A premise of the Bush doctrine toward the Middle East is that bad governance produces terrorists, and democracy is one way to relieve grievances. But as President Bush has found out, the region mainly follows its own imperatives and impulses.
The arm-chair idealism of the US to remake the region must give way to a nimble, realistic management of both the risks and opportunities as democracy and Islam find an unscripted balance with each other, and as different interpretations of Islamic law compete for dominance.
The 2003 Iraq invasion sped up historic trends in a region already in flux over popular demands for better governance and human rights. The latest example is the Hamas election victory among Palestinians. In hindsight, it was the inevitable result of inept leadership under the secular rule of Yasser Arafat and his successor, rather than an unleashing of radical, militant Islam. Lebanon, too, exploded last year over Syrian domination and is now trying to restore a democracy while finding a place for Hizbullah's armed Shiites. In Kuwait this week, there was a historic, peaceful transfer of power for an Arab nation - an elected legislature selected a new monarch, rather than accepting the late emir's choice.
Such events aren't necessarily milestones for democracy as much as ongoing experiments among people trying to reduce abuse by autocratic leaders and to restore the dignity of the individual. That process has been ongoing in the region for more than a century, and the US has only recently jumped on a democracy camel already in trot. (Before 9/11, it didn't care a hoot about Middle East democracy, only stability for oil exports.)
The Arab world, with more than half its populations now under 30 years old and living in cities, is awash with defiant urban youth seeking jobs and an identity beyond the nation-state, looking to Islam or ethnicity.
Iran (a non-Arab state) represents a dangerous intersection of regional trends - restless youth, radical Islam, nascent democracy, and a hunger for powerful weapons. A simplistic US approach, like the one that tried to plant a secure and secular democracy in Iraq, just won't work for Iran.
Turkey (also non-Arab), on the other hand, shows how a democracy, especially one with a healthy middle class, can accommodate rule by a political Islamic party. Morocco, too, is finding its own path toward democracy.
The US must go beyond broad doctrines toward the Middle East and work more closely with each country's unique dynamics. It should better tap into public sentiments that oppose authoritarian rule. Most of all, especially with Hamas and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, it must work with moderates within such radical Islamic camps. These groups are hardly unified in their policies, and can be splintered.
As demands for accountable rule and checks on power rise in the Middle East, the real issue may be less secular versus Islamic rule and more a battle over who speaks for Islam. (A similar battle is under way in Israel, where a March election is raising the issue of who speaks for Judaism.)
Why try to simply export US-style democracy when the US could more tactfully ride the train toward freedom that many Middle East countries are already traveling?