by Victor Davis Hanson
On March 14, at about the same time Western antiwar groups were organizing their annual spring demonstrations against American efforts in the Middle East, nearly a million Lebanese, including Sunni Muslims, Druze, and Christians, took to the streets of Beirut. Unlike the unhappy and despairing Westerners marching in the large cities of Europe and the United States over the last three years, the cheerful and idealistic Lebanese were not bearing placards of George W. Bush made to look like Adolph Hitler. Nor did they shout condemnations of the “Zionist entity.”
Instead, at some risk to themselves, the demonstrators in Beirut demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the creation of a legitimate government in an independent Lebanon. In this brave effort, they were following in the footsteps of an earlier, spontaneous Lebanese protest over the February 14 assassination, almost certainly at the order of Damascus, of Rafik al-Hariri, the country’s former prime minister. In sheer numbers, their March 14 outpouring dwarfed not only that February demonstration but a much publicized, Syrian-sponsored turnout by supporters of Hizballah just a week before.
The mere fact that the terrorists of Hizballah have now found themselves outnumbered in an open tug-of-war with popular dissidents, and in the humiliating position of publicly supporting the foreign occupation of their own country, is as good an indicator as any of the dizzying pace of change in the post-Saddam Hussein Middle East. The successful elections in Afghanistan in October 2004; the January 30 voting in Iraq; the Palestinian election of Mahmoud Abbas following the ostracism and death of Yasir Arafat; the grassroots furor in Lebanon—all these have created a perfect storm of sorts for Arab and Muslim strongmen. In fear both of American wrath and of their own disenfranchised masses, most of the jittery autocrats in the region are now scrambling to repackage themselves as, at the very least, parliamentarians in disguise. Facing a canceled visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president for life, went so far as to promise multiparty elections later this year. Even the Gulf sheikdoms have spoken of municipal voting that could theoretically include women.
Western political elites have similarly been caught off-guard by this turn of events, so threatening to their settled conviction that the situation in the region has gotten worse, not better, in the aftermath of the controversial, American-led invasion of Iraq. Only a year ago, Dana Milbank and Robin Wright were writing in the Washington Post that “President Bush took the nation to war in Iraq with a grand vision for change in the Middle East and beyond. . . . Things have not worked out that way, for the most part.” But a year later, the Post’s Jackson Diehl, a longtime critic of the administration, was suddenly upbeat: “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.”
Indeed, the present upheavals are reason not just to reconsider, but to give thanks and to celebrate. But no one can as yet predict exactly what will follow from them. As we have seen in Iraq and elsewhere, so fractured and violent are the societies now struggling to liberate themselves from the legacy of tyranny that an unthinking optimism is almost as foolhardy as a false pessimism. The autocrats, whose regimes and whose very lives now lie under threat, have no other choice but to push back against dissidents and popular pressures; nor can we be sure that an opening of these closed systems will usher in an era of democracy in the Western sense. And in the meantime, as some skeptics have not hesitated to point out, the astounding success of the Bush Doctrine has made it all the harder to ignore certain fault lines in existing American policy.
Specifically, the Bush administration is said to be guilty of gross inconsistency. While vigorously promoting the benefits of democracy for Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, it has given a free pass to three regimes in particular that have long been regarded not as enemies but as key allies: Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Pakistan in nearby South Asia. When it comes to dealing with these troubled, populous, and powerful Muslim nations, as Thomas Carothers put it in a February 2003 essay in Foreign Affairs, “Bush the neo-Reaganite” suddenly becomes “Bush the realist,” actively cultivating warm relations with “friendly tyrants” of the most unsavory sort. Until this “uncomfortable dualism” is resolved, Carothers concluded, not only “the future of the war on terrorism but also . . . the shape and character of Bush’s foreign policy as a whole” will remain in doubt.
The objection is compelling. Picking and choosing among authoritarian regimes—heavily pressuring Iran and Syria while going lightly on Egypt and Saudi Arabia—suggests that we seek not a universal democratization of the Middle East but rather compliant governments of any autocratic or monarchic kind that will share and serve American interests, so long as they do not overtly support terror. In a war of ideas, such perceived hypocrisy—a major theme of Osama bin Laden’s infomercials damning U.S. support for the Saudi royal family—can be extremely detrimental.
