Washington Monthly, May 2004
The strategy that won the Cold War could help bring democracy to the Middle East– if only the Bush hawks understood it.
During 2002 and early 2003, Bush administration officials put forth a shifting series of arguments for why we needed to invade Iraq. Nearly every one of these has been belied by subsequent events. We have yet to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; assuming that they exist at all, they obviously never presented an imminent threat. Saddam’s alleged connections to al Qaeda turned out to be tenuous at best and clearly had nothing to do with September 11. The terrorists now in Iraq have largely arrived because we are there, and Saddam’s security forces aren’t. And peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which prominent hawks argued could be achieved “only through Baghdad,” seems further away than ever.
Advocates of the invasion are now down to their last argument: that transforming Iraq from brutal tyranny to stable democracy will spark a wave of democratic reform throughout the Middle East, thereby alleviating the conditions that give rise to terrorism. This argument is still standing because not enough time has elapsed to test it definitively–though events in the year since Baghdad’s fall do not inspire confidence. For every report of a growing conversation in the Arab world about the importance of democracy, there’s another report of moderate Arabs feeling their position undercut by the backlash against our invasion. For every example of progress (Libya giving up its WMD program), there’s an instance of backsliding (the Iranian mullahs purging reformist parliamentarians).
What is certainly true is that any hope for a “domino theory” rests with Iraq’s actually becoming something that resembles a stable democracy. But here, too, there has been little progress. Despite their heroic efforts, American soldiers have been unable to make the country consistently stable and safe. Iraq’s various ethnic entities and political factions remain deeply divided. Even the administration has concluded that the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council lacks credibility with the ordinary Iraqis it is intended to represent. The country’s reconstituted security forces have been ineffectual–indeed, in some cases, they have joined the armed resistance to our occupation. The ease with which the demagogue Muqtada al-Sadr brought thousands to the streets and effectively took over a key city for weeks has sparked fears that an Iranian-style theocracy will emerge in Iraq. And the American and Iraqi civilian death tolls continue to mount.
Whether or not you agreed with the president’s decision to invade Iraq–and I did not–there’s no doubt that America has a right and a duty to take whatever actions are necessary, including military action, to protect ourselves from the clear security threats emanating from this deeply troubled part of the world. Authoritarian rule in these countries has clearly created fertile ground for terrorists, and so establishing democratic governance in the region must be seen as one of our most vital security goals. There is good reason, however, to question whether the president’s strategy is advancing or hindering that goal.
President Bush’s approach to Iraq and to the Middle East in general has been greatly influenced by a group of foreign-policy thinkers whose defining experience was as hawkish advisors to President Reagan and the first President Bush, and who in the last few years have made an explicit comparison between Middle Eastern regimes and the Soviet Union. These neoconservatives looked at the nest of problems caused by Middle East tyranny and argued that a morally unequivocal stance and tough military action could topple those regimes and transform the region as surely as they believed that Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric and military posture brought down the Soviet Union. In a March 2002 interview on CNN, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, one of the main architects of the Iraq war, argued that the moral judgment that President Bush made “very clear, crystal clear in his State of the Union message” in which he laid out the Axis of Evil is “exactly the same kind of clarity, I think, that Ronald Reagan introduced in understanding the Soviet Union.” In a speech last year, Defense Department advisor Richard Perle made the comparison even more explicit: “I have no doubt that [Bush] has the vision that Ronald Reagan had, and can envision, can contemplate change on a very large scale in Iraq and elsewhere across the region.”
This dream of engineering events in the Middle East to follow those of the Soviet Union has led to an almost unprecedented geostrategic blunder. One crucial reason things went wrong, I believe, is that the neoconservatives misunderstood how and why the Soviet Union fell and what the West did to contribute to that fall. They radically overestimated the role of military assertiveness while underestimating the value of other, subtler measures. They then applied those theories to the Middle East, a region with very different political and cultural conditions. The truth is this: It took four decades of patient engagement to bring down the Iron Curtain, and 10 years of deft diplomacy to turn chaotic, post-Soviet states into stable, pro-Western democracies. To achieve the same in the Middle East will require similar engagement, patience, and luck.
