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Domino Democracy in the Middle East

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. In recent weeks a controversial idea has attracted much attention: that a war against Iraq could transform the Middle East. Some have argued that, like falling dominoes, a democratic Iraq might well help topple other repressive and dangerous governments in the region. Can military force create democracy? What are the alternatives?
To find out more, 'Think Tank' is joined by Victor Davis Hanson, Adjunct Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of An Autumn of War: What America Learned From September 11 and the War on Terrorism; and Thomas Carothers, Director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-author of Funding Virtue: Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion.
The topic before the house: Domino Democracy in the Middle East. This week on Think Tank.
Over the past several decades, the global political landscape has changed. From Eastern Europe to Latin America and parts of Africa, many nations have moved toward democratic forms of government. The Middle East is the only region that has not been lifted by the tide of democracy. Theocratic regimes and military dictatorships are still the norm throughout the Arab World. In America, some supporters of regime change in Iraq are arguing that removing Saddam Hussein could bring democracy in that country, and have a similar effect on other tyrannies in the Middle East--a kind of democratic Domino Effect. Can democracy take root and flourish in the Middle East? Should the United States take the lead in making that happen? If so, how should it be done? Or, are we being naïve? Victor Davis Hanson, Tom Carothers, welcome to “Think Tank.” Victor, you wrote an article recently in the Weekly Standard, and said that democracy in the Middle East was the hard-headed solution. What did you mean by that?
Victor Davis Hanson: I mean that after the Cold War that people on the right, who were realists, perhaps with some good measure, don’t have that fear of a global and nuclear Soviet Union to demand a realpolitik. You can’t say that socialists will become communists will become Soviet puppets anymore. People on the left, on the other hand, have a hard time looking at the pattern of U.S. intervention in Panama, Serbia, and the Taliban, and maybe with Saddam Hussein, to see that we’re undermining consensual governments. The United States is removing right wing people, so there’s a whole new dialectic that allows us to look at our own self interest in a way that’s not defined by the Soviet Union or Cold War dogma.
Ben Wattenberg: And that would then set up a row of toppling dominoes or something like that in the Middle East.
Victor Davis Hanson: I’m not sure that we’re going to have an Eastern European scenario or a Latin American scenario, but we have to remember that we don’t have a lot of good choices. We didn’t expect Nine Eleven. We do know that chaos like Afghanistan or the Sudan or Somalia is bad because it allows terrorists to be housed. We also know that autocracy like Syria and Iraq, in the most extreme, but even Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in the less extreme, tolerate people who voice virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. So, we don’t have a lot of choices but it seems to me that democracy…
Ben Wattenberg: Tom, he’s saying we don’t have many choices, but to go for democracy.
Thomas Carothers: Well I certainly agree that democracy can serve both America’s ideals and its security interests at the same time, and we’ve seen that throughout the Nineteen Nineties in Latin America and Eastern Europe and Asia and Africa. And there’s no reason the Middle East should stand apart from that. And for too long in the Middle East, United States has in some sense reflexively supported autocratic regimes thinking they were good for our security interests and our economic interests. And Nine Eleven has woken us up to the fact that it’s probably time to change that policy. But when we do that we’ve got a tough road to hoe. This is a region that so far has not been experiencing a democratic trend and in which there are questions about our own credibility as a democratic actor. I can say more about that. So I think we’re right on the framework here that democracy can serve all of America’s interests but if this is a region where it’s gonna be harder than ever before.
Ben Wattenberg: But is it fair to say that you are highly skeptical? Your article in the Carnegie publication was highly skeptical. Your article in the Weekly Standard was fairly upbeat and optimistic that something could really happen there as it happened in Latin America perhaps. So where do you differ?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well I think that you go back to the beginning of democracy in Greece there’s a whole corpus of classical philosophy that says you can’t just put democracy on a preexisting society that does not have a middle class, the rule of law, legality. But on the other hand, and I agree with Tom we don’t see that, probably you know better than I, there’s not a nomenclature in the Arab vocabulary for democracy.
Ben Wattenberg: There are no words for it?
Victor Davis Hanson: There are no words for it. It’s a Western phenomenon. But that being said, the world’s changed. I mean we have the Internet. We have a large body of Western dissidents, Western trained dissidents, from the Middle East. We have more democracies in the world than any time in the history of civilization. And all of that can create a momentum that might in some ways substitute somewhat for the classical prerequisites for democracy.
