Middle Eastern Delusions
For more than a century, Muslim clerics and scholars have issued scattered calls for a return to the glories of bygone days, calls that have become more focused in the past half century with the transition to independence of every country in the region (with the exception of an Arab Palestine). They refer, of course, to the long centuries when first the Muslim conquerors from Arabia and then the Ottoman Turks reigned virtually supreme in matters intellectual, governmental, and martial in the Western half of the world .
Some few regional leaders have proclaimed the Islamic world to be on the verge of renewed greatness, notwithstanding evidence to the contrary in terms of military and economic strength. Clearly these latter-day prophets, if not dead wrong, are at least premature and optimistic in their assessments of the future.
The continuing difficulties in the Middle East in particular — which we concentrate on here because of Gulf War II now being waged — are well known. Despite the availability of fabulous mineral wealth, Middle East oil riches remain in the hands of the few. Notwithstanding a profound cultural tradition, within the region the advance of knowledge and original expressions of thought have been made only minimally in recent decades. Despite the area’s many-centuries-old heritage of governance and the decades-long absence of Western colonial powers, only one nation in the Middle East — and that the non-Muslim Israel — has a government truly based on the expressed will of the people
The region is very far from challenging for global supremacy. Poverty in the Middle East is widespread, economic development lags, education is only sporadically relevant to the populace’s needs, and political advance is inhibited. The chances of the Muslim world of that region regaining anything like its former exceptionally strong position in the world are slim to none unless it does an about face and accepts and builds upon the advances of the industrial revolution and the rise of democratic rule
The secular Western world does continue to outstrip the often religion-focused portions of what used to be called the Third World, including the Middle East. But the current American and other coalition political leadership deludes itself when it plans in terms of spreading democracy by overthrowing one particularly obnoxious, potentially dangerous despot — Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — and replacing him with homegrown democracy.
That change in one country alone is proving to be a problem-filled and expensive task. And to think that once a democratic example is imposed on Iraq, following upon that being attempted in Afghanistan, the experience will carry over by example to other nondemocratic nations around the region, and indeed the world — that belief is at best naive and based above all on theory. At worst, it is policy blindly formulated in a fog of ignorance about conditions in much of the non-Western world
What seems to be in current intellectual vogue in some sectors of official Washington is a “democracy” domino theory, akin in dynamics to the “communist” domino theory that President Eisenhower enunciated in 1954. The intention of the Bush Administration is, in this observer’s take on press reports, to encourage through example the spread of political and economic reforms by ousting the Iraqi dictator from power. Spokesmen for the president, namely Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and Pentagon adviser Perle, have held that reforming Iraq holds out the potential for favorably transforming attitudes about democracy throughout the Arab world, and indeed, the world at large.
This formulation, theoretical though it is, has importantly buttressed the argument of Washington officials who favored going to war with Iraq. For them, it also serves as a counter-argument to critics who express the fear that an Iraqi war will intensify Muslim terrorist activity directed against America
This editor has argued against the war (here and here) for reasons which include doubt that even the expected favorable military outcome would result in anything other than added complications and dangers for the United States. Of more importance than this personal opinion, intelligence officials in the U. S. government reportedly have disputed the democracy domino theory. Middle East experts in the Department of State and the C.I.A., we understand, view the idea with skepticism, pointing out the basic population, education, employment, and infrastructure difficulties that would inhibit the spread of democracy under even the best of circumstances. One unnamed official quoted in the Los Angeles Times (3/14/03) noted about the war that “to sell [it] on the basis that this is going to cause 1,000 flowers to bloom is naive.”
Would that replacing Saddam would lead to those results! This editor, however, views the democracy domino theory as having no more validity than the communist domino theory turned out to have back during the Cold War. Maybe less.
So, the war nevertheless is upon us. As an American and a veteran of the U. S. army during a war long ago and far away, this ex-private can only hope for early success for the coalition forces with as little bloodshed as possible. But the aftermath unfortunately most likely will not lead in the direction the Bush Administration seems to expect.