Nor is inconsistency the only problem. Tens of thousands of American soldiers are fighting in the belief that replacing dictators with democrats is not only smart for America but good for the people of the Middle East. How can we go on asking them to die for freedom in the Sunni Triangle while their government subsidizes dictatorship in Egypt and Pakistan—the former a weak heartbeat away from a populist revolt, the latter a bullet away from theocracy?
The President’s bold plan appears to be based on a model of democratic contagion. We have seen such infectious outbreaks of popular government in Latin America and Eastern Europe, so we know the prognosis is not fanciful. But in the Muslim and Arab Middle East, democracy has no real pedigree and few stalwart proponents. Thus, recalcitrant autocracies will inevitably serve as sanctuaries and strongpoints for those trying to reverse the verdict in an Afghanistan, an Iraq, or a Lebanon; the idea that these same anti-democratic societies are supported by the U.S. is presently embarrassing and eventually unsustainable.
Fortunately, however, the reverse is also true. A metamorphosis of these same dictatorships would help accelerate the demand for democratization elsewhere. Far from representing a distraction in the struggle against current front-line enemies like Iran and Syria, the reformation of Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia would only further isolate and enfeeble those states—as William Tecumseh Sherman’s “indirect approach” of weakening the rear of the Confederacy, at a considerably reduced loss of life, helped to bring to a close the frontline bloodshed of northern Virginia, or as Epaminondas the Theban’s freeing of the Messenian helots dismantled the Spartan empire at its very foundations.
Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are not the equivalent of the Soviet Union’s satellite states of Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. Rather, they are the East Germany, Hungary, and Poland of the unfree Middle East: pivotal nations upon whose fate the entire future of the Bush Doctrine may well hinge.
During the cold war, sound strategic logic lay behind the decision to strike de-facto alliances with the three autocracies. At the time, the principles of realpolitik were well understood. Our aims were to keep Communists out of the Persian Gulf; to insure a steady supply of oil for the energy-hungry West and Japan; and, when possible, to isolate Baathists, Islamists, and Qaddafi-like megalomaniacs who subsidized anti-Western terrorists. At the same time, we sought to nudge our “friendly tyrants” in the direction of nonviolence and moderation.
Most but not all of these goals were met. Some $50 billion in aggregate American aid to Egypt since the Sadat turnaround of the late 1970’s bought a tangible restraint in external behavior. Aside from machinations in the Gaza Strip and occasional bickering with Libya, and despite rumors about a program to develop weapons of mass destruction, Egypt has eschewed aggression against its neighbors. President Mubarak does not, and probably cannot, attack Israel.
As for Saudi Arabia, having once imposed oil embargoes on the United States, it has lately contented itself with production curbs and price hikes in lieu of outright cut-offs. So long as Americans remain addicted to $50-a-barrel imported oil, and avoid alternative energy policies, the continuance of the OPEC monopoly will be the devil’s bargain that precludes artificially induced gas lines here at home. Pakistan, meanwhile, for all its internal turmoil, is a different sort of place from Syria or Iran, and Pakistani mobs no longer rush into the streets as they did in 1979, eager to torch the U.S. embassy.
Even more importantly, the three countries have a record of extending occasional help to the United States in its wars both against Communists and later against terrorists. Sadat expelled Soviet advisers and shut down Russian bases in Alexandria. Pakistan served as a conduit for American arms reaching resistance fighters in Afghanistan in the early 1980’s; without the sanctuary it then provided for those fighters, the Soviets would probably have annexed the country. Saudi Arabia and its affiliates routinely invited Washington to base ships in the Persian Gulf and patrol the sea lanes in order to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding its grip eastward and southward from Libya, Syria, and Iraq—and to ensure that Saddam Hussein would leave Kuwait in the early 1990’s. Anti-American terrorists who have gotten too near the Saudi royal family have been mercilessly hunted down, often to the advantage of the United States.
In the brutal calculus of the Middle East, the autocratic triad also never quite descended to the depravity of a Saddam Hussein, who butchered over a million people during his 30-year thugocracy and attacked four of his neighbors. Nor could they even be compared with the three-decade dictatorship of the Assads of Syria, who did away with 20,000 citizens and bulldozed the town of Hama, or the murderous Iranian regime that is now seeking nuclear weapons and threatening many of its neighbors. It is unlikely that an Arafat or an Abu Nidal could have taken up open residence in Cairo or Riyadh.