Thomas Carothers: I think maybe where we differ, I’m not sure so much with Victor necessarily but with some people in Washington, is that…
Ben Wattenberg: Yeah, we can differ with whoever we want to. Don’t worry about it.
Thomas Carothers: Yeah, well, there are plenty of people out there to differ with.
Ben Wattenberg: Right.
Thomas Carothers: I mean there are a number of people out there who are saying, look, some great things are going to happen here if we invade Iraq. Not only are we gonna get rid of weapons of mass destruction, we’re gonna bring democracy to this country that hasn’t been democratic and, in addition, unleash a kind of tidal wave of democracy throughout the Arab World
Ben Wattenberg: You called it—somebody wrote it…called it a tsunami.
Thomas Carothers: …tsunami, it’s a popular word. And that’s where I disagree. I mean I think there…
Ben Wattenberg: There would be sort of a massive super tidal wave of democracy.
Thomas Carothers: Yeah, there are strategic calculations and pluses and minuses of invading Iraq. But we shouldn’t do so thinking it’s going to produce a kind of fiesta of democracy in the Middle East. That’s where we would be seriously advised to think more carefully about it because Iraq is not right for democracy right now. And I think we ought to be careful about thinking what the political effects of an invasion will be.
Victor Davis Hanson: Well I think there are two issues here, whether we go into Iraq and what type of government we implant, and whether we have ramifications or ripples. And it seems to me that we have good reason to go into Iraq and good reason if we are successful to suggest consensual or constitutional government, and then whatever happens because the ripple effect won’t necessarily be bad. I think what’s in there now is very bad.
Thomas Carothers: I think we should invade Iraq only if we can find no other way to get rid of the weapons of mass destruction. If we can’t, then we’ll probably have to invade the country. When we do so, we’re gonna face some tough choices politically because what’s going to happen, I think, I don’t know how you feel, Victor, after we invade there’s going to be a need for order in the country. What institution can provide that order? The Iraqi military, or us. If we provide it, for how long? Who are we going to turn it over to? The Iraqi military’s not a democratic institution. Our track record in other countries where we’ve invaded and tried to promote democracy, it’s mixed. Haiti, for example, eight years ago we went in, small country, close to home, kind of manageable in some ways, the country’s a mess today. It’s not a working democracy. We spent a lot of money there, had a military invasion, it’s not a democracy. So at a minimum we need to be pretty realistic that it’s unlikely that an invasion is going to produce any kind of instant democracy in Iraq or more broadly in the region.
Victor Davis Hanson: I wouldn’t define the question that way because it’s not a dilemma between what’s a hundred percent good and a hundred percent bad. Whatever we think about Haiti, they’re not on boats trying to get into Florida. Whatever we think about Panama, it’s better than Noriega. Whatever we think about Serbia, it’s better than Milosevic. Same thing with the Taliban. So the saying in Latin, summus hominis non deis, we’re just people, we’re not gods. So I think we have to be very careful that we don’t feel that we’ve failed because we can’t implant New England style democracy in Afghanistan, for example. And we already hear critics of the Afghan experiment that we haven’t done enough. But this has only been…
Ben Wattenberg: How is it going in Afghanistan now?
Thomas Carothers: Well we have a situation where you have a government, the Karzai government in Kabul, but its reach in the country, its ability to really exercise authority over the country, is very limited in the sense Karzai is protected by American security forces. He’s unable to really go much outside of the Kabul area. There’re warlords out and the rest of the country is still maintaining authority. You’re certainly right. The situation in Afghanistan is less repressive today, it’s better for our interests than it was, and that could be true in Iraq too. But the belief that somehow there’s gonna be a quick process towards a very, you know, a sort of palatable and enlightening democratic government in Iraq, I think we should be careful about that.
Victor Davis Hanson: I see the controversy where people could really disagree. And here I would probably maybe agree more than disagree would be with somewhere like Pakistan because we don’t have a lot of good choices there. But I think that backing that type of government suggests that we’re one bullet away from chaos. And whatever we think of India, which has its problems, Muslims in India are not anti-American to the same degree they are in Pakistan because there’s some consensual government that allows the penning of popular aspirations. So it seems to me in Pakistan, that’s another example where we need to establish a precedent that we’re not going to…
Ben Wattenberg: That’s a country that has sort of on and off democracy, is that right?
Victor Davis Hanson: It has. But I think that we have to think very hard about the Cold War idea that we’re gonna back an authoritarian because he promises, if it was in the past safety from the Soviets, now it’s safety from fundamentalists. We know that fundamentalists can’t rule when they come into power very well.
