The United States wishes to use democracy in a double capacity, first to unsettle current enemies and second, through regime change, as a long-term inoculation against terrorism. Applied to terrorism in general and the Middle East in particular, however, democracy has many unexpected consequences:
Terrorists exploit media exposure, freedom of movement, and legal restraints on governments, all of which are more easily available in democracies than in dictatorships. While mature democracies have strong defenses against such tactics, fragile young democracies do not. Hence, the replacement of regimes such as Saddam’s in Iraq with a fledgling democratic system that lacks the coercion of the dictator or the popular support of established institutions will be quite vulnerable to terrorism.
The protracted “small wars” that accompany such political experiments also tax the fortitude of supporting democracies, whose citizens may not be prepared to take losses over a long time for less than existential threats.
Democracy, as President Bush often says, is the God-given right of the individual. But this stress on individualism, a marked feature of Western democracies, runs counter to Arab political culture, which, fearing anarchy and tribalism, stresses the importance of a well-defined code of behavior to which the individual (and group) must conform.
Among Arab societies, the mostly homogenous Palestinian territories were a better test case of how democracy might fare than was Iraq’s ethnic and religious mix. Hamas’ election victory, however, revealed both the American overemphasis on elections as the “test” of democracy and the popular disposition against “Western ways,” namely, tolerant and compromising politics.
The U.S. push for democracy tends to alienate the regimes most helpful to us in suppressing terrorist capabilities while, at the same time, we continue to work with them on the war against terrorism. This rhetorical and sometimes policy confusion has left the U.S. “democracy project” somewhat lame and contradictory. The result: democracy as currently advocated by the United States does not really offer a third way between autocracy and theocracy. Some conference participants simply rejected the idea that outsiders—any outsiders—could force Arab politics in a particular direction; this has to come from within. All thought that the destruction of terrorist capabilities should take higher priority than pushing unsettling and dangerous changes that might pay off only far into the future.
Islamism, or the Use of Islam for Political Purposes
The group discussed Turkey as a case study. The current government, with its Islamic roots and emphasis, is quite remarkable in a country whose constitution is militantly secular and whose army has intervened periodically to keep it so. Its rise can be traced to the increased influence of the Eastern Anatolia region (rural, Muslim) and the arrival of Muslim “have-nots” versus the “Kemalist” western Anatolia (including Istanbul). Widespread popular disgust with the existing corrupt political parties played a big role, too, in the victory of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in 2003.
Currently, Turkey’s direction is unclear, partly because the country is going in so many directions.
The government’s opportunist rhetoric invokes populism, nationalism, and religion, depicting the latter as an authentic expression of the Turkish genius, under whose influence Islam had achieved its greatest glories. But the government’s slogans are not coherent and its objectives are suspect to the defenders of secularism, especially the military.
Neither the Turks nor the Europeans have much hope that Turkey will eventually enter the EU, but the “process” continues, with EU demands—for example, that the Army be less influential even if it meant the Islamists would become more effective—often exasperating the Turks.
The government—and the secular Europhiles—are pushing anti-Americanism. This is compounded by a view that the United States allowed the PKK a safe haven in Kurdish Iraq and might even support Kurdish independence.
Turkey’s participation in the Lebanese international force was supported by the Islamists and opposed by the Army and the Kemalists, the reverse of what might have been expected. Foreign Minister Gul justified the action by referring to the “Mediterranean Powers,” evidently a new grouping the Turks might be pushing, i.e., security for those states bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The Turks are also busy in Central Asia.
Turkey does not like Iran’s combative foreign policy and fears its nuclear program, but has a long history of rivalry with Persia falling well short of war. Iranian nuclear weapons, however, might drive Turkey back into close relations with the United States and NATO.
Turkey’s relations with Israel are strong on the military-to-military level but ambiguous on the political level. The Lebanon conflict has affected Turkish popular opinion of Israel, mostly for the worse. Still, both Israel and Turkey have a stake in a Middle East not dominated by the Arabs or the Iranians.