In short, ties with Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia were of convenience to the U.S., and from time to time they proved their worth. Yet honesty compels one to add immediately that on nearly as many occasions, these alliances did not do even that. Indeed, President Bush’s withering and often quoted critique of foreign-policy “realism”—designed to provide stability, it has served historically to foster and tolerate instability—applies with special accuracy to these three erstwhile friends.
Egypt, the guardian of the Suez Canal and the cultural and ideological center of the Arab world, is also the incubator of many of its worst pathologies. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism grew out of the mosques, universities, and salons of Cairo, and today Egypt is among the world’s premier exporters of anti-Semitic propaganda. Pakistan possesses and helps spread nuclear weapons and their supporting technology. It has engaged in periodic atomic stand-offs with its neighbor, democratic India, and thousands of square miles on its western flanks remain de-facto terrorist badlands.
Saudi Arabia, sitting atop a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves, is the benefactor of most of the virulent Wahhabism that proliferates in madrassasthroughout the Middle East and has crept insidiously into the West. It is hard to find a terrorist arrested in Europe or in the United States who has not been indoctrinated by Saudi-sponsored teachings of hate or is not in thrall to the country’s religious operatives.
In the last decade, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia have done much to hurt the United States. Fifteen of the nineteen suicide hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. Mohammed Atta, the tactical mastermind, was an Egyptian, an epitome of the anti-Americanism that, along with anti-Semitism, has made his country a spiritual locus of hatred for the West. If it seems natural that Osama bin Laden should be a Saudi, it is no less natural that his sinister sidekick, Dr. Zawahiri, is an Egyptian.
Bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire, planned 9/11. Another Saudi, Ahmad Sayyid Ahmad al-Ghamdi, a medical student and son of a diplomat, blew up 22 Americans in Mosul, Iraq on December 21, 2004. Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a Saudi American with strong ties to his spiritual motherland, has been charged with planning to kill President Bush. On November 5, 2004, 26 influential Saudi clerics subsidized by the royal family issued a fatwa demanding long-term jihad against the United States forces in Iraq; the Muslim Scholars Association, composed of Sunni clerics strongly sympathetic to Saudi Wahhabism, has worked strenuously to undermine American reconstruction efforts. All this is no accident.
During the 2001 military campaign in Afghanistan, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan was at times more a neutral than an enemy. Yet his own intelligence service had helped to create the Taliban in the first place, with the tab picked up by the U.S., whose past billions in largesse were intended to keep this Westernized strongman and his predecessors in place. With government approval, Dr. A.Q. Khan, a national hero to Pakistanis as the father of their own bomb, made possible a nuclear North Korea—and perhaps soon a nuclear Iran as well.
Few agencies have hurt the interests of the U.S. as thoroughly or as directly as the Pakistani intelligence services. The Taliban’s Mullah Omar is currently residing in Pakistan. His whereabouts, along with Dr. Zawahiri’s, are probably known to informants, as, no doubt, are bin Laden’s. Yet we are regretfully told that the Pakistani regime cannot track down any of these men without risking a tidal wave of Islamic resentment—a sure sign, if we needed one, of the regime’s own fundamental illegitimacy.
During the Clinton years, two American diplomats were assassinated in Karachi, and in March 2002 American Christians were murdered at a church in Islamabad. Beside the televised beheading of Daniel Pearl, four American contractors were butchered in Pakistan in 1997 on the news that an American jury had convicted a Pakistani terrorist of assassinating two CIA employees in Virginia. While we now worry about jihadists pouring into the Sunni Triangle from Syria and Iran, just three years ago Islamists flooded out of the madrassasof Pakistan to hike unimpeded into Afghanistan to help the Taliban.
Inside these three countries, media subsidized (or censored) by the regime have imbued millions with hatred of the United States and Israel. Seldom mentioned is any hint of what Americans have done in behalf of Muslims, whether it is past debt relief and billions in aid for Egypt and Pakistan, protection of Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein, help for Afghani Muslims against the Soviets, for Kosovars and Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs, for Kuwaitis against Saddam, for Somali Muslims facing starvation, for Indonesians recovering from disaster. The logic here is simple. The more venomous and rabble-rousing these state-run megaphones, the less blame will attach to Mubarak, Musharraf, and the Saudi royal family for the often miserable condition of their own people, and the less blackmail they will need to pay to terrorists and jihadists to stay away from home and concentrate instead on faraway Americans and Jews.