Thomas Carothers: But we do face in the Middle East a special question which we really don’t face anywhere else in the world to such degree, which is if we have majority rule in a number of Arab countries, a majority of people in some of those countries favor things that are not helpful to our interest, and could be quite harmful at times.
Ben Wattenberg: So you’re saying that even if we got this wonderful democratic values throughout the Middle East, they might be voting for things that we don’t like at all?
Thomas Carothers: Well let’s take a concrete example. We would like to see, and I think a lot of Americans feel it would be great to have, leadership change in the West Bank/Gaza, because Yassir Arafat has really outlived his usefulness as an interlocuter in the peace process. On the other hand, if Palestinians right now were to vote for a new president, (a) they might vote for him again because he’s popular or (b) they might vote for someone more extreme – representatives of Hamas or other terrorist organizations. And that’s why the Bush Administration is in a tricky position here. It wants democracy in Palestine, a democratic Palestine, but right now they’re saying, “but don’t hold presidential elections. That’s a little risky. Why don’t you just have legislative elections?” So they’re giving them a mixed message, which is, “definitely be a democracy but why don’t you hold off on the foundation of that?”
Ben Wattenberg: Is this argument that we’re having, not an argument – this discussion we’re having – is this really rooted in the old tension between realism and idealism?
Thomas Carothers: No, I think it’s, we’re in a new fusion, as Victor correctly says. After the end of the Cold War the idea that there are realist interests over here and idealist interests over there, has changed.
Ben Wattenberg: I always thought during the Cold War that the real realism was idealism. I was very active in public diplomacy and Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty and it was feeling and I used to work for Senator Scoop Jackson. I mean that was his whole card, that democracy in human rights would lead to geopolitical change.
Victor Davis Hanson: I would say that if we take the worst case scenario, something like Iran, with one election and no more elections that are truly free, or the West Bank, as you pointed out, Tom, where we had one dubious election and then only periodic expressions of consensual government, then what? And it seems to me that we can contain an Iran better than we can contain Saudi Arabia, because if fifteen Iranians had blown up the World Trade Center we would have had a mechanism to do something. But what do you do with duplicitous friends that you’ve aided and abetted?
Ben Wattenberg: Like the Saudis?
Victor Davis Hanson: Or Egypt as well, so it seems to me that we have a mechanism for containing enemies. And then we also have the added incentive that they’re responsible for their own chaos. So if a government like Iran were to fall, I have a feeling that what would follow it would be pro-American and pro-Western, more so than if the government of Saudi Arabia would fall.
Thomas Carothers: But we have to recognize that, it’s true, but realist interests and idealist interests still are in tension. Because in Egypt, for example, we need the cooperation of the Egyptian Security Services right now to track down people in al Qaeda. At the same time we’re talking about, should we be putting pressure on the Egyptian government to stop treating Hamas as a friend? Our interests are security interests and maybe our democracy interests are intentional. Saudi Arabia, the same thing. And these are countries in which there is no democratic movement, really in Saudi Arabia, and so who do we support? How do we do it? How much do we lean on them? We’re also buying their oil. So I think we agree on the basic principles here but it’s really hard to see the way forward in the Middle East for a very activist U.S. policy that’s not gonna run square up against some pretty important interests we have.
Ben Wattenberg: So you would be for holding off on a war against Iraq?
Thomas Carothers: No, what I was saying is I don’t think we should base our decision on whether to invade Iraq or not on the promise or the premise that that’s going to produce democracy in Iraq. If there’s no other way to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, we can’t do it through coercive inspections, and we’ve reached a point where it’s clear to our major allies that there’s no other choice, then we should do it.
Ben Wattenberg: You buy that, Victor?
Victor Davis Hanson: I do. I think that…
Ben Wattenberg: But you would be for a more proactive, faster war scenario?
Victor Davis Hanson: I think the world’s changed. We’re not going to be in a situation we were after the first Gulf War where we’re going to actively abet the return of a monarchy, say in Kuwait. I think that that was a mistake, just as great a mistake as not going to Baghdad. So I think whatever we would agree or disagree, the world climate today, we put ourselves in a position of idealism that’s going to preclude the idea that we can cynically put an authoritarian in Iraq. It’s not going to be palpable to anybody.
