Democratization and War in the Middle East

March 28th, 2005 - by admin

Helena Cobban / Friends Committee on National Legislation – 2005-03-28 23:24:46

(March 22, 2005) — In early February, President Bush laid great stress on the need for Middle East democratization in his State of the Union speech — and within just one month, that campaign seemed to many people to already be enjoying remarkable success.

In Lebanon, demonstrators from different religious groups were flooding downtown Beirut with their photogenic campaign to rid their country of Syria’s heavy-handed influence.

In Palestine and Iraq, local people were celebrating the recent holding of successful, generally democratic elections. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, there were other stirrings of democracy…

Commentators who had supported Bush’s March 2003 decision to invade Iraq were ecstatic. The new wave of democratization in the Middle East gave “proof”, they argued, that the invasion decision had been a good one. Even some people previously critical of the war were writing that maybe, after all, something of real value could finally come out of it.

Those arguments swept the mainstream US media. People in the United States, like most other people, are more comfortable believing that their government does good things around the world.

And there is no question that what President Bush said about democratization in his State of the Union was inspiring: “America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

And, “The United States has no right, no desire, and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else.”

However, a look at the actual trajectory of events in the Middle East shows that:

(1) in past years, Washington more often stifled democracy in the Middle East than supported it, and even now it continues to give strong support to autocratic governments despite the President’s fine rhetoric;

(2) the “victories” that administration supporters have claimed for Bush’s democratization campaign are all more problematic than the way they have been portrayed; and

(3) if democratization does indeed make headway in the region in the months ahead, this will pose big challenges to Washington’s current concept of global security, and will therefore force tough choices on the administration.

How, then, should people in this country evaluate the administration’s new commitment to democracy?

Testing Bush’s True ‘Commitment to Democracy’
First, look carefully at Washington’s record. President Bush has made some welcome statements recently, on Palestinian rights as well as on democracy. But But for decades Washington has given strong support to autocratic rulers in places like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — and that support continued virtually undented even after 2003, when Bush started to talk more pointedly about the need for democratization.

But it’s even worse than that. In recent years the administration has come to rely on (and give support to) the notably antidemocratic and rights-abusing practices of these country’s security services. If you were Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak or Jordan’s King Abdullah II, how seriously would you take George Bush’s rhetoric on democracy if you already know that he wants your security services to continue doing Washington’s dirty work on an “outsourced,” contract basis? Those are, after all, the very same security services that you, the ruler, use to torture and repress your own domestic opposition — and Washington knows that very well.

In Iraq, Saddam-style Detentions and Tortures Return
In Iraq, meanwhile, as Human Rights Watch has reported, both the US occupation forces and the US-appointed “interim government” headed by Iyaq Allawi have continued to hold thousands of detainees without trial and to use torture and other abuses against them.

Any credible US policy to support democratization in the Middle East must include a strong focus on respecting human rights. It must end once and for all Washington’s own practice of using torture against suspects. It must end the “rendition” of criminal suspects to the custody of rights-abusing governments, and insist that all US allies and aid recipients end torture completely and free all political opponents whom they have detained without trial.

Second, look at the countries where administration supporters claim that Bush-inspired democratization efforts have already made great headway. In Lebanon, it is possible the actions of the US, France, and other outside governments have helped open up space for internal dialogue and democracy.

But the bulk of the credit for that goes to the Lebanese people, and they have a lot more work to do to find agreement on the nature of their political system. The best way the international community can help this process is to support Lebanese demands for genuine democratization free of any outside pressure or influence. (See my article, Decoding Lebanon).

The January Election Was Not Part of Washington’s Plan
In Iraq — a country where (unlike Lebanon) the US has many weighty and direct responsibilities under international law — the picture is much less positive. It is true that the US troops did a generally good job protecting the portion of the Iraqi population that voted on January 30.

But any joy over that success must be tempered by the reality that, again, much of the credit goes to Iraqis. After all, the original US plan for Iraq did not even involve having an elected government in place for several years ahead; it was only strong pressure from Ayatollah Ali Sistani and his supporters in Iraq’s Shiite community that persuaded the Pentagon to allow the January elections to happen.

In addition,in the period since the January elections, the rules previously defined by the US occupation authorities have prevented the pro-Sistani “United Iraqi Alliance” list from forming a government (at least, until March 21.) And meanwhile, living conditions in most parts of the country have continued to deteriorate.

In any country, public security is a key component of an acceptable life. In Iraq, in the six weeks after the election, thousands of Iraqis died in terrorist and criminal attacks. Between mid-February and mid-March, there were 12 “mega-terror” incidents in which more than 12 people died. In four of those incidents, the casualties easily exceeded 50 dead. Just imagine the grief… the suffering… and the resulting frustration and anger.

Why Were Most of the Casualties Shiites?
One troubling aspect of these attacks is that nearly all the casualties have been Shiites. (Their murderers are presumed to be Sunni extremists.) So far the Shiite community, which makes up some 60 percent of Iraq’s people, has shown remarkable restraint in not undertaking anti-Sunni vendettas in response. But the country seems poised on the brink of sectarian breakdown.

The elected leaders have still not been allowed to take power — and even after they are able to form a government it is quite unclear how much real power the country’s US military rulers will allow this body to exercise, anyway.

