Democracy an Its Discontents
Birth pangs of freedom in the Middle East.
BY PETER WEHNER
Wednesday, August 9, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
Recent elections in the Middle East discredit the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy in that region, according to a line of argument. On "Meet the Press," Tim Russert summarized the criticism this way: "You have free elections in Iraq, and the head of the parliament calls us butchers. You have free elections in Palestine, and Hamas wins. You have elections in Lebanon, and Hezbollah wins 10, 12 seats in the parliament and two cabinet seats. Free elections are no guarantee of democracy."
George Will said this: "Elections have brought the Muslim Brotherhood into government in Egypt. Elections turned Hamas into the government of the Palestinian territories. . . . It could be that there are moments when sampling and empowering the popular will is going to empower extremism." And Time claims, "[E]lections [in the Middle East] are producing governments more hospitable to extremism, not less. Exhibit A was the election of Hamas . . ."
It's worth examining these arguments with care. It is not as if Hamas replaced the Palestinian version of the Federalist Party. Hamas defeated Fatah, which was a corrupt and brutal regime under Yasser Arafat--himself a father of the modern terrorist movement. Mahmoud Abbas is a very different man and committed to peace, but he has been unable to fundamentally reform Fatah. The Palestinian people voted against Fatah in part because of Arafat's despotism. And note: Before the election, Hamas had influence and was under no international pressure to reform its ways; today, because of elections, it is for the first time facing pressure from other nations. The worst situation of all might have been for Hamas to have influence but no responsibility for governing. Now it has responsibility--and like other governments, it should be held accountable for the choices it makes.
Hezbollah is powerful not because of the number of its parliamentary seats (14 out of 128); it is so because it is an armed, brutal militia that exists in a weak state and a fledgling democracy. Beyond that, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood were not the creation of free elections. None was radicalized by them; all were dangerous before them. It's also worth noting that radical Islamic governments have come to power through means other than the ballot. It's not as if an undemocratic Middle East is a region characterized by peace and harmony.
Elections are not the problem; rather, they reveal what problems exist and remind us what tyranny in the Middle East has wrought. Liberty is the antidote to the virus, not the virus itself. But freedom requires more time to work in the Middle East than the blink of an historical eye.
Perfection cannot be the price of support for democracy, and the fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for the effort to promote liberty. Freedom has a remarkable track record, including in regions that were once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes commitment to see it to success. We may well be present at the creation of something remarkable in the Arab world; but it will not come to pass without hardships. That is the nature of historic transitions, which can be jolting and where progress can be uneven.
In the very early days of democracy in the Middle East, we have seen the millions of purple fingers in Iraq--and we have seen the election of Hamas. There have been instances of progress and setbacks. But the one thing we know is that the status quo in the Middle East gave us bin Ladenism, which is what the administration is attempting to undo. No serious alternative strategy to the Freedom Agenda has been proposed. And the best proof of how dangerous democracy is to Islamic fascists is the energy with which they are trying to defeat it. It would be better if a vibrant democratic culture existed in nations before elections were held, but how can such a culture be created in repressive societies? Civic institutions tend not to flourish in a society where, on a daily basis, jackboots stomp on human faces. And once people are liberated, is the argument that the U.S., as the liberating power, should postpone elections for five years? 10? Longer?
Free elections are not sufficient, but they can be catalyzing. They can help build the institutions of democracy and foster civic habits. It's also worth emphasizing that democracies in the Middle East will not look like our own, because they will reflect the traditions of their own citizens. What liberty in the Middle East will ultimately require is the emergence of responsible religious and secular parties.
Do critics of democracy believe we would be significantly better off with the reign of an Arafat? Do they believe that Iraq, which consists of a freely elected, multiethnic government whose leadership is fighting terrorism instead of supporting it, was better under Saddam Hussein than it is now? Do they believe that it was better to have the Taliban control Afghanistan, not Hamid Karzai? Do they believe we should support more repression within Arab societies? In the past, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of "stability." But this gave rise to resentments, anger and an ideology of violence--and on Sept. 11, 2001, that ideology struck with deadly fury.
The people of the Middle East have for generations suffered under tyranny and been raised on hatred. Democracy and the accompanying rise in free institutions are what they deserve, and what our own security demands. The Freedom Agenda is morally compelling because liberty is better than bondage. But there is also a strong realpolitik argument in favor of the Freedom Agenda. In the words of President Bush, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world." Those who disagree with him must believe, by the power of their own logic, that continued tyranny is the route to a better world. The president has a fundamentally different view, and his remarkable effort to promote human liberty and American security sets him apart from his critics.
In his autobiography, Dean Acheson wrote about the immensity of the task the Truman administration faced after war ended in 1945, which "only slowly revealed itself. As it did so, it began to appear as just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis. That was to create a world out of chaos . . ." He wrote about the great revival of Western Europe after the war--and of the "deepening gloom" and the "spirit of defeatism" that engulfed many people during the conflict with North Korea. Secretary Acheson's goal was to "tell a tale of large conceptions, great achievements, and some failures, the product of enormous will and effort."
We face a similar moment. The difficulties are just as formidable, the stakes just as high, the critics just as vocal, and the imperative for success just as vital.
Mr. Wehner is deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives.