No Hope for Democracy in the Middle East?

There was a telling comment about Iraq in The New Yorker of October 24, 2005, by Peter Viereck, a famous American conservative in the 1950s and 1960s.

Asked about his reaction to the October 15, 2005, vote approved by the majority of the Iraqi people (though opposed by the Sunni minority), Viereck responded: “Where are the roots? How can you have a democracy without roots? My hunch is that Iraq has no deep roots, and therefore the best thing you can hope for is inefficient corruption.”

Viereck put his finger on the single most despairing aspect of our involvement in Iraq and the whole Middle East: our idealistic belief that we can transfer to this region the tradition of democracy and representative government that thrives in the United States.

We have developed a myth that, once we explain democracy to people, they will enthusiastically clasp it to their bosoms. Along with this myth goes the belief that we know about democracy because we have always had agreement about what constitutes democracy and representative government. Thus we are frustrated when foreigners don’t instantly rush out and create democracies that would warm the heart of Thomas Jefferson.

The truth is, however—despite our long experience with democracy from colonial times onward—we had one devil of a time agreeing what democracy actually is. The dispute over this issue was the cause of our most terrible failure as a nation—the Civil War of 1861-65. Both sides believed they were fighting for American freedom and American democracy.

In the 1860 presidential campaign, Abraham Lincoln promised only to prohibit slavery in the territories in the west. But most people were sure his real plan was to eliminate slavery in the fifteen states where it was legally enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

The question was, could a democratically elected president do this by democratic means?

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy that arose in opposition, said that the election of 1860 perverted the idea that “government rests upon the consent of the governed.” In other words, Davis held if a given state did not approve of a national law, it did not have to accept it. This, of course, was patently false. The Constitution, from the day of its adoption in 1789, could be amended only by peoples’ conventions or a two-thirds vote of Congress and approval by three-fourths of the states. Yet the belief that all parties must agree to any fundamental change had a wide following, and this was the rock on which our nation nearly foundered.

Abraham Lincoln understood the challenge clearly. In May 1861 he told his secretary: “We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.”

The Civil War settled the question. Nowadays we don’t dispute the amendment process as the way to change our basic law, our Constitution. But the concept that a minority has a right to oppose change—that government rests on the consent of the governed—still has a lot of following, although we no longer think a civil war is a legitimate response.

We should be more understanding of Iraq and other places in the Middle East where there has never been democracy and where the peaceful process of constitutional amendment does not have roots. For many, civil war is a perfectly reasonable answer to any dispute.

Hence some of the Sunni Arabs, a small minority of the population, don’t accept the ballot box as an equitable way to resolve differences with the majority coalition of Shiite Arabs and Kurds. Their reply is to send suicide bombers to blow up innocent Shiite women and children. Even less willing to accept democracy, ballot boxes, or constitutions are the fundamentalist terrorists, a still tinier minority. They want to dissolve all secular governments in the Muslim world and replace them with a tyranny or caliphate that restricts human behavior to a dismal, repressive set of rules approved by a totalitarian clergy.

We have had a difficult time accepting the reality that force is what the people of the Middle East have been used to for at least 500 years, and that the Sunni Arabs, the terrorists, and most other people in the region are working within this tradition. Interest groups have always had little sympathy for the opinion of anybody who opposes them, majority or otherwise. Muslim societies have never operated by consensus. They have operated on the principle of suppression of dissident groups or individuals.

Consequently, efforts at reasoned solutions to conflicts seldom get even a nod in the Muslim world. For example, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , the new president of Iran, demanded that the “eyesore Israel must be wiped off the map,” and he took part in widespread demonstrations calling for “death to Israel” and “death to the USA” on October 27, 2005. His comments raised a storm of protest elsewhere, but not a peep from Muslim leaders—except for a weak disclaimer from a Palestinian official that “we are pursuing a peace process with Israel.”

Yet there is little evidence the Palestinians are sincere about the “peace process.” When the Israelis withdrew from Gaza last summer, the response of Arab leaders was not gratitude that an oppressive occupying power had departed, but that Israel had been forced out by Arab opposition. To them, the solution was more force to drive the Israelis into the sea, not a resolve to settle differences and live in peace with Israel.

In furtherance of this view, an Arab bomber working for the terrorist group Islamic Jihad blew himself up in a crowd in the northern Israeli town of Hadera, killing five and wounding twenty-one, on October 26, 2005.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in hopes of settling some of its differences with the Palestinians, and also of preventing further killings. However, the attack in Hadera proved that the withdrawal would not revive peace talks or prevent violence. The Israelis reacted in predictable fashion—they launched attacks on places in the Gaza strip from where Palestinian extremists had fired handmade rocket sorties against Israel, and they planned to recommence targeted assassinations of Palestinian extremist leaders.

Is there any hope of rational behavior and democracy coming to the Middle East? At the moment there is little cause for optimism. But we should not abandon hope. The road to democracy is difficult, as we learned in our own Civil War. People develop traditions and roots from hard experience. We are like plants under stress from heat and drought. Only under stress do plants extend deep roots to the water that permits them to survive. We can only trust that the hard experience of the people of the Middle East will lead them, in time, to extend similar deep roots, and from them to extract a tradition of consensus, and accept peaceful solutions—even democracy.

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