Iran’s role and power cast a gloomy shadow over the region. The rhetoric of its leadership, combined with its support for terrorism and its evident interest in facing down all of the powers on the nuclear issue, promises a major confrontation with the United States.
The Iranian-Syrian alliance was strengthened by the war in Lebanon. That country’s President Bashar al-Assad, unlike his father, has steadily put his country more in Iran’s sphere. Iran’s declarations at the beginning of the Lebanon war in defense of Syria reinforce an already evident trend of military and political cooperation. Initiatives intended to pull Damascus away from Tehran are therefore unlikely to succeed; Syria’s price, if there was a price, would be beyond America’s willingness to pay. So long as Iran looks like a winner, Syria will operate in its shadow.
The “Shiite arc.” Tehran (and its Sunni Arab neighbors) take this seriously. At its most expansive, this arc includes southern Iraq, Alawite Syria (the Alawites have been declared by the Shia clergy as a branch of Shiism), and Shiite Lebanon. Iran is also putting money into the Palestinian factions at one end of the arc, and parts of Central Asia, at the other.
Messianism. President Ahmadinejad and others in the leadership take very seriously that this might be the “Mahdi’s time”—namely, the reappearance of the occulted last imam (tenth century) and the restoration of the “genuine caliphate,” not Osama bin Laden’s Sunni Caliph but the Shiite Caliphate led by Iran. Tehran seems to have caught the same bug as Saddam and Nasser: defeat of the Great Satan (the United States) will open the region to Iranian domination, and the best way to do this would be the destruction of the little Satan (Israel), a project that the Arabs, too, would support and applaud. Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasrallah played to this theme after the Lebanon war, using the Israeli issue to overcome Sunni-Shiite divisions.
Waning deterrence. The Iranians seem not to fear a U.S. military attack, appearing to discount Bush’s ability to launch one in view of the Iraqi mess and his unpopularity. But in the absence of a military threat, diplomacy is likely to fail. Some participants believed that the Russians and the Europeans are going through the diplomatic motions in full understanding that the exhaustion of diplomacy will justify a resort to force—U.S. force—as they lack the means. This is turning into a case study of “free riding,” namely, dumping the ultimate responsibility on the United States.
The U.S.- Israeli Relationship
The U.S.-Israeli alliance was strained by the Lebanon war, this time not because Israel (or the United States) acted at cross purposes but because Israel did not do an efficient job of dispatching Hezbollah. Hence, the United States might reevaluate the strategic value of Israel, expecting less.
U.S. support for Israel generally derives from a domestic factor (broad support for Israel’s existence; political pressures generated by AIPAC and other groups) and a strategic one (Israel’s capacity to serve other U.S. interests in the region either by harming U.S. enemies, or through the peace process, easing American diplomacy).
The peace process failed in 2000, and since 2001, Israel’s role as ally in the war on terrorism has gained prominence, assisted by Arafat’s maladroit tactics that put the Palestinians on the wrong side in U.S. eyes. Still, there has been increased opposition to Israel in U.S. academic circles, replicating the European pattern of anti-Americanism (or anti-Bush) and also anti-Israel. The left wing of the Democratic Party, and the growing organized Muslim pressure groups, also advocate anti-Israeli positions often couched as a reduction of U.S. support rather than an attack on Israel’s right to exist. The latter, however, is an increasing part of European intellectual discussions.
In this respect, the United States expected Israel to act in the Lebanon crisis as a “bullet” to strike Iranian and Syrian interests. Israel’s military did some of the job but not quickly or thoroughly enough to help the United States in the expected way. Some reevaluation of the relationship is bound to follow, which might lower U.S. expectations and also loosen the “lockstep” between the United States and Israeli policies often criticized as detrimental to the United States in the region. The basic relationship, however, has not been impaired, and UN Resolution 1701 on Lebanon might yet square U.S. support for a revived Lebanese democracy with Washington’s approval of Israel’s operation against Hezbollah.