Ben Wattenberg: If Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled and you had some sort of a move toward democratic governance that’s consensual, you have here this situation of the real big heavy hitting player in the so-called Axis of Evil, which is Iran, which is a big, much more populous country, much further along the road to many forms of weapons of mass destruction, yet with some limited form of democracy that keeps coming out, pro-American, pro-Western and anti- its own dictatorial superstructure. Wouldn’t it be likely or wouldn’t it be plausible to suggest that if Iraq is toppled, that Iran would look at its neighbor and say, look if they can do it, why can’t we do it? I mean that’s really what happened in Eastern Europe.
Thomas Carothers: Well no, it didn’t happen in Eastern Europe because what happened in Eastern Europe was that people themselves toppled their own leaders and others saw the example. The example in Iraq would be, yes, the United States can knock out a leader but the Iraqi people wouldn’t have removed him, so the example wouldn’t be that the people can do it, it would be that…
Ben Wattenberg: But that’s a small…I would disagree…
Thomas Carothers: That’s more than a small difference. It’s a fundamental difference.
Victor Davis Hanson: I don’t think the people in Eastern Europe would have ever been able, and they tried it in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the reason that they were able to topple it was the result of two things: the tough policy of the Reagan Administration, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and the internal collapse of the coercive power of the Soviet Union. And that was the first time that they had. So I would argue that that same scenario was applicable to the Middle East because you have an outside influence that’s allowing people to protest without being shot like they were in Fifty-six, for example.
Ben Wattenberg: Let’s just hold on for a second and maybe each of you could give us a little history lesson on what’s happened in the last few decades about the growth of democracy. What’s changed? I know Latin America, can somebody sort of us march us through…
Thomas Carothers: Well I can start it and Victor can add. I mean the trend for Latin America got going in Southern Europe, in Portugal, Spain, and Greece in the Seventies, end of dictatorships there, then spread quickly to Latin America, a region which had been trying to become democratic for over a hundred years…
Ben Wattenberg: South America was really almost totally autocratic.
Thomas Carothers: In the Nineteen Eighties they had a lot of right wing military dictators who just lost their credibility, and the left wing guerilla movements or resistance movements against them also lost their credibility. So both the right and the left lost as alternatives, that’s when democracy emerged. Then you have the spread in the late Nineteen Eighties, some important places – remember the Philippines, the departure of Marcos?
Ben Wattenberg: Yeah.
Thomas Carothers: South Korea, Taiwan, you had some important East Asian countries moving toward democracy, then the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Soviet Power, Eastern Europe, former Soviet Union and then, interestingly, Sub-Saharan Africa got into the act, and you had a lot of African regimes, one-party states falling. And as you pointed out, Ben, the only region left here like a bubble in all this is the Arab world which has stayed out. Now there was a liberalization trend in Egypt and Morocco and a few places in the Eighties, but didn’t really go anywhere. So you do have this odd situation in the world. You have one region which, except for Israel, which is solidly non-democratic in a world in which most countries are at least trying; they’re not all making it but there at least trying.
Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask this question. I mean you described it well, Tom, that there’s this…the world is sort of bursting with different forms of democratic governance, and yet here’s this bubble in the Middle East of the dozen or so countries where nothing is visibly happening. In any event does that have something to do with the idea that democracy and Islam are not compatible? I mean, that the religion of Islam is not bendable to democratic norms?
Thomas Carothers: No. I don’t believe that. Most Muslims don’t live in the Arab world. Most Muslims live in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, the United States. There’re plenty of countries that have significant Muslim populations, like Indonesia, that are trying to become democratic. There’s nothing about Islam that’s anti-democratic. The Arab world has its own particular political pathologies, economic problems, resistance to Western ideas that aren’t about Islam, that are about some particular conditions in the Arab world. Also oil rich economies like Saudi Arabia where you have a single resource, very bad for democracy because you have a small group of people who control the power, don’t want to give it up. Or else you have economic failure like in Syria and Egypt.
Ben Wattenberg: Do you think Islam is compatible with democracy, the point Tom made seemed to be…
Victor Davis Hanson: I do. I mean we have these…
Ben Wattenberg: You think that it’s incompatible?
Victor Davis Hanson: I don’t think it’s intrinsically incompatible because, as Tom mentioned, India and Indonesia have large Islamic populations, and Turkey is…
Ben Wattenberg: And Bangladesh?
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, Bangladesh. Turkey, there’s some reforms going on in Kurdistan…
Ben Wattenberg: And Turkey’s a really good example. I mean it’s not a full democracy but it’s been a real democracy.
