutionaries overthrow the Shiite imam of Yemen in the 1960s. The Israelis expelled the PLO from Lebanon and tried to establish a pro-Israeli government in Beirut in 1982. Saddam Hussein briefly ejected the Kuwaiti monarchy in 1990. The U.S. military's invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein were therefore nothing new in Middle Eastern history. A peaceful evolution toward democracy would have been an innovation.

Has Bush's direct pressure produced results, outside Iraq—where it has produced something close to a failed state? His partisans point to the Libyan renunciation of its nuclear weapons program and of terrorism. Yet Libya, hurt by economic sanctions, had been pursuing a rapprochement for years. Nor has Gadhafi moved Libya toward democracy.

Washington has put enormous pressure on Iran and Syria since the fall of Saddam, with little obvious effect. Since the United States invaded Iraq, the Iranian regime has actually become less open, clamping down on a dispirited reform movement and excluding thousands of candidates from running in parliamentary elections. The Baath in Syria shows no sign of ceasing to operate as a one-party regime. When pressured, it has offered up slightly more cooperation in capturing Iraqi Baathists. Its partial withdrawal from Lebanon came about because of local and international pressures, including that of France and the Arab League, and is hardly a unilateral Bush administration triumph.

What of the argument of inspiration? The modern history of the Middle East does not suggest that politics travels very much from one country to another. The region is a hodgepodge of absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies and republics, characterized by varying degrees of authoritarianism. Few regimes have had an effect on neighbors by setting an example. Ataturk's adoption of a militant secularism in Turkey from the 1920s had no resonance in the Arab world. The Lebanese confessional political system, which attempted to balance the country's many religious communities after independence in 1943, remains unique. Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution did not inspire a string of clerically ruled regimes.

Is Iraq even really much of a model? The Bush administration strove to avoid having one-person, one-vote elections in Iraq, which were finally forced on Washington by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Despite the U.S. backing for secularists, the winners of the election were the fundamentalist Shiite Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Nor were the elections themselves all that exemplary. The country is in flames, racked by a guerrilla war, a continual crime wave and a foreign military occupation. The security situation was so bad that the candidates running for office could not reveal their identities until the day before the election, and the entire country was put under a sort of curfew for three days, with all vehicular traffic forbidden.

The argument for change through inspiration has little evidence to underpin it. The changes in the region cited as dividends of the Bush Iraq policy are either chimeras or unconnected to Iraq. And the Bush administration has shown no signs that it will push for democracy in countries where freedom of choice would lead to outcomes unfavorable to U.S. interests.

Saudi Arabia held municipal elections in February. Voters were permitted to choose only half the members of the city councils, however, and the fundamentalists did well. The other half are appointed by the monarchy, as are the mayors. The Gulf absolute monarchies remain absolute monarchies. Authoritarian states such as that in Ben Ali's Tunisia show no evidence of changing, and a Bush administration worried about al Qaeda has authorized further crackdowns on radical Muslim groups.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently announced that he would allow other candidates to run against him in the next presidential election. Yet only candidates from officially recognized parties will be allowed. Parties are recognized by Parliament, which is dominated by Mubarak's National Democratic Party. This change moves Egypt closer to the system of presidential elections used in Iran, where only candidates vetted by the government can run. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most important opposition party, is excluded from fielding candidates under its own name. Egypt is less open today than it was in the 1980s, with far more political offices appointed by the president, and with far fewer opposition members in Parliament, than was the case two decades ago. As with the so-called municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, the change in presidential elections is little more than window-dressing. It was provoked not by developments in Iraq but rather by protests by Egyptian oppositionists who resented Mubarak's jailing of a political rival in January.

