U.S. Embrace Can Be Fatal to Arabs

Adam Shatz is literary editor of the Nation.

Only a year ago, American supporters of the Iraq war were in despair. The spread of the Iraqi insurgency -- and of anti-American sentiment throughout the Arab and Muslim world -- had undercut the claim of Paul Wolfowitz and others that Saddam Hussein’s downfall would spark a wave of democratization in the region. If democracy meant burning cities, suicide attacks, life-threatening checkpoints and Abu Ghraib-style torture, Arabs and Muslims wanted nothing of it, something deeply reassuring to their autocratic rulers.

Today, the mood of the pro-war camp has changed to euphoria. The Iraqi and Palestinian elections, the mass demonstrations by Lebanese seeking an end to the Syrian presence, signs of a thaw in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt -- all these developments have breathed new life into the Wolfowitz Doctrine. The Iraqis may not have thrown rice and flowers our way, but, so the story goes, their liberation has prompted Arabs to challenge their own regimes, and the United States stands poised to reap the benefits of “democratization.” (Even sensible observers like historian David Fromkin have likened the changes to the fall of the Berlin Wall, although the only thing resembling that wall in the region is the “separation barrier” Israel has built on Palestinian land.)

It’s an appealing story but, unfortunately, it isn’t true. If anything, the war was a gift to the jihadists. And to the extent that the Middle East has moved toward democracy, it’s as much in spite of American pressure as because of it.

The current neoconservative object of desire is Lebanon, and it’s a good case study of what’s really happening in the region. When the anti-Syrian opposition gathered in Beirut’s Martyrs Square to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops, everyone from Thomas Friedman of the New York Times to Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute was quick to credit the Bush administration for inspiring the Lebanese. Never mind that the mobilization of Lebanon’s opposition to Syrian rule was detonated by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, not the Iraqi elections; that the cry was for independence, not democracy; and that Shiites, who at 40% of the population make up the country’s largest religious group, were conspicuously absent from the demonstrations. Never mind that Lebanon already has elections (although they are held, as in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, under the watchful eye of an occupying power).


For President Bush, the “Cedar Revolution” marked the beginning of an Arab spring. But in reality, despite their genuine yearnings for independence, the Martyrs Square demonstrators represented only a portion of the country’s fractured polity -- the more educated, secular members of the Christian, Druze and Sunni elites -- which is why unsympathetic observers preferred the term “BMW Revolution.” And its leaders, notably Walid Jumblatt, a Druze chieftain, and the exiled Maronite Christian leader Michel Aoun, who in 1990 staged a failed coup backed by Hussein, are not exactly liberal democrats.

Not for the first time, the romantic port city of Beirut had seduced Western intellectuals who saw in it only what they wanted to see: an educated middle class, a large Christian population and the stirrings of a pro-Western, pro-democracy movement.

Then came the enormous, largely Shiite pro-Syria rally organized by Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. It was the equivalent of a bucket of ice water poured over the cedar revolutionaries.

These demonstrators, who also raised the Lebanese flag, came to the protests not out of love for Syria but out of suspicion of the motives of the opposition and of the White House, which had given the Cedar Revolution not only its blessing but its very name. Having suffered under the domination of the Christian minority before the civil war, many Lebanese Shiites feared the anti-Syrian opposition was a proxy of American, Israeli and Christian interests seeking to humiliate Lebanon’s neighbor, to dismantle Hezbollah (which is widely admired for ending the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon) and to force Lebanon to sign a separate peace with Israel, on terms favorable to Israel.

Among Shiites who lived through Israel’s 22-year occupation in the south, it did not go unnoticed that the U.S. was demanding a full and immediate Syrian withdrawal before Lebanon’s next elections, even as it hailed the elections in occupied Palestine and Iraq as models of Middle Eastern democracy.

Washington’s praise for “democracy,” in other words, had precious little credibility with a huge portion of Lebanon’s citizens. It didn’t have to be this way. If the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq, endorsed Israeli land grabs in the West Bank and threatened both Iran and Syria, Lebanese Shiites might have trusted our word and even joined the Martyrs Square protests in greater numbers. Instead, they lined up behind Hezbollah, which depends on Syrian support to continue the fight with Israel on Lebanon’s southern border.

That outpouring of support has left Jumblatt and other opposition leaders scrambling to woo Hezbollah -- something that hardly pleases the American government, which views the guerrilla movement and political party as a terrorist organization. The counterdemonstration also backed the Americans into a corner and led the Bush administration recently to signal that it would not oppose Hezbollah’s continued participation in Lebanese parliamentary politics, even as it unconvincingly insisted that its position hadn’t changed. As with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, the American government was forced to soften its opposition to Islamist participation -- to bend to Arab reality.

In the days after the Hezbollah demonstration, yet another rally was held -- a counter-counterdemonstration of sorts, organized by the opposition -- in which the Lebanese people bravely restated their desire for full sovereignty. It drew even more people than the Hezbollah rally had, and even some Shiites participated.

But what the Lebanese example reveals is not, as Wolfowitz would have you think, the influence of American hard power, but rather its destructive effect on American soft power. It was Rafik Hariri’s assassination, not the Iraq war, that gave the Lebanese the courage to say “enough is enough” to the Syrians. The excessive use of American military force has not only eroded our tarnished reputation in the Arab and Muslim world, it has made our support even more of a liability for groups like the Lebanese opposition seeking an end to Syrian domination.

As a result, the groups most likely to benefit from democratization, especially if it is pursued precipitously, are those that are the best organized and with the strongest claims to “authenticity.” In a world where the only relatively free spaces have been mosques, these will invariably be the Islamist groups like Hezbollah and the Shiite bloc in postwar Iraq.

It’s not that we shouldn’t encourage democracy in the Arab world. Of course we should. But if we continue to be seen as dishonest brokers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and as occupiers of countries that have not made war on us, Washington’s embrace is likely to be a fatal one for Arab and Muslim democrats.