Inspiring smoke screens
Just as they counseled President Bush to take on the tyrannies of the Middle East, so the neoconservatives in the 1980s and early 1990s advised Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush to confront the Soviet Union and more aggressively deploy America’s military might to challenge the enemy. As an Army officer in and out of Washington, I met many who would later star in the neoconservative movement at conferences and briefings. They’re rightly proud of serving under Ronald Reagan, as I am. And as someone who favored a strong U.S. role abroad, I received a good deal of sympathy from them. As has been well documented, even before September 11, going after Saddam had become a central issue for them. Their Project for a New American Century seemed intent on doing to President Clinton what the Committee on the Present Danger had done to President Carter: push the president to take a more aggressive stand against an enemy, while at the same time painting him as weak.
September 11 gave the neoconservatives the opportunity to mobilize against Iraq, and to wrap the mobilization up in the same moral imperatives which they believed had achieved success against the Soviet Union. Many of them made the comparison direct, in speeches and essays explicitly and approvingly compared the Bush administration’s stance towards terrorists and rogue regimes to the Reagan administration’s posture towards the Soviet Union.
For them, the key quality shared by Reagan and the current President Bush is moral clarity. Thus, for instance, long-time neoconservative writer and editor Norman Podhoretz, after noting approvingly that Bush’s stark phrase “Axis of Evil” echoes Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” wrote in Commentary magazine: “The rhetorical echoes of Reagan reflected a shared worldview that Bush was bringing up to date now that the cold war was over. What Communism had been to Reagan in that war, terrorism was to Bush in this one; and as Reagan had been persuaded that the United States of America had a mission to hasten the demise of the one, Bush believed that we had a mission to rid the world of the other.”
In the neoconservative interpretation, Reagan’s moral absolutism allowed him to take on the Soviet Union by any means necessary: Because he recognized the supreme danger the Soviets posed, he was willing to challenge it with a massive military buildup. In this understanding, the moral equivocation of Carter and his predecessors left them satisfied with the failed, halfway strategy of containment. Only when Reagan changed the moral template of the conflict, their argument goes, was America able to get past the weak pieties of containment and rid the world of Soviet tyranny.
Likewise, as Perle has argued, Bush’s moral certainty allowed him to recognize Islamic tyranny for what it was (a manifestation of evil) and unfetter American might to defeat it, which meant deploying the military to enact regime change. “Had we settled for containment of the Soviet Union,” Perle wrote in December 2002, “it might still be in business today. Are we–and millions of former Soviet citizens–not better off because the United States went beyond mere containment and challenged the legitimacy of a totalitarian Soviet Union? The ideological and moral challenge to the Soviet Union that was mounted by the Reagan administration took us well beyond containment. If containment means that a country such as Iraq, that is capable of doing great damage, is left unhindered to prepare to do that damage, then we run unnecessary, foolish and imprudent risks.”
In justifying his policy towards Iraq, Bush himself echoed Perle.
“Moral clarity,” President Bush said in his 2002 commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy, “was essential to our victory in the cold war. When leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan refused to gloss over the brutality of tyrants, they gave hope to prisoners and dissidents and exiles and rallied free nations to a great cause … We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name. By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem.” Never mind that the regime the administration was most intent on confronting was the one in the region that had perhaps the least to do with the events of September 11 or the immediate terrorist threat.
And the neoconservative goal was more ambitious than merely toppling dictators: By creating a democracy in Iraq, our success would, in the president’s words, “send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran–that freedom can be the future of every nation,” and Iraq’s democracy would serve as a beacon that would ignite liberation movements and a “forward strategy of freedom” around the Middle East.
This rhetoric is undeniably inspiring. We should have pride in our history, confidence in our principles, and take security in the knowledge that we are at the epicenter of a 228-year revolution in the transformation of political systems. But recognizing the power of our values also means understanding their meaning. Freedom and dignity spring from within the human heart. They are not imposed. And inside the human heart is where the impetus for political change must be generated.
The neoconservative rhetoric glosses over this truth and much else. Even aside from the administration’s obvious preference for confronting terrorism’s alleged host states rather than the terrorists themselves, it was a huge leap to believe that establishing democracies by force of Western arms in old Soviet surrogate states like Syria and Iraq would really affect a terrorist movement drawing support from anti-Western sentiment in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Perhaps most fundamentally, the conditions of the Middle East today are vastly different from those behind the Iron Curtain in 1989. And the fact is that the Soviet Union did not fall the way the neoconservatives say it did.
