‘Democracy’ flopped. Now what?

ANATOL LIEVEN is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His book "Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World," coauthored with John Hulsman, will be published in September.

THE BUSH administration’s plan to bring democracy to the Middle East is now in ruins. In a nation where political responsibility still counted for something, the architects of that strategy would be forced to resign.

Remember the argument for the Iraq war -- that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would lead to a stable, democratic Iraq and bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Remember the argument that the key problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was lack of Palestinian democracy? Remember Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s promise that the U.S. would “support the new Lebanon”?

In truth, reliance on democratization was always not so much a strategy as an excuse for the lack of one. It provided a flimsy cover for the Bush administration’s inability or unwillingness to address the key challenges and opportunities of the region. These failures included walking away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and refusing to consider deals with Iran and Syria when, in the wake of 9/11, these regimes were extremely eager for compromise. As investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and Mideast scholar Flynt Leverett, among others, have argued, Bush forfeited the chance to recruit these two states as allies in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Sunni extremist world, which the Syrian and Iranian regimes have their own good reasons to hate.

Instead, the administration, backed by most of the Democratic leadership, has supported the Israeli government in its plan for a unilateral solution that would confine the Palestinians to Bantustans. It has treated Iran and Syria with unremitting hostility, trying to undermine the Syrian economy and impose sanctions on Iran, demanding concessions while openly proclaiming its desire to overthrow both states.


Not surprisingly, when the flare-up of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians provided an opportunity, Tehran and Damascus unleashed Hezbollah. This is an extremely risky and irresponsible strategy for Syria and Iran, but no serious student of the Middle East can claim that it is an unexpected one, given the situation in which the United States has placed them.

Far from promoting democracy in the region, the U.S. is being led closer to Israel’s traditional three-part strategy toward its neighbors: reliance on deals with dictatorial regimes that fear their own people; promotion of divisions between different religious and ethnic groups; and, when necessary, war.

In Lebanon, Israel is justified in demanding that the Lebanese government exert more control over Hezbollah. But Israel must remember that Shiites represent more than 40% of the Lebanese population -- and the vast majority support Hezbollah. Thus, the only way that Hezbollah can be controlled without massive violence is by integrating its members into the Lebanese state.

Crushing Hezbollah, by contrast, would require a military dictatorship of the Lebanese Christians and another horrendous Lebanese civil war with many thousands of deaths. Israel might be morally justified in promoting such a “solution” if Hezbollah represented a real threat to Israel’s existence.

But Israel wants to pound the Lebanese state into cracking down on Hezbollah no matter the cost to the Lebanese population or to the hopes of a democratic future that Bush praised so highly only three months ago.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the failure of the Saudi, Jordanian and other regimes to speak out on behalf of the Lebanese has nothing to do with democracy. It results from two factors: their fear of the expansion of Iranian and Shiite influence, and their fear of militancy in their own states. In any of these countries, democracy would lead to very different policies, ones much more hostile to Israel and the U.S.

The neoconservatives who shaped Bush’s “strategy” toward the Middle East always embodied a quite Orwellian contradiction. On the one hand, they professed to believe that early democracy is possible for the Middle East and that it would solve the region’s problems, including the Israeli-Arab dispute. On the other hand, many made no secret of their belief that, as neocon scholar Michael Ledeen has written (quoting Machiavelli), “it is better to be feared than loved.” Raphael Patai, whose book “The Arab Mind” influenced neoconservative thinking, argues that Arabs chiefly respond to the language of force.

But as the experience of Israel shows, rejecting compromise and relying mainly on force leads only to endless conflict. Now that the U.S. dream of combining democratization of the region with submission to Washington’s policies is dead, the U.S. too is faced with a stark choice: seek genuine compromise with key regional actors, or be prepared to fight repeated wars.