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This is where Iraq proved to be a failure for a large number of Arab and Western liberals. Most of them had blithely tolerated Saddam Hussein in his genocidal heyday; only when America got involved did they sharpen their quills to angrily denounce Bush’s war. Rare were those who, like Paul Berman, Kanan Makiya, and Christopher Hitchens, saw Iraq as a new chapter in that persistent conflict that had resumed on September 11, 2001: an ideological war pitting liberal humanism against totalitarianism, disguised as murderous Islamism or Arab nationalism. Rare were those who interpreted the Iraqi endeavor as anything more than a crude bid for power in which ideas served only to conceal American perfidy.
Even if predictions of postwar mismanagement in Iraq proved to be correct, the stakes required rising above recrimination. Arab liberals in particular missed an exceptional opportunity to advance their cause. They needn’t have applauded the U.S., but they could have supported its efforts to bring Iraq normality, for the Iraqis’ sake. They could have backed the emergence of a pluralist Arab country from which they might later draw sustenance. They could have admitted that a strengthened Iraq was better able to push the Americans out than a weak and divided one. But they could never see beyond America. America became their obsession. In April 2003, one of their leading lights, Edward Said, wrote: “What seems so monumentally criminal is that good, useful words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ have been hijacked, pressed into service as [an American] mask for pillage, muscling in on territory, and the settling of scores.” Like many of his peers, Said missed the deeper issue: whether Arabs could shape a durable, tolerant, democratic system to replace the appalling, failed kleptocracies pullulating in the region, the very regimes that oppressed them on a daily basis. They couldn’t grasp that America’s failure in this regard was also theirs.
Like any war, Iraq has become a graveyard for certainties. Those arguing that the country could become a regional bastion of democratic transformation have a duty to consider contrary arguments; this goes for opponents of the assertion as well. Maybe it was inevitable that the strongest forces to emerge in postwar Iraq would be religious or ethnic parties; but maybe, too, the American delay in giving secular Iraqi representatives more power after the military victory ensured that the mullahs and leaders of armed militias would fill the vacuum when Bremer, under pressure from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, agreed to a transitional political process in which secular liberals were at a decisive disadvantage. But that’s different from stating that democracy has failed in Iraq; if anything, it may have succeeded too well.
Last year something happened that proved Iraq could bolster freedom elsewhere in the region: Lebanon finally rid itself of Syrian rule, after weeks of massive popular demonstrations following the murder of a former prime minister. Critics of the Bush administration denied this development was a response to the January 2005 Iraqi elections or part of a regional democratic groundswell. But the Lebanese undoubtedly drew confidence from the courage of the Iraqis, the presence of American forces on Syria’s border, and the fact that this presence pushed Lebanon higher up on Washington’s agenda.
Democracy in the Middle East will not simultaneously break out in different places, as it did in Eastern Europe. It can only advance if the U.S. makes it a top foreign policy priority, shows a willingness to use a combination of incentives and coercion to bring it about, and consolidates and defends democracy in specific countries, before using these as platforms to push for transformation elsewhere. The effort requires patience, subtlety, and a willingness to accept that American foes may also profit from more liberty. Why should Arab democracy matter to the U.S.? Because of 9/11. Berman was right when he wrote, in his 2003 essay Terror and Liberalism: “In the anti-nihilist system, freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for the freedom of others.”
What’s next for Iraq? I feel no confidence making predictions from Beirut. Iraqi society has shown more resilience than it has been given credit for, and it is keen to avoid the wasteland of full-scale civil war. Inter-sectarian killings will continue, which may make it seem like civil war has already started. But war is more than killing; it requires a vast leviathan that can sustain the carnage, fund it, and mobilize society while keeping the unhappy in line. Such machinery is not fully in place in Iraq, which is, provisionally, good news. As for the U.S., the question is no longer whether it must leave Iraq, but whether the administration has the will to stay and defend its gains there. As talk of civil war escalates, would Americans agree to send more troops to avert disaster? No. Psychologically, no matter how many soldiers remain in Iraq, many in the U.S. have already headed for the exits.
This doesn’t bode well for open societies in the Middle East.
You Can’t Bring Order to the Middle East
After a storm, be it political or meteorological, passes over the Middle East, the region returns to its eternal stillness. The people come out of hiding, remove the sand from their faces, and return to the desert’s routine: the daily struggle over water wells and grazing spaces. The desert’s tribes go back to the ritual of signing and breaking alliances, and their leaders meet at night before the fire to contemplate the next raid against their hostile neighbors.
If an American guest is there, he’ll be treated to another ritual of Middle Eastern hospitality. The tribe’s elders listen to his advice and nod with polite approval as the foreigner, the child of some faraway green pasture land, suggests that the time has come to replace despotic rule with liberal government and primal desert hatred with eternal peace. As the American guest outlines his vision of a new Middle Eastern order in a Power Point presentation, the Arab elders recall the foreigners who have passed through the region: the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the British, the French, and now the Americans.
Those foreigners hoped to recreate the Middle East in their own image, only to retreat from the region humiliated and exhausted, leaving nothing more than their imprint on the archaeological record. (“And this is a relic of Baghdad’s Green Zone, which the Americans had constructed around 200 years ago, several decades before the start of the Chinese Era.…”)
Washington is finding that notwithstanding all the great expectations, the post-Saddam Middle East looks quite familiar. The stable, democratic Iraq that would serve as a shining model for the entire Middle East and its peripheries has failed to materialize.
Following the end of the Gulf War in 1991, Washington also expected a new American-led order would arise in the region. The Madrid Peace Conference and the ensuing Oslo peace process were supposed to lay the foundations for a New Middle East, in which Israelis and Palestinians would make peace and the region would be integrated into the expanding and prosperous global economy, with young and hip Israelis and Palestinians making money, surfing the Internet, watching MTV, and launching high-tech start-ups in Israel’s Silicon Wadi. That was the vision promoted by Shimon Peres and echoed by America’s leading fan of globalization and Oslo, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
Ten years later it is mostly the same old Middle East. Notwithstanding the neoconservative dreams of unleashing a democratic revolution in Iran, the ayatollahs are still in power in Teheran and the radicals there seem to be strengthening their grip. The Hashemites are still in control in Jordan with its Palestinian majority, and their traditional rivals, the Saudis, remain firmly in control of their oil-rich country. The military is still in charge in Egypt, and authoritarian regimes, “soft” and “hard,” are in power all over the Arab world.