The first thing to remember about American policy towards the Soviet Union is that we never directly invaded any nation under Soviet control. In the early 1950s, some in America saw the expansion of communism as an inevitability which must not only be resisted by force but also rolled back. And for a time during the Eisenhower administration, there was brave rhetoric about such an effort. Struggling resistance movements survived from year to year in the Baltics, Romania, and the Ukraine. And immigrant dissident groups in the United States kept up the political pressure on Washington to consider a more confrontational strategy. But any real prospect of rollback died as Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.
Instead, the foreign policy consensus coalesced around containment, an idea which had been in the air since the early post-war period, when George Kennan, then a veteran American diplomat, published his seminal Foreign Affairs article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Kennan argued that the Soviet system contained within it “the seeds of its own decay.” During the 1950s and 1960s, containment translated that observation into policy, holding the line against Soviet expansion with U.S. military buildups while quietly advancing a simultaneous program of cultural engagement with citizens and dissidents in countries under the Soviet thumb.
These subtler efforts mattered a great deal. The 1975 Helsinki Accords proved to be the crucial step in opening the way for the subsequent peaceful democratization of the Soviet bloc. The accords, signed by the Communist governments of the East, guaranteed individual human and political rights to all peoples and limited the authority of governments to act against their own citizens. However flimsy the human rights provisions seemed at the time, they provided a crucial platform for dissidents such as Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov. These dissidents, though often jailed and exiled, built organizations that publicized their governments’ many violations of the accords, garnering Western attention and support and inspiring their countrymen with the knowledge that it was possible to stand up to the political powers that be.
With the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, it became clear once more that it would be the demands of native peoples, not military intervention from the West, that would extend democracy’s reach eastward. Step by step, the totalitarian governments and structures of the East lost legitimacy in the eyes of their own citizens and elites. The United States and Western Europe were engaged, of course, in assisting these indigenous political movements, both directly and indirectly. Western labor unions, encouraged by their governments, aided the emergence of a democratic trade union movement, especially in Poland. Western organizations provided training for a generation of human-rights workers. Western broadcast media pumped in culture and political thought, raising popular expectations and undercutting Communist state propaganda. And Western businesses and financial institutions entered the scene, too, ensnaring command economies in Western market pricing and credit practices. The Polish-born Pope John Paul II directed Catholic churches in Eastern Europe and around the world to encourage their congregants to lobby for democracy and liberal freedoms.
Such outreach had profound effects, but only over time. In his new book, Soft Power, the defense strategist Joseph Nye tells the story of the first batch of 50 elite exchange students the Soviet Union allowed to the United States in the 1950s. One was Aleksandr Yakovlev, who became a key advocate of glasnost under Gorbachev. Another, Oleg Kalugin, wound up as a top KGB official. Kalugin later said: “Exchanges were a Trojan horse for the Soviet Union. They played a tremendous role in the erosion of the Soviet system…they kept infecting more and more people over the years.”
Of course, military pressure played a vital role in making containment work. But we applied that pressure in concert with allies in Europe. In the 1980s, for instance, President Reagan began the deployment of intermediate range missiles in Europe as part of NATO. It was a political struggle in the West, but we engaged NATO and made it work.
Rising Soviet defense spending aimed at competing with the United States may have hastened the economic decline in the Soviet Union, helped convince the Russian generals that they couldn’t compete with U.S. military technology, and strengthened Gorbachev’s hand as he pushed for glasnost. But this end-game challenge of Reagan’s would have been ineffective had 40 years of patient Western containment and engagement not helped undermine the legitimacy of the Communist regime in the eyes of its subjects. It was popular discontent with economic, social, and political progress, and people’s recognition of an appealing alternative system, that finished off the repressive regimes of Eastern Europe, and eventually the whole Soviet Union. No Western threat of force or military occupation forced their collapse. Indeed, subsequent examination by Germany’s Bundeswehr has shown that the East German military remained a disciplined conscript organization that could have effectively responded to Western intervention. But these governments were unable to resist focused, strongly-articulated popular will.
What the West supplied to the people of the East was, as former Solidarity leader and Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek told me, very simple: hope. They knew there was a countervailing force to the occupying Soviet power which had repressed them and subjugated their political systems. Democracy could reemerge in Central and Eastern Europe because of a several decades-long dance between popular resistance and cautious Western leaders who moved ever so carefully to provide support and encouragement without provoking the use of repressive force by the Communist governments in reaction or generating actual armed conflict between East and West.