This was the mess that the Bush administration sought to clean up after 9/11, by holding out the prospect of an alternative for the expression of popular frustration in the Middle East. And the new American policy is paying real dividends, as no less an authority than the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, of impeccably anti-American and anti-Israel credentials, explained in late February:
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 three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.
Can the initiative be extended to the three “friendly tyrants”? There can be no denying that, in their case, there are real and quite understandable obstacles in the way of rethinking the status quo—impediments that help explain American hesitancy thus far.
For one thing, there has grown up among us a sizable cadre of diplomats, think-tank scholars, weapons salesmen, investors, and former military officers, Right and Left, who know and like immensely the Westernized—and generous—ruling cliques of these nations. Others in the American corporate, political, and intellectual world, even if they have not forged profitable ties themselves, are firmly of the view that the autocrats in place in these countries are about as good as the United States can hope to obtain, especially as compared with some of the bleak alternatives on offer elsewhere in the region: Baathists, Islamic fascists, theocrats—and chaos. Precisely because of the relationships they have formed with prominent Americans, and their carefully cultivated veneer of moderation, the elites of Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia have earned a certain credible exemption for their annoying habit of aiding and abetting jihadists.
“One man, one vote, one time”—such is the minatory cliché with which realists warn us away from headline-grabbing plebiscites. Do we really want to risk replacing the Saudi royal family or a Mubarak-style Egyptian dictatorship with jihadists of the Muslim Brotherhood stamp or Iranian-style fundamentalists who will only pursue their hatred of Israel, of the United States, and of the West under the cloak of “democratic” legitimacy? Look at what happened in Lebanon in the 1980’s or Algeria in the 1990’s, not to mention in Iran after the Shah. If Saddam’s barbarity is exhibit A of what can evolve from the sometimes cynical appeasement of stability, the Taliban, like their Shiite counterparts in Iran, proved the awful sequel to toppled, but stable, dictatorships.
Considerations like these have led pillars of realism like James Baker, Frank Carlucci, Colin Powell, and Brent Scowcroft to harbor a skeptical view of George W. Bush’s apparent conversion to democratic idealism. And certainly, with regard to the three volatile regimes, the administration’s task is delicate beyond words. It seeks greater democracy, but not anarchy; popular government, but not of the viciously anti-American stripe; peaceful evolution, but not the sanctioning of another intransigent autocracy.
Yet, in the explosive Middle East, doing nothing, which is essentially what realist advice amounts to, is no longer an option. For better or worse, now is hardly the time to let up on the pressure for democratic change. To the contrary, it is precisely the hour to increase such pressure wisely.
An obvious first step is to mark our distance from the three autocracies—indeed, we have already begun to do so, if with nowhere near the required consistency. With tact, American separation need not appear overtly punitive, nor need we gratuitously slander former allies even as we publicly prefer their internal voices of reform. Secretary Rice’s decision to avoid Egypt on her recent Middle East trip was what prompted Mubarak to pledge Egypt’s first multiparty presidential election later this year, and is a model of what can be done in the short term.
In the post-cold-war world, it has become increasingly harder to justify direct financial assistance to these regimes in the form of arms sales, military credits, debt relief, or outright cash grants. American reminders of this reality may have influenced Musharraf to utter his own pledge of democratic elections in 2007 (just as our announcement in late March of a sale of F-16 jet fighters to Pakistan may unfortunately have suggested to him that we are not serious). If the realignment of our policy is explained carefully, domestic reformers can be assured that aid will return when constitutional guarantees of consensual government emerge—and when they themselves tone down the sort of anti-American posturing that enhances the realists’ point about the outsiders we don’t know being worse than the insiders we do. The idea is to make it clear, without appearing spiteful, that we intend something new and better—better, that is, for Arabs and Muslims—and that in pursuit of this aim we may well find ourselves bypassing the present ruling elites and risking state-fed popular umbrage.
