A dose of humility

April 13, 2005|By Wesley K. Clark

AT THE RECENT fifth annual Qatar conference on democracy and free trade, there was passionate talk and combative dialogue among delegates from two dozen Islamic countries. The winds of democracy are indeed blowing across the region.

But to act as though all of this began with the invasion of Iraq not only disparages years of effort by thousands of leaders and activists in the region but also undercuts the indigenous foundations on which real democratic progress must rest.

Some want to say that 2005 in the Middle East is like 1989 in Europe. But there are crucial distinctions between the flowering of the new democracies in Eastern Europe after 1989 and the stirrings in the Middle East today. Among the most important is that neither the United States nor NATO invaded Eastern Europe.

In fact, communism had been imposed there, in the wake of the Red Army. Its grip was broken by decades-long and ultimately largely peaceful delegitimization by local uprisings and demonstrations, international agreements such as the 1975 Helsinki accord, the powerful efforts of Pope John Paul II, international labor and political movements and the engagements with Western business, legal and financial institutions.

Conversely, U.S. military action in the Middle East, and our faithful commitment to Israel, has created deep hostility among Arab populations and a thoughtful ambivalence among elites. While stated U.S. democratic values receive praise and admiration, our policies have generated popular resentment that is reflected in virtually every opinion poll taken in the region.

And there is a passionate resistance to the United States "imposing" our style of democracy to suit our purposes, even among democracy's ardent advocates. The fiery hearts of those who aspire to democracy beat just as soundly under Arab robes as they do under gray suits. Our "perfect union" may not necessarily be their perfect union. The process of creation and ownership may be more important than the form or structure, so long as we share a respect for the dignity and rights of the individual.

For the United States, this means that we shouldn't be trying to take too much credit for the changes that appear to be coming. Or be too boastful of our institutions. Or too loud in proclaiming this is all just about our national security. A little humility is likely to prove far more useful than chest-thumping.

This doesn't mean there isn't a lot more that we can do. The Syrian promise to withdraw from Lebanon deprives that country of structure, which could leave the society there vulnerable to the same opposing forces that ignited civil war 30 years ago. We should be working behind the scenes with friends to provide the support, balance and reassurances necessary for the revival of independent democracy in Lebanon.

We could also usefully engage Syria in a diplomatic dialogue that could provide it with more reasons to cooperate in Iraq and liberalize at home. At the very least, we should be helping to craft what comes next before we tighten the noose further on an already shaky Syrian President Bashar Assad.

And if we want more credit in the region, we could most likely gain it by working with our allies and encouraging greater democratic reforms in states such as Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - always with an eye to an indigenous style of democracy rather than simply railing against the ayatollahs in Iran and the old thugs in Damascus.

Our success in Iraq is vital for the region, but it will require more than just the courage of our men and women in uniform. We need to be working quietly inside Iraq to promote the essential compromises that can lead to the formation of an Iraqi government. Our troops should be joined by Arab troops from our friends in the Persian Gulf region while the training of Iraqi security forces continues. And it would be useful to convince Iraq's neighbors that a stable democratizing Iraq is in their interests, too.

The process of democratization in the region is still fragile. Its outcome is uncertain. And in our eagerness to help, we'd do well to heed the motto of my friends in the submarine service: "Run silent, run deep." Or to put it in terms everyone understands: Let's do a little less crowing about the approach of dawn and a lot more work to make sure we'll like what the sunrise brings.

Wesley K. Clark, a former Democratic presidential candidate and retired Army general who was supreme allied commander of Europe, is the author of Winning Modern Wars.

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