So, when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” or stood before crowds in Berlin and proclaimed “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he was reaching a receptive audience on the other side of the wall. The neoconservatives persist in seeing a vast difference between Reagan’s policy of confronting the Soviets and previous American administrations’ tack of containing it. In fact, it was precisely those decades of containment and cultural engagement that made Reagan’s challenge effective.
A long way from Prague
Bush, of course, has accompanied his invasion of Iraq with similarly bold and eloquent rhetoric about the prospect of peace and democracy throughout the Arab world. But it is hard to exaggerate how differently his words and deeds have been received in the Middle East, compared to Reagan’s behind the Iron Curtain. While heartening some advocates of democracy, Bush’s approach has provoked perhaps the fiercest and most alarming anti-American backlash in history. To take but one example, a March poll conducted by the Pew Center found that the percentage of people in Muslim countries who think suicide bombings are justified has grown by roughly 40 percent since the American occupation of Iraq. Even the most Western-friendly, pro-democratic media outlets in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon now openly question whether the Americans are anti-Islamic crusaders bent on assisting the Israeli occupiers of Palestine. This is a long way from Prague, circa 1989.
The reaction of the Middle East to America’s invasion of Iraq should hardly have been surprising. Only willful blindness could obscure the obvious fact that the political and cultural conditions in the Middle East are profoundly different than those in the states of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. To one degree or another, the values and forms of democracy were part of the historic culture of the states of Central and Eastern Europe: There were constitutions and parliaments, in one form or another, in the Baltic States, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere before World War II. In some cases, these precedent experiences with democracy dated back into the 19th century.
This is evidently not the case in the Middle East. The Enlightenment never much penetrated the Ottoman frontiers, and so the great conflicts of faith versus reason and the value of each individual and his conscience which defined Western civilization were largely screened out there. Modern states in the Middle East emerged after the Ottoman Empire crumbled, and except in the cases of Turkey and Lebanon, there was nothing comparable to a Western democracy. Instead, “state socialism” was eventually imposed upon tribal and colonial heritages in many Arab states–replacing the Ottoman Empire with Western-drawn boundaries, authoritarian rulers, and, at best, pseudo-democratic institutions. Through it all, Islam–with its commingling of secular and religious authorities, and the power of its mullahs and its more fundamentalist, anti-Western sects–remained a significant force. As the example of Iran shows, elections and parliaments can be subverted by other means of control.
Nor is the desire for Western culture anywhere near as pronounced in the Middle East as it was behind the Iron Curtain. At the height of glasnost, American rock’n’roll bands toured the Soviet Union, playing to sold-out arenas of fans. By contrast, even many educated Muslims, who resent the yoke of tyranny under which they live, find much of American culture shocking and deplorable. Central European countries had enjoyed a culture of secular education and Western music and art dating at least to the late Renaissance, privileges and luxuries that ordinary citizens fought for centuries to gain access to. For much of the population of Central Europe, the Soviet darkness which descended in the late 1940s was something so fundamentally alien to the underlying culture that its overthrow can in hindsight be seen as close to inevitable. In the Middle East, periods of cultural openness can only be found in the fairly distant past.
Finally, the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia felt the extra sting of being ruled by an outside imperial force–Russia. By contrast, the tyrants of the Middle East, like Assad in Syria, the Al Sa’ud dynasty in Saudi Arabia and, indeed, Saddam Hussein, are all locally grown and can draw on some amount of nationalism for support. The imperial powers that most residents of the Middle East remember are, in fact, Western powers. And today’s Western governments, including the United States, have long supported these Middle East strongmen. Whether we should have or should continue to do so is open to debate. What is not is that our sponsorship of these regimes has made the citizens less willing to believe our intentions are honorable. This is made all the more difficult because our strongest ally in the region, Israel, is seen by most Arabs as the enemy. It is then perhaps not surprising that opinion poll after opinion poll has shown that Osama bin Laden is far more popular among potential voters in Islamic states than George W. Bush.
Arab people power
Seeking to intervene and essentially impose a democracy on a country without real democratic traditions or the foundations of a pluralist society is not only risky, it is also inherently self-contradictory. All experience suggests that democracy doesn’t grow like this. But we are where we are, and we must pull together to try to help this project succeed.