Victor Davis Hanson: But I would make a point that of the major religions, it does have a problem with the emancipation of women in Western sense. And so you could make the argument empirically that if you went to various countries in the Middle East, there was a greater likelihood that women were not going to be voting, not going to be…
Ben Wattenberg: United States spent most of our history with women not being able to vote.
Victor Davis Hanson: Well I shouldn’t just define it on voting, I’m talking about what Aristotle called the freedom with to do as you please, to get beyond the tribe, to get beyond the patriarch, to make decisions about who you’re gonna marry, how you’re gonna work, what you’re gonna wear. All of those things are part of the cargo that surrounds a democratic society.
Thomas Carothers: I mean there are currents of Islamic thinking, very hard line or conservative currents, that are anti-democratic. But Islam as a religion is broader than that. It’s a house with many rooms in it. One of those rooms is ugly and not very democratic and intolerant in a lot of ways, and that’s, unfortunately, what’s been flourishing in some of these countries. But as a religion, there’re many interpretations of Christian religion or the Jewish religion or other religions. So as a religion, it’s not intrinsically this or that. But there are interpretations of it, strains of thinking that are anti-democratic and are dangerous.
Ben Wattenberg: Is the example that is often used, I think you used it in your article, that in the Mid Nineteen Forties, after the end of World War Two, we took two countries, Germany and Japan, which were rooted in totalitarianism, and simply went in there and said no go, that’s not the way it’s gonna be anymore, and set up democratic governments, stayed there for awhile and now they’re real democracies, you know for many decades now. Is this valid?
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes because it came through not through a popular uprising at all. It came through the coercive power and the humiliation of the Japanese militarists. And look what MacArthur did, the fundamentals of that reform policy: emancipation of women, land reform, breaking up of clans and tribalism. But the difference is that that generation of Americans had a much greater confidence in what it was to be Western and democratic. They weren’t so unsure of themselves as we are.
Thomas Carothers: No, I think we should be careful about those examples. In Germany, for example, Germany had been trying to become a democracy for fifty years. In the late Nineteenth Century they went through a liberal period. The Weimar Republic was democratic in some ways. The Nazi movement grew out of the failure of that democratic experiment. But when Nazism was defeated, Germany could draw on fifty years of experience with parliamentariansm, with the rule of law, with the differentiated industrial economy. It wasn’t at all like Iraq today. Iraq has no significant experience with pluralism. It’s not like Germany was, in the community of nations, largely democratic hoping it would become democratic. We didn’t make Germany democratic. We helped Germany achieve a destiny it had been trying to achieve for fifty years and failed. And in Japan, you know, the classic work on democratic theory of the second half of the Twentieth Century, Barrington Moore, about democratization, looks at Japan and says the experience of fascism in Japan created a lot of the structural conditions that helped to become democratic: a differentiated industrial economy, high level of education, great equality in the country and then the defeat, the embrace of defeat by the Japanese political culture. But again, very little to do with Iraq today.
Victor Davis Hanson: But maybe I didn’t…I would disagree but maybe you didn’t discern that when you were describing Japan you were almost describing Iraq: industrialization…
Thomas Carothers: Differentiated industrial economy, a single resource economy that’s led the people into poverty?
Victor Davis Hanson: Ah, well it has a strain of secularism that its neighbors don’t have. And I have often thought that Barrington Moore’s analysis applied to Iraq because there were people in Nineteen Forty-five and more in Forty-six that said it simply wouldn’t work in Japan because it had the veneer of Westernism, Western industrialism and military discipline and order that had been hijacked almost, from France, Germany, and England in the Late Nineteenth Century, which led to the victory over the Russians –in the Russo-Japanese war. But they had never embraced parliamentary democracy, and they wouldn’t do it. And there were people who said this was not going to work. But it took a lot of confidence and risk taking. And I see some similarities there. Same thing applies to South Korea and Taiwan. These were radically different societies in the same way that Iraq is.
Thomas Carothers: Well I agree. We shouldn’t be locked in a cultural box and say that certain countries are locked in a situation where they can never become democratic because you’re right. Japan was a tremendous achievement to the Twentieth Century, Japanese democracy, limited as it is. But we have to be realistic in Iraq and say, yes there may be some movement towards pluralism, but it’s gonna be gradual. It’s gonna be tough. We’re gonna have to stay the course. We can’t expect much support from its neighbors. So this is gonna be one of the hardest cases we’ve faced.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you very much, Victor Davis Hanson, Thomas Carothers. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via e-mail. For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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