The 'debate' in the US has become truly nutty when it comes to the Middle East. The idea that the American establishment wants to bring real democracy to the Middle East runs counter to everything the Americans have done for decades to prop-up Kings and dictators, and to really support police states and ever-increasing repression. Words are only a substitute for reality in the US it seems, where most Americans have no idea what is really going on in the Middle East nor in their foreign policy.
Wilsonian Course for War
By David Ignatius
Friday, August 30, 2002; Page A23
An intriguing aspect of the Great Mideast Debate is that a role reversal seems to have taken place: The conservatives are sounding like Woodrow Wilson-style liberal internationalists in their passion for extending democracy to the Arabs, whatever the risks, while the liberals have become the voice of cautious, status quo conservatism.
Regarding Iraq itself, the noisy debate within the Bush extended family seems to have been settled this week by Vice President Cheney, whose speech Monday left no doubt that the president is committed to toppling Saddam Hussein, sooner rather than later.
After his speech, even the French government was reported to have resigned itself to the Bush administration's war planning. If Cheney's goal was to stop the sense of drift and disorder within the Bush camp, he probably succeeded.
What the Bush administration needs to do now is fashion a strategy for the Middle East in which its strike against Iraq won't seem crazy, but part of a sensible plan for a new and stable order in the Middle East. That shouldn't be impossible; the status quo, after all, is a mess -- and has been for decades.
That's the problem with those who argue for caution and inaction. They're defending a status quo that's rotten -- one that has left the Arab world perpetually unstable, and one in which U.S. interests seem constantly at risk. A new order would benefit everyone, most of all the Arabs.
But how to get there? The wisest comment I've heard recently came from French defense analyst Francois Heisbourg. He observed this week that if the administration is serious about bringing democracy to the Middle East, it shouldn't be thinking in terms of a battle that lasts six months or a year, but of one that requires a decade or more. In that sense, this conflict is the equivalent of the Cold War: a careful, patient struggle rather than a quick firefight.
The way to begin this long campaign for democracy, argues Heisbourg, is to make human rights an issue in every meeting the United States and European nations have with each Arab state. That's the kind of slow and steady pressure that produced the Sakharovs and Sharanskys who transformed the Soviet Union.
Right now, the Arab world lacks the tools of democratic expression. There are few uncensored newspapers, parliaments or other forums where people can criticize their leaders or debate policy. That's why political life is so fragile in the Arab world, and part of why people often turn to the mosque to express dissent. And it's why the shrill voices on al-Jazeera television are so popular; it's the Arab version of reality TV. Changing this landscape, which analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht refers to as "the post-Ottoman morass," will take many years. It will require a network of nongovernmental organizations, political parties and other pro-democracy groups that can compete with the al Qaeda network. If these groups succeed in rallying ordinary Arabs to their cause, they will transform all the Arab nations, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Algeria. If they fail, well, in the end, that's a problem for the Arabs themselves.
Here is where the left and right should converge -- in supporting democracy and human rights across the Arab world. America doesn't need to go to war (beyond Iraq) or topple governments willy-nilly. It just needs to be true to its values, and never deviate from its long-term strategy for the sake of preserving the status quo. How the Arab world and Iran will respond to U.S. moves against Hussein is hard to predict. There will be some big risks, and also some big opportunities, but we won't really know in advance. That's why it's crucial that U.S. strategy be rooted in fundamental values, rather than short-term interests. A democratic Arab world, almost by definition, should pose less of a threat to Israel. For that reason, Israel should be willing to pay a price to achieve this more stable environment, by helping the Palestinians create a democratic state of their own. The necessary compromises -- on settlements and other issues -- will be hard for the Israelis, but the potential benefits are worth it.
U.S. policymakers should adapt one of Warren Buffet's investment tips. Foreign policy (along with investing) is like a baseball game, where the batter can wait as long as he wants for the pitch that's just right and then hit it out of the park. That approach takes patience and steady nerves, but it pays off. Changing the Arab world doesn't have to be as crazy a process as it sometimes sounds. It may be a Wilsonian ideal, but it's rooted in a fact of realpolitik: What exists now isn't working well for anyone. A careful, sensible plan for democratic change in the Middle East deserves support from liberals and conservatives, from dreamers and realists, from Americans and Europeans -- and especially from Arabs and Israelis.