Magazine article The American (Washington, DC)

God, Man, and the Ballot Box: Reuel Marc Gerecht Explains Why, despite Everything, George W. Bush Was Right about Democratization in the Middle East

Magazine article The American (Washington, DC)

God, Man, and the Ballot Box: Reuel Marc Gerecht Explains Why, despite Everything, George W. Bush Was Right about Democratization in the Middle East

Article excerpt

In the summer of 2002, you could have filled the conference halls of Washington's largest think tanks with people who were in favor of advancing democracy among Middle Eastern Muslims. Few then would have disagreed openly with Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, former counterterrorism officials in the Clinton administration and the authors of The Age of Sacred Terror, who saw the spread of representative government as an essential tool in the battle against jihadism. A wide array of American liberals and conservatives backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq partly because they believed that the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime might give way to a more liberal, democratic order.

Although the "realists," who preferred maintaining the authoritarian status quo in the region, still wielded considerable influence, especially in the State Department, the pro-democracy forces had greater momentum--and, in George W. Bush, they had the first American president who believed sincerely in Muslim democracy. For many democracy advocates, Iraq was going to be the great test. Iraqis were supposed to be the most secular of Muslim Arabs, this being perhaps the only positive by-product of decades of Baathist tyranny. Freed from Saddam's horrors, thankful Iraqi Arabs might even be able to do the unthinkable: help other Arabs see that there are far worse things in this world than Israelis.

Today, few in the Washington policy community want to talk about bringing representative government to the Middle East. Our military travails in Iraq and Afghanistan; the triumph of religious "sectarians" in Iraq's 2005 national elections; the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories; and the realization that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the intellectual mothership of Sunni fundamentalism, would probably win in unrigged balloting--all of this has extinguished the Bush administration's enthusiasm for promoting elections among Middle Eastern Muslims. Although the president still believes in a freedom agenda, it seems that nobody around him wants to spend time discussing the future of democracy from Rabat to Tehran.

Senior Bush administration officials aren't alone. Most of the former democracy enthusiasts in unofficial Washington now focus their attention on human (especially women's) rights unconnected to the ballot box. Many either dismiss or forget what they said earlier. Liberals seem little different than conservatives; indeed, such disparate figures as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Joe Klein, Fareed Zakaria, and Charles Krauthammer say similar things:

   We should go slowly in promoting Middle
   Eastern democracy. Casting ballots should
   come at the end of a process that begins with
   building the secular institutions that sustain
   representative government. Whatever
   the West did from Runnymede until the
   foundation of true democracy in Europe
   and the United States, Middle Eastern
   Muslims must somehow do, too--before
   fundamentalists have a chance to vote.


Although critics of the democratization agenda rarely praise Arab dictatorships, they essentially argue that secular autocracies, regardless of their sins, are better than illiberal "Islamic democrats" who hate America and who will either abort or render meaningless future elections once they gain power. In the critics' view, democracy could easily become a tool of Islamic extremism, rather than an antidote to it. Therefore, we must hold our noses and support, if necessary, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, the West Bank's Mahmoud Abbas, and Tunisia's Zinc El Abidine Ben Ali, because apres eux, le deluge. In just seven years, we have entered a post-post-9/11 world.

This is a mistake. There is probably no more pressing issue among Middle Eastern Muslims than the increasingly vibrant marriage of Islamism and democracy. Indeed, the coming years will likely see large numbers of Islamists and ordinary Muslims demanding the right to vote. …

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