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May 09, 2005

Why George W. Bush is more right than Lawrence of Arabia: An interim balance sheet of the democratic project in the Middle East

Posted by Brendan Simms

How is the project to democratise the Middle East going? Dr Brendan Simms - fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge - argues that it is going rather better than many of its gainsayers had us believe. Too many of those opposing Bush's Middle East policy, argues Brendan Simms, are still trapped in a Lawrence-of-Arabia-style frame of mind.

There are two scenes in the film Lawrence of Arabia, which are in many ways emblematic of current debate on the Middle East. The first is when one of Lawrence's men goes missing during a sandstorm. Against the fatalistic advice of his Arab companions who believe that the death of the unfortunate is somehow predetermined - "written" as they put it – Lawrence decides to turn back and look for him. Sure enough, Lawrence finds the man, brings him back and triumphantly announces to his companions that "nothing is written". Not long afterwards, as the Arabs are encamped, a shot rings out. One of them has been murdered, and the culprit is none other than the man Lawrence has rescued. To make matters worse, Lawrence must execute him in person, for if any of the Arabs were to do so, this would set off a deadly blood feud between the tribe of the victim and that of the perpetrator. Once the deed is done, Lawrence's companions simply say: "It is written".

I have no idea how Lawrence meant us to interpret this story, which some Lawrence scholars believe was a figment of his imagination and which the film conflates from the original memoir, but it can be read as a warning that in the Middle East, no good deed goes unpunished, and that any attempt to interfere in the established order of things is doomed to failure. Such warnings have long formed the basis for the prevailing Arabist and realist view of the Middle East and the prospects for democratic change there. If in April-May 2003, as Saddam was toppled, the American neo-conservatives triumphantly proclaimed that "Nothing is written", from later that summer and at the latest by the Sadr revolt of April 2004, critics have retorted with satisfaction that "It is [indeed] written". But as eight million Iraqis went to vote at the end of January 2005, it became clear that perhaps nothing was "written" after all.

For those who see President George W. Bush essentially as a Christian fundamentalist, it may come as a surprise that he does not believe in predestination in the Middle East. He explicitly rejects the realist paradigm, which for so long held that western interests were best served by "moderate" repressive regimes, which maintained the flow of oil and kept the lid on their anti-western populations. This model collapsed in the aftermath of the Twin Towers attack, when it became clear that the whole region – including states thought to be friendly – had become a breeding ground for anti-western sentiments which these regimes exported and appeased rather than contained.

This comes across most vividly in Bush's second inaugural address on January 20th of this year. In paragraph four he identified "the deepest source" of American vulnerability to attacks like September 11th in the fact that:

whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred.
Only "the force of human freedom" he argued, could break this "reign of hatred". For this reason, he stressed that:
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands…So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate end of ending tyranny in our world.
we will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and nation- the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.
The message could not be clearer: Tough on Terror and tough on the causes of terror.

It has been noted before that after September 11th, a formerly sceptical President Bush essentially adopted Tony Blair's "doctrine of international community". New Labour in turn has been influenced by the new American thinking. Its 2005 election manifesto announces that "The best defence of our security at home is the spread of liberty and justice overseas", words which echo those of the Second Inaugural.

The price for this policy has been high, especially among Iraqi civilians, the Iraqi security forces, and the soldiers of the coalition. There has been a large political cost in terms of splits within the western alliance and the United Nations Security Council. All the same, some of the first fruits of the policy of democratisation are now visible.

Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, the project to democratise the Middle East is not just a "top down" project, in which the United States and its allies bestows freedom on a passive population. It depends for its success on the active participation of Arabs. For this reason, the massive turnout at the Iraqi elections rather than the toppling of Saddam Hussein was a decisive moment. Nor do the choices for clericalist parties invalidate the project as it is conceived. After all, Bush's second Inaugural had recognized that:

when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own.
In other words, to mix metaphors, the bullet of a Shiite-dominated government, on which many had expected the US government to choke, has already been bitten. In this sense the project to democratise the Middle East is not a Jacobinical one designed to impose identikit versions of American democracy.

The removal of Saddam Hussein and the beginning of a democratic transformation of Iraq have also resonated regionally. They inspired – at least partly – the extraordinary "Cedar Revolution" in the Lebanon in recent months. They clearly created a new geopolitical context which allowed the revolution to take place without fear of suppression by Syria. Here the words of the Second Inaugural - "as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you" – acquired their true significance. The recent withdrawal of Syrian troops would not have happened without the invasion of Iraq and the presence of US troops on Syria's eastern flank. Within Syria itself, there are signs that Assad has recognised that the Americans are not going to go away, soon, and that a new dynamic has been unleashed. The successful elections in Palestine, held at American insistence, have also reinforced the message of democratic transformation. Arab media are now asking why it is that free and fair elections only take place under or under the shadow of foreign occupation.

In short, it is still the case – to quote Machiavelli's well-known dictum – that [The Prince, chapt. 6]:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
It is still far too early to deem the project to democratise the Middle East a success, but it is clear that those who had written it off as a failure last year had spoken too soon.

Dr Brendan Simms is Newton-Sheehy teaching fellow in international relations at the Centre of International Studies and fellow in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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If Pres Bush believes so strongly in regime change, does the author offer any explanation for: (a) the UK former ambassador to Usbekistan explaining on the BBC this morning that the US opposes regime change in Tashkent (where agitators for democracy have been boiled to death); (b) the New York Times reported yesterday of about 50 known cases of Islamists delivered to Egypt for torture since 1994 while the State Dept annually criticises the Egyptian government for torturing its (and presumably America's) prisoners; (c) the widely reported case of the Canadian Muslim recently released after being handed over by the Americans for two years of torture in Syria (apparently a case of mistaken identity)? It sounds as though the US is rather a big client for these sorts of services nowadays.

Posted by: s masty at May 14, 2005 04:43 PM
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