First, and most obviously, we need to avoid an impending disaster in Iraq. The current situation there is not only alarming in itself, but may also be creating a negative rather than positive dynamic for democracy in the Middle East. In the short term, we must significantly increase U.S. troop strength to restore and maintain stability. In the medium term, our European allies must share the burden–which will only happen if we share decision-making with them. And in the long term, we must draw down U.S. troops. A massive American military presence in the heart of the Middle East, after all, can only increase support for terrorism and undercut the position of indigenous pro-Western reformers.
We must also recommit ourselves to a real peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. We should measure success on the progress we make, not merely on final resolution. We must also recognize that here, the neoconservatives had it backwards: The “road to Jerusalem” didn’t run through Baghdad at all; rather, until real progress is made towards resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue in a way that respects both sides, all American efforts to work within the region will be compromised.
Democracy and freedom have been ascendant in most parts of the world for at least the last 15 years, and it’s hard to imagine that they aren’t also destined to take root in the Middle East. But to play a constructive role in bringing this about, we must understand the facts on the ground and the lessons of history clearly. Our efforts should take into account not just the desire for freedom of those in the Middle East, but also their pride in their own culture and roots and their loyalty to Islam. We should work primarily with and through our allies, and be patient as we were during the four decades of the Cold War. More than anything else, we should keep in mind the primary lesson of the fall of the Soviet Union: Democracy can come to a place only when its people rise up and demand it.
Instead of brandishing military force and slogans about democracy, we must recognize what our real strengths and limitations are. In this part of the world, American power and rhetoric tend to produce countervailing reactions. Demands and direct action are appropriate in self-defense, but in a region struggling to regain its pride after centuries of perceived humiliation by the West, we should speak softly whenever possible. If we really want to encourage forms of government to emerge which we believe will better suit our own interests, then we have to set a powerful example and act indirectly and patiently–even while we take the specific actions truly necessary for our self-defense.
We should also recognize that it is not merely democracy itself–a popular vote to elect a government–that we seek for the Middle East, but rather more enlightened, tolerant, and moderating decisions and actions from governments. The tolerance, aversion to aggression, and openness which we hope to see emerge from a democratic transformation in the Middle East will require much more than just censuses, election registers, polling booths, and accurate ballot counts. We must avoid what Fareed Zakaria calls “illiberal democracy,” governments which are elected but which routinely ignore constitutional limits on their power and deprive their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. Only by creating a system of pluralistic and overlapping structures and institutions that check the power of their leaders can the nations of the Middle East avoid this fate.
Any attempt to build democracy in the Islamic world must begin by taking into account Islam itself, the region’s major source of culture, values, and law. There has been no “Protestant reformation” within the Muslim world. The teachings of the Koran tend to reflect an absolutism largely left behind in the West. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that he would not accept the emergence of a theocratic state within Iraq, he gave voice to a profound concern: that even in Iraq, one of the more secularized Arab states, the majority of people look to Islam for their values and beliefs. (Indeed, Saddam himself in his final years in power increasingly turned to religious rhetoric to shore up support among his impoverished people). Inevitably, any lasting constitution there must entail compromises that reflect popular values. Hopefully, a form of government can emerge that reflects Islamic notions of rights, responsibilities, and respect but that is also representative in nature, reflects popular sovereignty, and retains the capacity to make pragmatic decisions.
There are, after all, some reasons to be optimistic. One Islamic country in the Middle East that has made the transition to democracy is Turkey. But it did not do so overnight. After decades of tight military supervision of the political process, during which the United States and Western Europe embraced the country as part of NATO and urged subtle reforms, Turkey has only within the last few years overcome the last obstacles to full democracy. Spurred by a broad national desire to join the European Union, Turkish voters approved constitutional amendments which, among other things, separated the Turkish military from politics, and today an avowedly democratic but openly religious party runs the government and enjoys strong popular support. Algeria, a country only recently racked by fundamentalist violence, has taken tentative steps in this direction, as have Jordan and Bahrain.