The dramatic developments in Lebanon since mid-February were set off by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Lebanese political opposition blamed Syria for the bombing, though all the evidence is not in. Protests by Maronite Christians, Druze and a section of Sunni Muslims (Hariri was a Sunni) briefly brought down the government of the pro-Syrian premier, Omar Karami. The protesters demanded a withdrawal from the country of Syrian troops, which had been there since 1976 in an attempt to calm the country's civil war. Bush also wants Syria out of Lebanon, in part because such a move would strengthen the hand of his ally, Israel. Pro-Bush commentators dubbed the Beirut movement the "Cedar Revolution," but Lebanon remains a far more divided society and its politics far more ambiguous than was the case in the post-Soviet Czech Republic and Ukraine.

On March 9, the Shiite Hezbollah Party held massive pro-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut that dwarfed the earlier opposition rallies. A majority of Parliament members wanted to bring back Karami. Both the Hezbollah street demonstrations and the elected Parliament's internal consensus produced a pro-Syrian outcome obnoxious to the Bush administration. Since then the opposition has staged its own massive demonstrations, rivaling Hezbollah's.

So far, these demonstrations and counterdemonstrations have been remarkable in their peacefulness and in the frankness of their political aims. But rather than reference Washington, they point to the weakness and ineptness of the young Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who made the error of tinkering with the Lebanese constitution to extend the term of the pro-Syrian president, Gen. Emile Lahoud. Although some manipulative (and traditionally anti-American) opposition figures attempted to invoke Iraq to justify their movement, in hopes of attracting U.S. support, it is hard to see what these events in Lebanon could possibly have to do with Baghdad. Lebanese have been holding lively parliamentary campaigns for decades, and the flawed, anonymous Jan. 30 elections in Iraq would have provoked more pity than admiration in urbane, sophisticated Beirutis.

Ironically, most democratization in the region has been pursued without reference to the United States. Some Middle Eastern regimes began experimenting with parliamentary elections years ago. For example, Jordan began holding elections in 1989, and Yemen held its third round of such elections in 2003. Morocco and Bahrain had elections in 2002. All of those elections were more transparent than, and superior as democratic processes to, the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq. They all had flaws, of course. The monarch or ruler typically places restraints on popular sovereignty. The prime minister is not elected by Parliament, but rather appointed by the ruler. Some of these parliaments may evolve in a more democratic direction over time, but if they do it will be for local reasons, not because of anything that has happened in Baghdad.

The Bush administration could genuinely push for the peaceful democratization of the region by simply showing some gumption and stepping in to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. There are, undeniably, large numbers of middle- and working-class people in the Middle East who seek more popular participation in government. Arab intellectuals are, however, often coded as mere American and Israeli puppets when they dare speak against authoritarian practices.

As it is, the Bush administration is widely seen in the region as hypocritical, backing Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and of the Golan Heights (the latter belonging to Syria) while pressuring Syria about its troops in Lebanon, into which Kissinger had invited Damascus years ago. Bush would be on stronger ground as a champion of liberty if he helped liberate the Palestinians from military occupation and creeping Israeli colonization, and if he brokered the return of the Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms to Damascus in return for peace between Syria and Israel. The end of Israeli occupation of the territory of neighbors would deprive the radical Shiite party in Lebanon, Hezbollah, of its ability to mobilize Lebanese youth against this injustice. Without decisive action on the Arab-Israeli front, Bush risks having his democratization rhetoric viewed as a mere stalking horse for neoimperial domination.

Bush's invasion of Iraq has left the center and north of the country in a state of long-term guerrilla war. It has also opened Iraq to a form of parliamentary politics dominated by Muslim fundamentalists. This combination has little appeal elsewhere in the region. The Middle East may open up politically, and no doubt Bush will try to claim credit for any steps in that direction. But in Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere, such steps much predated Bush, and these publics will be struggling for their rights long after he is out of office. They may well see his major legacy not as democratization but as studied inattention to military occupation in Palestine and the Golan, and the retrenchment in civil liberties authorized to the Yemeni, Tunisian and other governments in the name of fighting terrorism.

Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. He runs a blog on Middle Eastern affairs called  Informed Comment . This article first appeared on Salon.com.