Democracy messy but still best course in Mideast

September 01, 2006|By Victor Davis Hanson

The Palestinian prime minister, Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh, is shocked. He claims that without his government's knowledge, the terrorist group Holy Jihad Brigades kidnapped two Western journalists (who have since been released) in Gaza.

Have Mr. Haniyeh and Hamas forgotten their own terrorist habits? When they were out of power, Hamas militants kidnapped and bombed without permission from the Palestinian Authority. That irony of wanting it both ways recalls the ancient historian Thucydides' warning not to annul those common laws of humanity to which all trust for their own hope of deliverance should they ever be overtaken by calamity - forgetting that in their own hour of need they will look for them in vain.

The same freelance terrorism goes on in Lebanon despite the grumbles of the country's government.

At the other end of the spectrum, a similar problem of illegitimacy arises when a few thugs, not various tribes, run things. Strongmen in Syria, the Persian Gulf, North Africa and Egypt may enforce order, but they are as illegitimate as the chaotic, nonstate militias and terrorists that sometimes succeed them.

So, should the United States be tough or friendly with law-and-order types such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, the gulf sheiks or Libya's Col. Muammar el Kadafi? Lecturing them risks the short-term anger of their state-run media, which slander America. But such pressure also offers the hope that someday the people in these leaders' countries will appreciate the principled American support for reformers.

When Middle Eastern dictatorships such as those in Iran or Syria hate us, their savvy people seem to like us. But when we prop up Egyptian or gulf autocracies, their citizens scapegoat the United States.

Messy democracy is probably coming, one way or another, to the region. Sticking to the bitter end with authoritarians will only eventually usher in a more extreme reaction. But by supporting the rule of constitutional law, we have the best chance of seeing moderates such as Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan or Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq come to power.

Why should the United States commit resources to help reform a dysfunctional Middle East?

First, Islamic terrorism has a global reach. Even just a few operatives are able to destroy the foundations of Western air travel, finance and civic trust. These terrorists are encouraged by their patron autocrats, who manage to shift the blame for their failures onto the West.

Second, the tyrannies of the Middle East export much of the world's oil. The amount of petroleum they are willing to pump and sell can determine the pulse of the world economy. And much of the funding for terrorism worldwide has come out of the billions in annual petro-profits.

Third, militias and dictatorships - whether led by the Taliban, Iranian mullahs, Saddam Hussein or the late Hafez el Assad of Syria - have butchered thousands of innocents.

And fourth, Israel is a successful, humane, democratic state that would be overwhelmed if the U.S. left the region.

The Middle East's long-term health is, thus, critical to the security of the West. True, it is easy now to call the supporters of democracy in the Middle East naive, given the savagery in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan; the elected terrorists on the West Bank; and the deeply entrenched tribalism, fundamentalism and gender apartheid that thwart liberal change.

But we long tried almost everything else. Accepting dictators on their own terms did not bring stability but rather constant war, oil embargoes and terrorism from the 1960s onward. Replying to two decades of terrorist attacks - from the Iranian hostage-taking in 1979 to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 - with indictments and a few cruise missiles only emboldened the jihadists. And staging coups or propping up authoritarians in Iran or the gulf simply radicalized the Middle East.

In truth, fostering democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq was not our first choice but our last. It was not a good option, only a bad one when the other alternatives had proved far worse. What the U.S. is trying to do in the Middle East is costly, easily made fun of and unappreciated. But constitutional government is one course that might someday free Middle Easterners from kidnappings, suicide bombers and dictators in sunglasses. That's in our interest and theirs too.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His column appears in The Sun on Fridays. His e-mail is

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