Each of these regimes has, nearby, a polity that offers an instructive contrast. Democratic India, nuclear-armed, wary of China, increasingly tied to America, is a reminder to Pakistan that closer relations with the United States are attainable, but are increasingly problematical so long as Pakistan continues to languish under the control of a military dictatorship (balancing the recent announcement of F-16 sales to Pakistan, the White House pointedly reassured India about its own ability to purchase commensurate or even more effective combat aircraft from us). In the Middle East, the new Iraq—with oil reserves comparable in size to Saudi Arabia’s, with a port on the Persian Gulf, and with its ongoing democratic transformation—is, for the time being, Washington’s de-facto regional ally. That new alliance is already sending a strong message to Riyadh: the path to American friendship lies in ending Saudi support for those now killing Americans in the Sunni Triangle, and in following the paradigm of political reform.
Egypt has regional contrasts of a mixed sort. On one side, neighboring Libya is still a nightmarish state, now seeking Western involvement at a political price it may or may not prove willing to pay. On the other side, the elections that followed the death of the sequestered Yasir Arafat abruptly ended Egypt’s traditional role in encouraging, and subsidizing, Palestinian revanchism. A self-appointed Mubarak cannot offer advice to an elected Abbas about how to jumpstart a nascent democracy. But America’s continued promotion of change in Libya and the Palestinian Authority, coupled with American coolness toward autocratic Egypt, can be a powerful incentive for Cairo to embark on its own program of reform.
So far, with the obvious exceptions of Ayman Nour and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the names of few Egyptian dissidents are known to us. Ibrahim was released from prison in 2003 after only feeble American warnings of a cut-off in aid. With greater encouragement from Washington, thousands would surely emerge from the shadows, and with luck and fortitude they might prevent Gamal Mubarak from extending his father’s dictatorship while also avoiding the alternative of an Islamic republic. Reformers among the royal family in Saudi Arabia and, in Pakistan, exiled opposition figures could be rescued from anonymity through international pressure to spotlight the Vaclav Havels and Lech Walesas of the Arab-Muslim world.
Such an effort would have to be spearheaded by the U.S., but it could be supplemented by the “soft power” of the EU and the UN. True, the latter has devolved in the last 30 years into a corrupt organization whose writ around the globe is only as strong as the links binding the petty dictators gathered in the General Assembly. But both bodies can impart a certain legitimacy to events already in play. Since their habit has been to lend sanction and authenticity to tottering autocrats, in whose regimes they have often had a financial interest, neither Europe nor the UN can lead. But UN resolutions calling for Syria to leave Lebanon or for Saudi Arabia to end its sexual apartheid might bring some European nations into the general effort to promote change, or at least to provide valuable window dressing to an American-led fait accompli.
At home, the Left will continue to score points against the President, citing either the impracticality of his policy when news is bad or, when things seem headed in the right direction, decrying the cultural chauvinism in thinking that Western concepts like democracy can be “privileged” over indigenous forms of rule. The Right will warn against the danger of betraying trusted allies, or of playing into the hands of popular extremists—or of giving an inside track to European and Chinese commercial interests that exhibit no such squeamishness about doing business with tyrants.
Some of these apprehensions are well grounded. Violent upheaval followed by Islamist coups could endanger world commerce well beyond oil, in the choke points of the straits of Hormuz and the Suez Canal. And, as we saw with Arafat on the one hand and the Iranian clerics on the other, plebiscites can indeed become the basis for years of Western appeasement of despotic rule. But a pre-9/11-like stasis is even worse: change is inevitable in any case, and there may be only a brief window to ensure that it is democratic and stays that way, rather than Islamist, reactionary, and/or nuclear.
In Egypt, Mubarak is old and failing. In Pakistan, Musharraf is unpopular and isolated, dependent on anti-Indian saber-rattling or on hauling in American largesse. In Saudi Arabia, the hold of the royals is increasingly fragile as unemployment soars and the connection among absconded petrodollars, autocracy, and Islamic fundamentalism is slowly being parsed by the Saudi people. So there is urgency in reassessing American policy toward those three formidable powers, and thereby in fostering democratic pressure around as well as in the now-key capitals of Damascus and Tehran. Thanks to American idealism and muscularity, President Bush’s visionary policies are already bearing fruit. The next step is no less promising and no less dangerous, demanding the same bold energy and initiative as those that have gone before.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson