Towards a Democratic Geopolitics of the Middle East
Once it became clear that terrorists of Middle Eastern origin were responsible for the attacks of 9/11, the debate on how to respond produced two very different schools of thought.
The one said: ‘We have to change’. This was shorthand for the view that the destruction of the World Trade Centre was the nemesis for a whole range of misdeeds especially American support for Israel, her backing of repressive Arab regimes in the region and the fall from grace in global public opinion epitomised by the Bush administration’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, and other international agreements. On this reading, the only sensible US response was to pursue a more humble foreign policy which attempted to atone for past sins, and to ‘engage’ with the Middle East peace process – code for leaning on Israel – in the hope of reducing Arab rage. These ideas had traction not only among the usual suspects of anti-globalisation protesters and third-worldists, but – more importantly – within foreign policy establishments in the US and the western world as well.
There was something to be said for this view, but not much. It was true that US policies in the Middle East had been heavily slanted towards Israel; and that the United States had suffered in the eyes of world opinion for its policies on climate change and the international criminal court. Yet none of the 9/11 attackers were Palestinians; Palestine has always been a lower priority for Osama bin Laden than the ‘infidel’ presence around the holy places; and in any case, the attacks were planned in the late 1990s, when US engagement with the ‘peace process’ under President Clinton, was at its height. That al-Qaeda has no strong views on climate change hardly needs elaboration.
Moreover, the ‘We must change’ view took no account of the most important casualty of 9/11: the ‘realist’ paradigm in the Middle East. For many decades, western governments – especially the United States – had maintained a Faustian bargain with ‘moderate’ repressive regimes in the Middle East. We would provide security and stifle our concerns about human rights. They would keep the oil flowing and their populations in check. The alternative, we were told, would be either Islamic fundamentalism or anarchy of the sort that engulfed Algeria shortly after the army annulled elections in 1992.
There is nothing like Realpolitik, if it works. But on 12th September it became clear that in this case it did not work. Far from keeping the lid on a seething cauldron of anti-western sentiment, we had actually nurtured a viper in our breast. The hijackers came from two ‘allied’ states: Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Likewise, Palestinians are not prominent among the international terrorists in Iraq; Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians are. The realist paradigm, in short, failed to supply the security it promised. The remedy cannot be more of the same.
The alternative response to 9/11 was to say: ‘They will have to change’. On this reading, the attacks were to be blamed on the profoundly dysfunctional and undemocratic nature of Middle Eastern polities, in which internal tensions were exported and directed against an outside enemy. Saudi Arabia was the classic case here: for years it had deflected internal criticism by funding extremism abroad, in Afghanistan and then around the region; Iraq had twice committed acts of unprovoked aggression against her neighbours and was the leading Arab anti-western power. Only by ‘draining the swamp’, by reclaiming the region from its miasma of repression and fanaticism, so the argument ran, could security be achieved. Against this background, it is unsurprising that the democratic transformation of the Middle East should have begun with an attack on its greatest dictator, Saddam Hussein, rather than putting pressure on its only democracy, Israel.
But the removal of Saddam Hussein was also the beginning of a much greater project: a new and democratic geopolitics of the Middle East, with new fronts and new spaces. It made possible the first democratic elections in Iraq, which resonated widely in the region. Walid Jumblatt, a long time opponent of US policy in the Middle East and a fierce critic of the Iraq war, famously remarked that: ‘When I saw the Iraqi people voting, 8 million of them, it was start of a new Arab world. The Berlin Wall has fallen’. Recently, President Bush announced that ‘as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you’. In practise this meant that Syria cannot suppress the Lebanese reform movement with impunity. Egypt and Saudi Arabia – singled out by name by the President, cannot simply snuff out democratic stirrings in their own countries.
It is often said that the democratic reordering of the Middle East cuts across the ‘War on Terror’. This is true at one level: police work requires international cooperation with regimes of different stripes, many of them deeply unpleasant. The whole idea of ‘regime change’ is anathema to them. But it is even more true that the ‘War on Terror’ impedes the democratic re-ordering of the Middle East. It is the perfect franchise for the repressive state. We see this today in the cooperation with Syria over certain terrorist suspects, even as we publicly proclaim our opposition to the regime. And if the reports from human rights organisations are to be believed, we are constructing a vast anti-terrorist gulag in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region as quickly as we are building, or helping to build, a democratic space in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. If the great transformation is to be achieved, there will have to be more ‘joined-up’ thinking in this regard. The right hand must know what left hand is doing. At the moment we risk losing what we have gained on the swings of democratic elections on the roundabouts of ‘The War on Terror’.
This section of the Henry Jackson Society will defend the decision to remove Saddam Hussein by force, and it may well support similar measures in future. But for the moment it will seek to explore more subtle possibilities for democratic change in the Middle East in which the military option may just be implicit.
First, we should be open to seeing retreating regimes as partners. In a recent interview, President Assad of Syria seems to have signalled that he was prepared to ‘come quietly’, at least part of the way. Clearly, such a managed transition would be vastly preferable to an invasion or internal meltdown. ‘Regime change’ can be effected from within, as well. At the same time, we would have to be careful not to prop up these governments beyond their natural life span. The credit transfusions to the Eastern Bloc under Détente are a warning; the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989 a model.
Secondly, we may have to be patient in Iran. If Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was essentially totalitarian, and had to be ended from outside, then the mullahs tend more towards the authoritarian. There is space for dissent and change within the system, even if there has been little movement of late. Nothing would be more calculated to stifle the chances for internal transformation than a western ground invasion, or even the threat of one. Here Britain, which currently controls the probable southern attack frontage from Iraq, has an effective veto, which it should use. There may be a case for a limited air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, but that will solve nothing in the long run and will probably do more harm than good.
Thirdly, as the region becomes more democratic, Israeli human rights abuses and settlement policies should be subjected to closer scrutiny. Soon, Israel should be pressed for a full withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, or some other suitable boundary negotiated with the Palestinians, within the context of an overall democratisation and pacification of the region. Needless to say, the emergence of a strong Palestinian democracy would be the best possible boost to the democratic transformation of the region as a whole.
Fourthly, we may also have to rethink our attitude to Islam and its ecclesiastical structures. Hitherto, there has been something of a knee-jerk reaction against ‘theocracy’. In fact, the problem we face today is not organised but disorganised Islam. It is the free-for-all of Sunni fundamentalism, from which al-Qaeda and the Iraqi resistance draws its greatest support. On the other hand, the Shiite Grand Ajatollah Al Sistani, without whom no elections would have taken place, has done more for democracy and all our security, than the entire transitional team in Iraq.
All this is a calculated risk. We are gambling that we will gain more through genuine democratisation than we lose by setting potentially anti-western peoples free. We certainly do not assume – or even desire – that democratic states will be biddable. Ukraine since the ‘Orange Revolution’ has probably been a less reliable partner over Iraq; Kuwait might well be after a similar transformation. What we are sure of is that – since 9/11 – the status quo is no longer an option.