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Ivan Eland: Morning in the Islamic World?

Morning in the Islamic World?

By Ivan Eland*
March 14, 2005

President Bush has been crowing about how the policies of his administration are responsible for ''democratic'' developments in the Islamic world, but like most politicians, he is claiming credit for progress that has been overstated, that he had little to do with, and that may likely be reversed.

In his second inaugural address, President Bush loudly proclaimed his desire to democratize the world. But Bush's touting of his progress toward this goal, and the media's willingness to indulge in the democratic euphoria, are misplaced.

In Iraq, a democratic election was held more than a month and a half ago, but no government has yet been formed. This delay is one indicator of the depth of Iraq's ethnic and religious cleavages. Another sign is a stepped up Sunni insurgency that is increasingly targeting Shi'ite targets in order to ignite a full-blown civil war. Unfortunately, what's most needed to end the violence in Iraq is not the desire of the majority going to the polls, but the will of an armed minority to continue to fight and wait for the United States to become exhausted and go home. Even if the Sunni insurgency ended tomorrow, the Shi'ite majority might take the country toward Islamist rule.

In Palestine, U.S. policy had little to do with the flowering of yet another attempt to negotiate an end to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The death of Yasser Arafat and his replacement by Abu Mazen, who is more willing to negotiate with Israel, was the crucial factor, not U.S. pressure. But Abu Mazen has less standing among Palestinians than Arafat and therefore ultimately may be unable to triumph over more radical anti-Israeli groups, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

In Lebanon, the initial flowering of opposition to the Syrian military presence was caused by the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, an anti-Syrian former prime minister, not U.S. policy. Furthermore, opposition demonstrations were dwarfed in size by a later march supporting Syrian influence conducted by Hezbollah, the radical Shi'ite Islamist group. If true democracy flowers in Lebanon, the negotiated balance among various religious groups would likely be upset, and Hezbollah would be the main beneficiary. Thus, as in the case of Iran, for many years the most democratic country in the Middle East, becoming more democratic doesn't necessarily reduce terrorism. Of course, a renewal of Lebanon's civil war is also possible.

In all of the aforementioned cases, enhanced democracy may very likely unleash forces detrimental to human rights and liberty. Just because a country has an election doesn't mean that it will become a republic that respects the rights of its citizens, especially those in the minority. After all, Adolf Hitler was the democratically elected leader of Germany.

Similarly, future democratically elected leaders in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two other countries that President Bush is pressuring to open their political process, could very well be Islamists who don't respect individual rights and who are much less friendly to the United States. In any event, both of these regimes are doing the absolute minimum to comply with U.S. pressure. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak pledged to allow other candidates to run in the next presidential election, but those politicians will be carefully selected. Egyptians realize that this pledge is just window dressing and that the next boss of Egypt will be the same as the old boss. In Saudi Arabia, the first municipal elections were held in decades, but women weren't allowed to vote, and half of the winners were pre-selected by the government.

U.S. support for democracy in Islamic countries is often regarded as selective and thus hypocritical. Increased U.S. support for Pakistan, a country that has proved useful in the administration's “war on terror,” has coincided with a strengthening of the Musharraf dictatorship. Also, the United States has made nice progress with the autocratic Libyan tyrant Muammar Qaddafi because he has agreed to give up his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration has spun this positive development as having resulted from the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In reality, Qaddafi had been trying to normalize relations with the West for many years, probably was much less afraid of a U.S. attack after Iraq turned into a U.S. quagmire, and decided to seal the deal only after a promise that U.N. sanctions against Libya would be removed. Furthermore, Qaddafi promised to end his support for terrorism at the very same time that he was plotting the assassination of Crown Prince Abdullah, the leader of Saudi Arabia.

Even some opponents of the U.S invasion of Iraq are marveling about its alleged democratic ripple effects in the Middle East. Yet the specific mechanism by which the invasion led to such effects is never identified, and many of these developments can be explained by other causes. Moreover, in the long term, promoting democracy at gunpoint is likely to be counterproductive, because it is associated with the foreign invader. The United States is so hated in the Islamic world that many pro-democratic groups there try to distance themselves from U.S. policy.

Thus, the cause of liberty in Islamic countries would benefit from more quiet and less grandiose and militaristic promotion of it by the United States. Perhaps the United States would be better served by resurrecting its founders' policy of promoting freedom through leading by example.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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