Nowhere in the Middle East has the public demand for freedom been more striking than in Cyprus, 60 miles from the Syrian coast. For 30 years, the Christian Greek and Muslim Turkish sides of the island have been divided by a 120-mile “green line,” the equivalent of the Berlin Wall. Last month, 40,000 Turkish citizens (a fifth of the population of the Turkish portion of the island) marched against their long-time authoritarian leader, Rauf Denktash, in favor of a U.N.-drafted unification plan with the Greek side. This upwelling of popular demand was not the result of American military action; the protests were only the latest in a series that started long before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. What motivated the Turkish Cypriots was a simple desire for a better life. The Greek side of the island will be joining the European Union next month. Citizens on the Turkish side didn’t want to be left behind. Indeed, 65 percent of them voted for the U.N. plan (though the Greek side rejected it). We must do everything we can to encourage others in the Middle East to do as the Turks of Cyprus have: to step forward and demand change. We must strengthen the liberal institutions in these countries and aid embryonic pro-democracy movements, using every tool we have and creating some new ones. In this effort, we will have to rely heavily on the proven capacities of groups one step removed from the U.S. government, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute. But I also believe there is a need for a cabinet- or sub-cabinet level agency designed to support and evaluate the kind of political and economic development efforts that can prevent later crises and conflicts. This will require substantial budget authority as well as research, development, and operational responsibilities.
We must also recognize that to be successful, we’re going to need our European allies. Europe is closer to the Middle East geographically and more enmeshed with it economically. It is home to millions of Middle Eastern immigrants, who are a natural bridge across the Mediterranean. It is not so strongly associated with Israel in the minds of Arabs as we are. And yet, its very proximity gives Europe at least as much incentive as we have to fight terrorism and work for a stable, democratic Middle East. This makes the Bush administration’s belittling and alienating of Europe all the more perplexing.
With Europe as our partner, we can also think more ambitiously and inventively than we can alone. One possibility is to offer select Middle Eastern countries the chance at membership in our most valuable alliances and organizations–the incentive that roused the Turkish Cypriots. The desire for the benefits of joining alliances like the European Union are there. I remember a conversation I had in 1998 with King Hassan of Morocco. He told me of his desire to join the European Union in order to have the European highway system extended into his country. Realistically, neither the European Union nor NATO will be in a position to expand for many years to come, having recently added many new members. But it should be possible to create adjunct regional organizations or associate memberships, such as the “Partnership for Peace” program that brought former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO’s orbit. Middle East countries that sign up would get certain commercial and security benefits in return for shouldering responsibilities and making democratic reforms.
The Bush administration seems to understand the potential of this approach, even as its own unilateralist impulses undermine the possibility. Late last year, senior administration officials began talking about a “Greater Middle East Initiative” in which Western nations would offer Arab and South Asian countries aid and membership in organizations such as the WTO in exchange for those countries’ making democratic reforms. It was exactly the right tack but required a subtle, consensus-building approach to implement. Yet instead of consulting with Islamic countries and with European allies who had been making similar plans, the administration developed the plan all on its own, in secret, and when a copy was leaked to the Arab press, it caused a predictable backlash. Europeans groused and Arab leaders with no interest in democratic reform used the fact that America had developed the plan unilaterally as a convenient excuse to reject it out of hand. The State Department had to send diplomats out to do damage control so that the president can talk about the idea in a series of speeches next month.
We need to take the American face off this effort and work indirectly. But there are some American faces that can be enormously useful. Among our greatest assets during the Cold War were immigrants and refugees from the captive nations of the Soviet Union. Tapping their patriotism toward America and love of their homelands, we tasked them with communicating on our behalf with their repressed countrymen in ways both overt and covert, nursing hopes for freedom and helping to organize resistance. America’s growing community of patriotic Muslim immigrants can play a similar role. They can help us establish broader, deeper relationships with Muslim countries through student and cultural exchange programs and organizational business development.
We can’t know precisely how the desire for freedom among the peoples of the Middle East will grow and evolve into movements that result in stable democratic governments. Different countries may take different paths. Progress may come from a beneficent king, from enlightened mullahs, from a secular military, from a women’s movement, from workers returning from years spent as immigrants in Western Europe, from privileged sons of oil barons raised on MTV, or from an increasingly educated urban intelligentsia, such as the nascent one in Iran. But if the events of the last year tell us anything, it is that democracy in the Middle East is unlikely to come at the point of our gun. And Ronald Reagan would have known better than to try.
Gen. Wesley Clark, U.S.A. (Ret.), was Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, from 1997-2000, and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004.