Bush's Domino Theory

First, democracy for Iraq, then the rest of Middle East

On his current book tour, the former White House speechwriter who was behind the phrase "axis of evil" is calling the president's Middle East strategy nothing short of a foreign-policy "revolution."

Just more poetic license from a political wordsmith? No, his word choice isn't poetic enough, if bringing democracy to that troubled part of the world is truly the president's goal, as former insider David Frum states.

Certainly, the Bush administration's hawks hope the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would be the first domino to tip other autocratic states in the region toward democracy. Having felled the Taliban in Afghanistan, and insisted on new Palestinian elections, this White House drive to bring democracy to Iraq - as well as to disarm it of chemical and biological weapons, and end its support of terrorism - fits into an emerging United States strategy to push democracy into places that breed or support terrorists and the weapons of terror.

But for Mr. Bush to speak or act more boldly right now in promoting democracy in the Middle East could possibly lessen support for an Iraqi war from other Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. So the administration may be soft-pedaling this new domino theory, and simply waiting to showcase a democratic postwar Iraq as a model for its neighbors.

Bush's intention, if not the detail, is right there in black and white in the National Security Strategy from last September. The document declares that the US example of freedom, democracy, and free enterprise constitutes "a single, sustainable model for international success," and that this model is "right and true for every person, in every society."

Draining the swamp

No question, most Arab governments need fully representative governments, free media, and equal rights to lift up their people and stabilize the region. Last summer, the UN issued a set of blunt recommendations on how the region should bring reform to government, education, and the role of women. Interestingly, the report was written by Arabs.

With per capita income growth the slowest in the world outside sub- Saharan Africa, and half of the youths in the UN survey wanting to emigrate, the Arab swamp of political and economic resentment naturally breeds terrorists - especially when there is no outlet under authoritarian rule for them to vent their frustrations. To prevent more Arabs from becoming terrorists, Arab states must become functioning democracies.

Signs of such change are in the air. Saudi Arabia has proposed an "Arab Charter" as the basis for political and economic reform in Arab states.

The key question is how to bring about change. Most US presidents since Woodrow Wilson have recognized to some degree that promoting the values of democracy around the world serves America's interests. With an ever-shrinking planet - one that allows terrorists to travel easily - that idealistic and increasingly practical goal holds more true today than ever.

The big wars of the 20th century (the world wars and the cold war) were as much for democracy as for defense. Germany, Japan, and Russia are largely successful democracies today, partly because of long US commitments. In helping foster other democracies, the US has often used economic and diplomatic levers. It is most successful when kindling a democratic spark that already exists, such as in Taiwan, South Korea, or the Philippines, but less successful where there are strong ethnic tensions (Bosnia and Kosovo).

'Mideast Yugoslavia'

Forming democracy by military invasion, such as possibly in Iraq, is fraught with risk. Iraq meets none of the usual criteria for success. A sort of Middle East Yugoslavia, it is made up of three ethnic groups artificially brought together by British colonialism, with no tradition of democracy.

Setting up Iraq as a model of democracy may be necessary, but it will take a commitment to nation-building - not America's, or this president's, strong suit. If it works, however, it could bring hope to millions of Arabs, improve the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and alter the geopolitical dynamics of Middle Eastern oil.

Are Americans ready to make such a long-term commitment? With or without war, that's what would be required under this Bush doctrine. The US should be prepared.

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