Et nytt Midtøsten?

Endringene i Midtøsten får mange observatører til å stille spørsmål ved vedtatte sannheter om USAs utenrikspolitikk. Amerikanske American Enterprise Institute (AEI) utgir nå et temanummer om endringene. Hvordan tenker Bush-administrasjonen – «What makes them tick?», er interessant og ofte lite nyansert gjengitt i europeiske medier

In the Middle East, a New World

«It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.» 

-Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt, in the Washington Post

«A long-frozen political order seems to be cracking all over the Middle East…. This has so far been a year of heartening surprises–each one remarkable in itself, and taken together truly astonishing.» 

New York Times editorial

«More-aggressive U.S. policies in the Middle East–from the invasion of Iraq to President Bush’s rhetoric about fostering democracy–are mingling with local politics to jostle once-unquestioned realities in the region.»

Wall Street Journal news story

«As thousands of Arabs demonstrated for freedom and democracy…it was hard not to wonder whether the regional transformation that the Bush administration hoped would be touched off by its invasion of Iraq is beginning to happen…. Those who have declared the war an irretrievable catastrophe have been gloating for at least a year over the supposed puncturing of what they portray as President Bush’s fanciful illusion that democracy would take root in Iraq and spread through the region…. Clearly the Arab autocrats don’t regard the Bush dream of democratic dominoes as fanciful…. Less than two years after Saddam Hussein was deposed…Arabs are marching for freedom and shouting slogans against tyrants in the streets of Beirut and Cairo–and regimes that have endured for decades are visibly tottering. Those who claimed that U.S. intervention could never produce such events have reason to reconsider.»

Washington Post column by Jackson Diehl


The bandwagon is starting to fill–and thank goodness for that.

Those of us who spent much of 2003 and 2004 urging Americans not to give up on Iraq can attest that those two years were stained with many harsh attacks, much niggling criticism, and abundant disdain for America’s aggressive efforts to reshape the dysfunctional governments of the Middle East into more humane and peaceful forms. From the very beginning, of course, the Bush administration’s left-wing enemies in the U.S. and Europe were hysterically opposed to the push for Middle Eastern democracy. A significant number of right-wing pundits also proved themselves to be sunshine patriots of the worst sort–bailing out of the hard, dirty work of war and cultural transformation as soon as the predictable resistance arose.

But that’s politics. In Washington, if you’re looking for a brave and steadfast ally, you need to buy a dog. Fortunately our warriors battling away in Najaf and Samarra and Anbar province didn’t surrender to the Beltway gloom that defeated most of our media and political elites.

Everyday Americans also proved sturdier than our chattering class. They stayed with the fight long enough for some hard facts to emerge. Now some very good news is obvious to all who have eyes: We are not facing a popular revolt in Iraq. Average Arabs are not on the side of terrorists and Islamic radicals. America‘s venture to defang the Middle East is neither the cynical and selfish oil grab that the lunatic Left have claimed, nor a dreamy and doomed Don Quixote crusade as some conservative grumps insisted.

So here, at last, come the soldiers of the «me too» brigade. Even the French have joined in. They’re sending one man (yes, one) to help train Iraqi security forces. And he’s welcome. Victory is magnanimous.

I do not (as those of you who have read my books about the war know) claim that happy days are here again, that the future will bring nothing but a cheery whirl of American marshmallow roasts with the lovely people of the Middle East. For my entire lifetime, this has been the worst-governed part of the planet. Its economic policies are in a photo finish with Africa‘s as the globe’s most counterproductive. Ignorance and illiteracy are widespread, and Middle Easterners nurse more superstitions, blood feuds, and ugly prejudices than any people I have ever traveled and worked among.

But that’s exactly why America finally plunged in to help drain this swamp and plant seeds for a healthier future. The paralyzing error of «don’t rock the boat» types like Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Pat Buchanan, Richard Clarke, and others who attacked the Iraq war as overambitious is the assumption that political and economic freedom can be brought to the Middle East only after it is already full of Rotary clubs and Wal-Marts. Note to so-called «realists»: You’ve got your causation all backwards. It is liberty that creates peace, stability, and decency in a nation–not the reverse. If you wait until a country is serene and prosperous before introducing political and economic freedom, you will wait forever.

Many daunting obstacles still lay ahead in the Middle East. Notice that the lead article in this issue, by Steven Vincent, warns how important it is that moderates in the Muslim world wrest control of their religion from the extremists who presently have far too much influence. In a chapter called «The Character Test» and elsewhere in Dawn Over Baghdad, I discuss some of the cultural baggage that Middle Easterners need to discard as they become self-ruling: pervasive dishonesty and graft, a shortage of altruism, destructive paranoia, widespread passivity and sloth, a weak ethic of personal responsibility, an attraction to strongmen.

Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese politican I quote welcoming democracy at the top of this essay, has periodically made nasty cracks about the U.S., Jews, and Western mores. When an Iraqi hotel was rocketed a year and a half ago while U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was sleeping in it, Jumblatt remarked that it was too bad Wolfowitz escaped. This is not a man most Americans would want their daughter to marry. But that’s not the right test. A new generation of elected Middle Eastern leaders doesn’t have to love us. We can be thrilled that they will simply leave us alone, and (by treating their own people better than today’s despots) stop turning out young men so homicidally frustrated with their lot in life as to become killers.

America’s struggle with incivility from the Middle East will continue in the years ahead, and we will have to hold our noses at times as the various countries in the region make their way from fascistic to freely elected governance. In Lebanon, for instance, even after the Syrian thugocracy is ejected, the country will have to figure out how to assimilate into a peaceful national politics the substantial minority of Lebanese who support the atrocious locally based terrorist group Hezbollah.

Nearly every Muslim country has a potentially troublesome extremist minority; in some of them it is big enough to influence the government. Even Turkey, traditionally one of the most moderate Islamic nations, is currently run by a party that throws around ludicrous allegations that the U.S. harvests Iraqi organs for sale back home, is secretly injecting Christianity and Judaism into Muslim countries, and so forth. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan tried to paint the January balloting in Iraq as illegitimate, until the Iraqis themselves put the lie to that.

But these sorts of shrieks and shouts are how democracies blow off steam and gradually fold discontented factions into national compromises. Demagogic politicians, newspaper lies, and popular conspiracy theories are part and parcel of life in every nation with free politics. Ever heard of Al Sharpton? Over the long run, I’ll say again, participatory government works as an antidote to political extremism, not an enabler.

I’ll never forget the day I received the results of Iraq’s first scientific national opinion poll, which we at The American Enterprise wrote and conducted in August 2003. Beneath the noise and bluster typical of Middle Eastern politics, I could see in the data the outlines of a large silent majority in Iraq that is much more sensible than one would guess from media portrayals. In a September news conference where we released the findings, we pointed out that two thirds of Iraqis did not want an Islamic theocracy, that three quarters of the public wanted Saddam’s Baathist cronies punished, that Iraqi opinion of Osama bin Laden was far more negative than positive, that Iraqis’ favorite model for a new government was the U.S. (All information subsequently published in our December 2003 issue.)

In a chapter of Dawn Over Baghdad titled «What Ordinary Iraqis Want,» including subsections «No Need for Nightmares,» «The Un-Fanatics,» and «Unpopular Insurgents,» I reiterated many of these points, and added observations (drawn from my time spent in Iraq’s Shiite southern half) on the relative moderation of Iraq’s majority Shias. Over the past year, AEI Islamic expert Reuel Gerecht has made many similar points. On page 40 of this issue, he contributes an encouraging analysis of Shiite intentions (the «$64,000 Question» of Iraqi politics). Alas, non-dire views like these were mostly ignored or discounted during the feeding frenzy of media negativity and defeatism that took hold shortly after the liberation of Baghdad and dominated Iraq reporting right up until the January election.

Thankfully, the election finally exposed the falsity of claims that Iraqis were unwilling participants in America‘s liberation of their country. It can no longer be denied that the vast majority of Iraqis oppose the terrorists. Our Eeyores have now shifted their worries, however, to the idea that Iraqis are likely to repeat the Iranian nightmare and veer into mullah-ridden theocracy.

Not likely. It isn’t just that Iraqis have the benefit of knowing what a mess the clerics produced in Iran. It isn’t just that Iraq‘s Kurds would put the brakes on any such attempt. It isn’t just the repeated assurances by leading Shiites that they have no intention of imposing Islamic law on the country, and want to encompass all of Iraq‘s many peoples in the government they will lead. What is perhaps most soothing is seeing who exactly the Shiites are pushing forth as their representatives. The parliamentarians backed by Ayatollah Sistani include many Western-educated professionals, scientists,representatives of all ethnic and religious groups, and diverse points of view, even former communists and ex-monarchists. Most strikingly, one out of every three nominees is female–an utterly un-Khomeini-ish statement.

The man asked by Sistani to recruit election candidates, Hussein Shahrestani, is a nuclear physicist–hardly someone at cross purposes with modernity. After being tortured by Saddam, he escaped to Iran, where he was sufficiently put off by the ruling clergy that he fled again to Britain. He may not exactly be a NASCAR dad, but this is the kind of Iraqi Americans can work with, and live next to.