So it looks as though the many Iraqis who want to bring democracy to their country have a hard road still ahead.

It is not clear at all that the huge US military presence there is helping them. Indeed, by perpetuating many of the same kinds of human rights abuses that Iraqis knew and hated under Saddam, by designing a lengthy “transition” process that denies to Iraqis the real elements of self-government, and by failing to spell out clearly that the US has no long-term designs on Iraqi real estate or resources, the US occupation seems only to be making matters worse.

As a general rule, it’s good to remember that “one election does not a democracy make.” That was true in “South” Vietnam. It was true in Haiti, in Bosnia, and most terrifying of all, in East Timor. It may well yet be true in Iraq.

How about Palestine?
The US has much indirect responsibility for events there because of the strong financial and political backing it gives to Israel. In early January, the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and Gaza held a successful, territories-wide election that brought Mahmoud Abbas in as president of their interim “Palestinian Authority” (PA). But in Palestine as in Iraq, an election does not mean much if the elected leadership isn’t allowed to exercise real power.

The Palestinians know that very well. After all, they already had one successful round of voting, back in 1996, which elected Yasser Arafat as head of the PA, and also elected a territories-wide parliament. But Israel refused to grant any solid sovereign powers to the PA, despite the fact it had an elected leadership. Then in 2002, Israel’s military violently dismantled most of the PA’s infrastructure — without Israel suffering any negative consequences from Washington.

This time round, will the fact that the Palestinians have an elected leadership mean they get more support from Washington in their quest for sovereign independence than they got in the years after 1996? With every day that passes before Israel’s military occupation over Palestine ends, the rights of the Palestinians continue to be infringed by the harsh fact of Israel’s military diktat.

The fact of having held two successful elections does not alter that reality.

In general, we should remember that whether in Iraq, Palestine, or anywhere rule by a foreign military occupation force is quite incompatible with true democracy — that is, government by the people, for the people. Any credible democratization strategy must therefore be backed up by energetic diplomacy that ends the rule by one people over another through military occupation, once and for all.

Middle East Democracy Could Harm US ‘National Interests’
Finally, what about the argument that allowing a true democratic flowering in the Middle East might harm the “national interests” of the Untied States? It is true that many fairly elected leaderships in the region are likely to be strongly nationalist and/or Islamist and to have a lot of anger against the US.

People in the Bush administration may argue that this makes such regimes “harmful” to the US, but that would be scaremongering and an exaggeration on a scale not dissimilar to what they said about Iraq.

Yes, gas prices might go up further. (Or, they might not.) Yes, US companies might no longer have captive markets in Iraq or other countries. Yes, some newly democratized countries may be more thoroughly Islamist and enact laws (for example, on women’s issues) that trouble many people in the U.S. and other countries. Yes, new threats might be voiced against Israel.

Some of those concerns may be genuinely felt — though on gas prices and captive markets I think we should simply stick to the solid principles of, respectively, good stewardship of non-renewable resources and fair trading.

Regarding Islamism, it is crucial to recognize the many different branches of Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism, and to understand that many Islamists are motivated by a deep desire for justice, liberation, and human fulfillment. (I have had the privilege of having in-depth talks with several different kinds of Mideast Islamists over the years and can personally attest to this.)

Regarding Israel, by and large that country is very well equipped to defend itself, within its own borders. The best thing the United States can do to help Israel is to urge it rapidly to reach final-status peace treaties with all its neighbors on the well-known basis of an Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands, in exchange for peace.

In sum, concerns about the nature of governments that would emerge from a successful democratization can be addressed in the Middle East — as elsewhere — in straightforward, non-alarmist ways that respect human differences while building on the broad interests that we share with the region’s peoples.

Certainly, these concerns should not be used as an excuse either to maintain an unjust social and political order dominated by pro-Washington regimes that routinely repress their citizens or to launch further wars under the slogan of a claimed “liberation.”

So if the present stirrings in the Middle East do lead to a thorough-going wave of democratization in the region, would that — as George Bush and his supporters claim — somehow “justify” his decision to invade Iraq in March 2003?

Would it justify the killings of some 100,000 Iraqis and the wrecking of much of their vital national infrastructure? No, it never can. Any war, any time, is in and of itself a massive assault on the rights of individuals and communities.

The claim that a possible subsequent growth of democracy can somehow ex-post-facto justify the US military action against Iraq is bizarre and ill-founded — and remember that the Bush administration only started to voice this claim well after all its previous attempts to justify the war had been exposed as false.

Most importantly, we still don’t know—in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, or anywhere else — where the present course of events will lead. It might be toward democracy, or it might not. But wherever it leads, US citizens and leaders should continue to work steadfastly for democracy and human rights for all peoples built on a strong respect for human equality and a clear understanding that nonviolent approaches to differences of opinion do much more to model democratic approaches to problem-solving than warfare ever can.

Helena Cobban is a member of Charlottesville Friends Meeting who writes a regular column on global affairs for the Christian Science Monitor. She worked in Lebanon as a journalist from 1975 through 1981 Helena was the author of The Making of Modern Lebanon (1985). Many of her ongoing writings about Middle East and other issues can be accessed through her weblog,

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