President Bush believes that toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq should be the first step towards a comprehensive political reconstruction of the whole Middle East. According to the President a new, democratic Iraq, can become a model for the Arab and Muslim worlds. Political liberty in the Middle East will strengthen its stability and improve security for America and the world. The president's vision has met with enthusiasm among his followers and skepticism among some scholars and observers of Middle Eastern politics.
Speaking recently at the Washington research organization, the American Enterprise Institute, President Bush said that "success in Iraq could begin a new stage for the Middle Eastern peace process and set in motion progress toward a truly democratic Palestinian state." It could also serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region. Iraq is fully capable of moving toward democracy, assured the president, who called pessimism about his project "presumptuous and insulting" to the Arab and Muslim world.
Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, praised President Bush for his boldness and his challenge to the status quo in the Middle East.
“I think it was partly September 11, a real wake-up call to just who we have been in bed with these many years, a real highlighting of who our friends are and who our enemies are,” she said.
“It was a turning point. I also give a lot of credit to George W. Bush, because he is a man with, yes, a Manichean view of the world," Ms. Pletka said. "There is good and there is evil. And I think that this kind of moral clarity is a very good thing for a President of the world's strongest and greatest nation to have.”
Ms. Pletka called President Bush a man with a vision, who dares to dream of something great and difficult. But for some this kind of dream is a dangerous mirage.
Jon Alterman is the director of the Middle East program at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies. He thinks putting Iraq back together after an invasion will be complicated.
“It's going be very hard to do. It's going to be hard to put Iraq together again, not so much after a U.S. led war, but after the 30 years of brutality the Iraqis endured under Saddam Hussein. It is not just flipping a switch and turning the country to democracy,” he said.
Of chief concern is the territorial and national integrity of Iraq. Politically entrenched Sunnis, discriminated Shiah, separatist Kurds, secularist and Islamist elements, Turkish, Assyrian, Iranian and Jewish minorities: all of these must first decide what kind of society they wish to build.
Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes democracy requires a sense of common national destiny.
“Before Iraq can become a democratic country, it has to solve fundamental problems about what kind of country it is,” she said. “Is it going to me a multi-ethnic country? Is it an Arab country? Is it a Muslim country? These are very deep issues. There are divisions that go very far.” If Saddam Hussein is overthrown by an American-led invasion, the first post-war task will be to assure stability and peace within the country. This is expected to be achieved by a U.S. military administration working with a council of civilian Iraqi advisors. But sooner or later, Professor Ottaway thinks power will have to pass to local bodies and include diverse, often contentious interest groups. She finds it difficult to imagine how this transition will occur.
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute is confident that Iraqis will manage to overcome their divisions. She recalls that pre-Saddam Baghdad was a multi-ethnic, secular, cosmopolitan city. “I think it is fully possible to work to forge an Iraqi state, to forge an Iraqi national identity that isn't Shiah or Sunni or Kurdish, even Arab, because Kurds are not Arabs, but Iraqi,” she said.
“And if you talk to people about how Baghdad was before Saddam Hussein, you'll hear that people were very uninterested in religion. Sixty to seventy years ago Baghdad was a city who majority population was Jewish. Iraqis are enormously secular, very nationalistic, for good and for bad, and there are genuine possibilities for the future,” Ms. Pletka said.
Azar Nafisi, an Iranian scholar now with the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is anxious about the possible war in Iraq, but believes the secular, democratically inclined people in the region will regain their voice once Saddam Hussein is gone.
Ruthlessly suppressed by his Iraqi regime, Iraqis were also, according to Azar Nafisi, neglected and betrayed by the West. Can they be counted on as the West's partners in the political reconstruction of their country? Azar Nafisi is cautiously optimistic.
“I should hope so. I think they could be your partners if, of course, the U.S. and Western governments, unlike before, do not abandon them,” she said. “Iraq is a good example. In the early 1990's, the uprising was quashed and the U.S. withdrew its support.”
Most observers agree that the Iraqi population is relatively well educated and secular, especially the Sunnis, who dominate in the Iraqi administration and make up the bulk of the country's middle class. Yet choosing local partners will not be easy for Americans and their allies.
Internal democratic opposition has been practically wiped out during decades of tyranny. Not all Iraqi émigrés, who dream about forming a government in exile, have impeccable democratic and human rights credentials. Iraq lacks a living political culture, and there is a real threat of militant Islam, especially among the Shiah in the south.
A Pakistani journalist and a scholar at the German Marshall Fund, Mustafa Malik says the West is naive to expect a fully secular, liberal, Jeffersonian democracy to emerge in the Muslim world.
“I don't see Muslim societies anywhere becoming the prototypes of France or England,” he said.
Even among relatively secular Muslims, Mustafa Malik said that faith remains a source of inspiration, especially during real, or perceived, external threats. Young and educated people are becoming lax with religious practices, but in their social life they still tend to follow Islamic law and custom.
Any authentic form of government in the Muslim world would probably have an Islamic element, although it may also be a moderate, participatory form of Islam, which could gradually become more liberal and secular.
“Even if democracy comes there, it will evolve from within,” Mr. Malik said. “It is like pregnancy. Every woman has to go through its pain and joy. The United States' only meaningful contribution will be if it recognizes democratic movements, whatever their color, Islamic or secular - and stops supporting the dictators it is supporting now.”
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute agrees that representative governments are always easier to deal with, no matter what their political outlook.
“Promoting democracy does not mean that people will love us. And I don't care,” she said. “It doesn't mean that people will vote for people we like, because they probably won't. And it doesn't even mean that in Arab countries like Iraq they would be pro-Israeli, or tolerant of Israel.”
“But what it does mean is that they are going to be interested in issues that interest democracies,” Ms. Pletka said. “They are not expansionist. They tend not to be aggressive. They are more financially responsible in terms that they are generally not spending $10,000 or $25,000 to pay off suicide bombers. They are generally not spending three quarters of their military budget on weapons of mass destruction. These are the kinds of things that democratic accountability will give you.”
Danielle Pletka believes that the success of political reconstruction in the Middle East will depend largely on how firm the United States is with regional allies, like Saudi Arabia or Egypt. These countries are not likely to look too favorably on democratic experiments so close to their borders. Jon Alterman of CSIS believes their attitude has not received enough attention.
“If you look around Iraq's neighbors, none of them wants what we want in Iraq,” he said. “They want territorial integrity of Iraq. I don't think that any of Iraq's neighbors want Iraq to split up. But once you go beyond that, they do not want a strong, democratic and free Iraq. They want a weak, fractionalized Iraq, and I am afraid that Iraq will be a place where people will fight out their regional disputes using Iraq and Iraqi people as proxies.”
It is generally agreed that political reconstruction of the Middle East will require a substantial commitment of resources, as well time and patience on the part of Americans and other members of their coalition. Are Americans ready to remain involved in the region for years, possibly decades, to come? Even Danielle Pletka, who supports the President's plans, is not so sure.
“Are we capable of staying for the long term? Are we capable of reordering of political, diplomatic, even military priorities in the direction of democracy? That's a very good question, and history would dictate that that's not the case,” she said. “But those who look at history have to remember that history stopped on September 11 and started again, and I hope -- hope, because I'm not sure -- that we're smarter, that we're better.”
Even skeptics agree that President Bush's Middle East vision is appealing and inspiring. Even enthusiasts admit that bringing it about will be difficult, expensive, and quite possibly dangerous. Success depends on many unknowns. Probably the most important ones are the ability of the Iraqi people to rise above their ethnic and religious divisions; and the readiness of the Americans to see the job through to the end.