The forbearance that Iraq‘s Shiites have demonstrated over the last year strikes me as heroically impressive. Despite scores of horrible provocations–terrorists blasting weddings, shrines, beloved leaders, all in the hope of inciting a backlash that might spark an Iraqi civil war–the Shia have refused to retaliate or match tit for tat (as the longstanding Arab tradition of vengeance calls for). Clearly, a critical mass of Iraqis are ready to experiment with political tolerance and pluralism for the first time ever.

While a replay of the Khomeini nightmare seems dubious, we should keep our expectations modest when it comes to the newly emerging politics of the Arab world. In particular, we need to give Iraq‘s Shiites room to be Shiites. Many of the people the Iraqis choose as their leaders will not look or sound like Western politicians. The constitution they will draft this year is not likely to be one that Americans would want to live under. Some new Iraqi laws will make us squeamish. All this we must accept.

Introducing democracy does not mean that other people must remake themselves in our image. Beyond respecting basic human dignities, Iraqis should have the right to shape their society as they see best–including basing it on traditional Islamic precepts if they choose. We in the West must not anathematize Islamic law; our goal should instead be to housebreak Islamic fundamentalism, to link it to democratic due process so that the potential for tyrannizing and bellicosity is tamed out of it.

The first Islamic democracies are not likely to be places where we would be tempted to take our kids for vacation. Even the friendliest ones will sometimes be rhetorically quite anti-American. Then again, so is France. We don’t need affection from Middle Easterners; we need only peace.

Besides, there are plenty of social questions where modern Western solutions may not necessarily be the best ones. If Islamic nations choose to ban pornography, if they want a different balance between work and leisure, if they prefer their own patterns of family life, Americans should be perfectly satisfied to let them follow an alternate path. There are some forms of «enlightenment» that other nations could be better off without, as this amusing anecdote from Deepak Lal’s new book In Praise of Empires indicates:

In 1995 I was staying in Beijing with the Indian ambassador to China. Beijing was hosting a U.N. Conference on Women, and the large number of female delegates were housed in a large tent city. One night the ambassador was woken by an agitated Chinese official asking him to rush to the tent city, as the Indian delegates were rioting. On getting there he found that the trouble began when some American delegates went into the tents of their Third World sisters and tried to initiate them into the joys of gay sex. With the Indians in the lead, the Third World women chased the American women out of their tents, beating them with their slippers.

In general, however, the U.S. can be very proud of the «cultural imperialism» it has practiced in the Middle East over the last three years. We have brought political freedom to places that had never tasted such in 10,000 years of local history. «It is outrageous and amazing that the first free and general elections in the history of the Arab nation are to take place in Iraq, under the auspices of the American occupation, and in Palestine, under the auspices of the Israeli occupation,» commented Salameh Nematt in the Arabic daily Dar Al-Hayat.


Of course the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all that has followed in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, didn’t just happen. They required enormous acts of American will. Anyone who thinks these breakthroughs would have occurred under a Commander in Chief less bold and stubborn than George W. Bush is mad.


The fresh hope now pulsing through the Middle East is not the result of diplomacy, or U.N. programs, or foreign aid, or expanded trade, or carrots offered by Europeans, or multilateral negotiations, or visits from Sean Penn. It is the fruit of fierce U.S. military strength, real toughness on the part of the middle American public, and a tremendous hardness in the person of our President and his staff.


As I write this, amidst a beautiful March blizzard, I am gulping tea from a mug emblazoned with the shield of one of the U.S. military units I spent time with in Iraq, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines. Their motto reads: «MAKE PEACE, OR DIE.» Since 9/11, that is exactly the offer we’ve extended to thousands of terrorists and a handful of governments. And it has worked. Sometimes America‘s message needs to be just that simple.


Luckily, our country had a leader willing to communicate this clearly, and the steeliness to shoulder the losses that come with any righteous war, exactly when we needed him. There were a thousand points where the democracy train now pulling into the Middle East could have gone off the tracks. The only reason we made it through the handwringing of 2003 and 2004 was because the engineer had nerve.


This is finally being acknowledged even by George Bush’s enemies: «The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances. It boldly proclaimed the cause of Middle East democracy at a time when few in the West thought it had any realistic chance,» conceded the New York Times on March 1, 2005, with the concluding understatement that «there could have been no democratic elections in Iraq this January if Saddam Hussein had still been in power.»


