The Mideast as arc of freedom - or false hope

As Bush touts the Mideast as another Soviet bloc ripe for change, critics see a blend of rhetoric and rationalization.

The Bush administration's professed vision for the Middle East is undeniably appealing. In recent weeks US officials from the president on down have talked more and more about their hope that the region will now slowly develop into an arc of freedom and democracy. They go so far as to compare today's Middle East to the Soviet bloc of the early 1980s - a vast swath of land on the verge of an historic transformation.

But their use of an end-of-the-cold-war metaphor is instructive. The long fall of the Soviet Union was caused by many factors, not all under the control of the US. Nor has the demise of communism resulted in a continent of Canadas - as today's chaos in the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia shows.

Indeed, the bringing of democracy to the Middle East might be just the sort of Sisyphean nation-building that many American conservatives have long opposed. Details would be devilish. Right now the US can't even figure out how to bring democracy to Iraq, a country it dominates. Most important, an effort that would stretch from this administration, to the next, to the one after that, might well result in consequences unforeseen today.

"It's not clear that democratizing the region would play itself out the way they anticipate," says John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

Bush himself described the White House ideal for the Middle East in expansive detail in a speech last month at the National Endowment for Democracy. He said the world was now at a turning point comparable to 1982, when Ronald Reagan called for an end to Soviet tyranny.

It's time for the explosion of democracy that remade Europe and Latin America in the 1980s to remake the Middle East, said Bush. He invoked both US adversaries (Iran) and US allies (Saudi Arabia and Egypt) in arguing that Islam is compatible with progress toward popular votes. "A religion that demands individual moral accountability and encourages the encounter of the individual with God is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government," Bush said.

Iraq is only the beginning, administration officials argue. The point is to use a free and democratic Iraq as a model to show the rest of the region what it might aspire to. The US fought a "war of ideas" with the communist world during the cold war, and it is similarly fighting a war of ideas with Islamic terrorists today, said Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith last week.

A free Iraq might give "tens of millions of people an alternative way to look at the future," Mr. Feith told a Heritage Foundation audience. Do they really mean it? Or is this rhetoric just another way of justifying the invasion of Iraq? Those are the first questions that spring to some critics' minds when they hear talk of transforming the Middle East.

After all, the hunt for unconventional weapons has so far come up empty. A link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein remains unproven, though possible. Outside the US, many people flatly do not believe in Washington's good intentions, says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland. "They see the arguments as a mere rationalization and justification for an occupation policy, and perhaps a policy of confronting other unfriendly states in the region," he says.

Just look at the trouble the US is having setting up a government in Iraq, some say. The US position is that it wants democracy. Yet US authorities in Iraq are arguing against the call of a powerful Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for quick elections. Instead, the US wants to pick a government via regional caucuses. Officials worry that an election would result in a Shiite-dominated government, leading to deep dissatisfaction among Sunni Muslims and Kurds, if not outright civil war.

The problem of how to contain divisive forces is similar to what the US still faces in Bosnia and Kosovo, says Dr. Mearsheimer. The US intervened in the Balkans to stop ethnic cleansing. It did that, but via separation of warring groups more than reconciliation. "If we leave, ethnic conflict will break out again," he says. "The warring sides have not accommodated themselves to each other, or to

creating a stable democracy."

It's not clear whether Iraqi domestic politics is that fragmented today. Iraq was not a democracy, but it was a relatively cohesive and modernizing state before Mr. Hussein took over, lending some hope that it could achieve that success again. If the US can create a stable and free Iraq it would mean that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Iran would all border a democracy. "If you can make that country of 25 million into a reasonable democracy, you will have had a major impact on the region," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, an expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School.

Many experts say the most surprising thing about the administration's recent statements on Mideast democracy is that they imply - gently - that US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt could stand to become more open and democratic, too. The fall of the Hussein regime has perhaps given the US more leeway in its dealings with authoritarian Arab allies. No longer does the Pentagon need Saudi Arabia as a quiet military partner to contain Iraq.

Even so, the idea of a US president openly prodding these allies would normally unnerve traditional foreign-policy realists. "The realpolitik conservative would have shuddered at Bush's speech," says Jim Walsh of Harvard University.

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