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Myths Of Arab Democracy

This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

The de facto war in and around Israel has inspired an important and passionate debate about democracy. Can democracy be exported to Arab countries? Is doing so a good idea? Are free elections destabilizing the region?

Much of this debate, I fear, is predicated on false premises or unexamined assumptions. The danger of that is twofold. Some of these notions may become conventional wisdom, and a wrong-headed debate can obscure important issues. In the current conflict, the issues, to my mind, have little to with Western political theory and everything to do with war.

These, then, are the myths to watch out for:

The Bush administration is a consistent, committed advocate for democracy in the Middle East.

Not the case, not by a mile. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the crusade for Arab democracy was not a part of George Bush's mission or platform. Indeed, as a candidate, Bush promised a "humble" foreign policy, a purposeful contrast to Clinton's supposed campaign of hubris in Somalia and Bosnia.

Bush's democracy platform was not built and displayed until well into the lead-up to the Iraq War, after other rationales for the invasion sputtered. The administration really didn't push the Arab democracy line very hard until after the invasion and the discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This was not a triumph of ideas for the neoconservatives at The Weekly Standard magazine or their parents at Commentary who were tasked with intellectualizing the war. It was simply the only ideology left standing. Perhaps the White House came to truly and honestly believe in the Bush doctrine. I don't know.

I do know that the Bush doctrine does not apply to friendly and stable semi-totalitarian Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There is no serious pressure on these regional powers to move in a democratic direction; America has no new intolerance of repression in those countries. (To be clear, I am not advocating that we ought to push Egypt and Saudi Arabia since I am not convinced we should be proselytizing anywhere in the region.)

The current round of violence was partially but substantially caused by America's campaign for Arab democracy.

Obviously, since the administration's democracy campaign is primarily public relations, the Bush doctrine could not be a material cause of the current war.

Bush's opponents on the left ingenuously are trying to blame Bush for the current crisis. So are some of his conservative critics, like George Will, though with more honesty, if not accuracy. The argument goes like this: Hamas gained state-based power through semi-legitimate Palestinian elections encouraged by the Bush Doctrine. Hezbollah gained power because a genuine popular protest — the so-called Cedar Revolution — pushed Syrian military forces out of Lebanon, leaving a power vacuum in the south for Hezbollah to fill; Hezbollah then won parliamentary seats and thus legitimacy in free elections supposedly fostered by the Bush doctrine. This vastly overstates the power administration's magic wand of democracy has in the region.

More fundamentally, Hezbollah and Hamas clearly don't need elections to help them kill Israelis and continue a crusade to annihilate the Zionist state. That is their whole mission.

Can free elections and the political openness they entail be destabilizing? Of course. Can totalitarian, theocratic or tyrannical parties paradoxically gain power or legitimacy through democracy and open elections? Of course. Should the United States be the one to balance these competing pressures in other countries and regions? Of course not. America must pursue its interests and security and not be so un-humble as to decide what other nations "ought" to want — that is actually the classic American conservative foreign policy.

Arab and Muslim nations and peoples are not "ready" for democracy.

This is a matter of great debate, and intellectually it's a fascinating issue. President Bush for years has argued it is a form of racism or prejudice to think that Iraqis, Muslims or Arabs are not "ready" for democracy. He believes democracy is good for everyone. Others believe that certain societies, many of them Muslim, are not ready for democracy. They think that forcing democracy onto a society that isn't ready for it is dangerous, as proven by today's fighting.

The mistake here is in thinking about democracy anthropologically, even biologically. Democracy is not a human capacity like sadness or empathy. Democracy is an invention; it is an idea and a practice.

When ideas like self-determination, free will, equality and liberty become current in societies, when they become values, when they capture the moral and artistic imagination, popular sovereignty and democracy tend to follow when circumstances allow it. Obviously, these ideas and values conflict with nationalism, divine justice, predetermination and theocracy. Thus, the invention of democracy is unlikely to be employed widely in Arab world; that is no change from all recorded human history. This doesn't mean these countries aren't ready for democracy or that we have any business trying to figure out who is and isn't ready for democracy.

Militants and Islamists must be stopped from "kidnapping" democracy in the Arab world.

Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent column, "What we are seeing in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon is an effort by Islamist parties to use elections to pursue their long-term aim of Islamizing the Arab-Muslim world." This is clearly correct. He concluded, "The whole democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world is at stake here, and right now it's going up in smoke."

While the "democracy experiment" is awfully new and thin to be hijacked, Friedman's basic point is right. But his argument assumes that success in the Mideast is to be measured by how far democracy marches. I think that's risky, premature and confused. It assumes the best way to fight Islamist radicals is through democracy, something that's not at all clear. It assumes the best way to protect Israel and a broader peace is through Arab democracy, which is not at all clear. It treats democracy as a panacea, which is not at all true.

Many American intellectuals of the left and right who supported the war, or who did not clearly oppose it, are fervently rooting for democracy to take hold in the Mideast because that is their last chance for redemption, the last remaining justification they can use for losing so many American lives — and others — in Iraq. I can sympathize with that.

But the Mideast is too cruel for wishful thinking. Democracy is our ideology for the place, the form of vindication we want. It is not yet a pragmatic foreign policy or a realistic program. Success in the Mideast is still best measured simply by the absence of blood.

Dick Meyer is the editorial director of

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By Dick Meyer