That same week, Der Spiegel, the German weekly that two years ago was part of the European crusade against the U.S. liberation of Iraq, offered a similar rethinking, with some historical comparison to an earlier U.S.-Europe schism:

President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Berlin in 1987 was, in many respects, very similar to President George W. Bush’s visit to Mainz on Wednesday…. The Germany Reagan was traveling in, much like today’s Germany, was very skeptical of the American President and his foreign policy. When Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate…and demanded that Gorbachev «tear down this Wall,» he was lampooned the next day on the editorial pages. He is a dreamer, wrote commentators…. Most experts agreed that his demand for the removal of the Wall was inopportune, utopian, and crazy. Yet three years later, East Germany had disappeared from the map…. Just a thought for Old Europe to chew on: Bush might be right, just like Reagan was then.

While we’re distributing credit, the next bouquet needs to go to the everyday people of the Mideast. They have demonstrated, at times bravely, that even in long-suffering hell-holes like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, there are many reasonable citizens willing to stand up for goodness. In missing this human reality, the timid, faithless, and sometimes craven «realists» who spent the last few years scorning the idea of democracy in the Middle East made a fundamental misjudgment. Their deepest error–something this magazine warns against in nearly every issue–is to place undeserved confidence in the opinions of elites, while doubting the political wisdom of the common man. My colleague Leon Aron, an authority on the former Soviet Union, recently wrote sagely on this topic:

The strength of the democratic impulse should never be underestimated. Again and again, liberty’s appeal has proved powerful enough to overcome great obstacles. Elites, professing to know how the masses really feel, have time and again predicted disillusionment with democracy and its abandonment by the citizens of poor nations. Yet, in the past decade, nearly all fledgling democracies have resisted slipping back into authoritarianism. As always in matters of liberty, ordinary people have proved far wiser, and infinitely more patient, than intellectuals. Today’s emerging democracies have shown remarkable resilience under harsh conditions. The voters in these poor and incomplete democracies seem to have grasped–as have few journalists or experts–the essence of Isaiah Berlin‘s adage: «Liberty is liberty, not equality, or justice, or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.» Democracy itself, even amidst hardship, is cherished by consistent and solid majorities. 

Today’s snobs are just the latest in a long train of doubters of ordinary citizens. Almost 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln battled such men while campaigning for the Senate. In a speech that has been wonderfully preserved in handwritten form, with Lincoln‘s spoken emphases underlined by him in ink (and replicated in the extract below) the first Republican President said this:

Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men…Ours began by affirming those rights.
They said some men are too ignorant and vicious to share in government. Possibly so, said we; and by your system, you would always keep them ignorant and vicious.
We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant wiser, and all better, and happier together.  

That’s a pointed endorsement of the power of democratic self-responsibility to elevate both individuals and societies. And it’s as relevant to today’s Middle East as it was to slaveholding America.


Of course, good everyday citizens will only raise their hands if someone first suppresses the bullies in their midst. The reason reformers in the Middle East are finally coming out of the woodwork is because, as a Washington Post column recently acknowledged, «the new U.S. democratization policy, far from being an unwanted imposition, has given them a voice, an audience, and at least a partial shield against repression–three things they didn’t have a year ago.» Which brings us to our third set of heroes: U.S. fighting forces.


In the Middle East, as in most places where democracy has taken root, the ballot inspectors, television commentators, cajoling politicians, and buzzing new parliaments were all preceded by a vital prerequisite: some good men with rifles. In this case, good men from places like Mohrsville, Pennsylvania; Stockton, California; Round Rock, Texas; and Saranac Lake, New York. All the lilting speeches and learned counsel, the grand plans and inspiring coalitions are just will-o’-the-wisps until someone brave does the difficult duty of establishing the ground rules of liberty. Let us never forget that peace and freedom start with superior firepower.


There is little grandeur in that work. No one gets wealthy doing it. Some of the servicemen have only a hazy notion of the deeper stakes they are fighting for.


But those who reported for duty, including many who suffered and died, are now being paid in the transcendent coin of having created one of history’s turning points. Look again at the cover of this magazine. That simple flat map depicts tens of millions of human lives in the process of radical transformation. Those black voids represent dark breeding grounds of terror and economic destruction and mass homicide–and nearly every one of them is now in the process of brightening. This we owe to our GIs.


Many others are in their debt as well. Though his words got little attention from the U.S. media, who are more interested in morbidity and failure, new Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke for millions of people around the globe when he said this at his inauguration on December 7, 2004:

Whatever we have achieved in Afghanistan–the peace, the election, the reconstruction, the life that the Afghans are living today in peace, the children going to school, the businesses, the fact that Afghanistan is again a respected member of the international community–is from the help that the United States of America gave us. Without that help, Afghanistan would be in the hands of terrorists–destroyed, poverty-stricken, and without its children going to school or getting an education. We are very, very grateful, to put it in the simple words that we know, to the people of the United States of America for bringing us this day.

Karl Zinsmeister is TAE editor in chief.


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