Bringing democracy to the Middle East

GWB’s excellent adventure has has the side-effect of discrediting democractic movements in places such as Syria.

“A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.”

GWB, February 23, 2003

Dramatic? Yes.

Inspiring? Not so much.

It appears that the disaster in Iraq has had the effect of discrediting democratic movements in the Middle East, partly by discrediting the United States (seen as the primary sponsor of democracy) and partly by reminding people of the terrible Hobbesian truth: that there are worse things than living under tyranny.

In Syria, Iraq’s Fate Silences Rights Activists

By Ellen Knickmeyer

Washington Post Foreign Service

Thursday, October 26, 2006; A18

DAMASCUS, Syria — Horror at the bloodshed accompanying the U.S. effort to bring democracy to Iraq has accomplished what human rights activists, analysts and others say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been unable to do by himself: silence public demands for democratic reforms here.

The idea of the government as a bulwark of stability and security has long been the watchword of Syrian bureaucrats and village elders. But since Iraq’s descent into sectarian and ethnic war — and after Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, on the other side of Syria — even Syrian activists concede that the country’s feeble rights movement is moribund.

Advocates of democracy are equated now with supporters of America, even “traitors,” said Maan Abdul Salam, 36, a Damascus publisher who has coordinated conferences on women’s rights and similar topics.

“Now, talking about democracy and freedom has become very difficult and sensitive,” Salam said. “The people are not believing these thoughts anymore. When the U.S. came to Iraq, it came in the name of democracy and freedom. But all we see are bodies, bodies, bodies.”

Ordinary people in Syria are hunkering down, and probably rightly so, said Omar Amiralay, a well-known Syrian filmmaker whose documentaries are quietly critical of Assad’s one-family rule.

“If democracy brings such chaos in the region, and especially the destruction of society, as it did in Iraq and in Lebanon, it’s absolutely normal, and I think it’s absolutely a wise position from the people to be afraid to imagine how it would be in Syria,” Amiralay said. “I think that people at the end said, ‘Well, it is better to keep this government. We know them, and we don’t want to go to this civil war, and to live this apocalyptic image of change, with civil war and sectarianism and blood.’ “

In 2003, a few people in Damascus were bold enough to raise their glasses in cafes to toast the American tanks then rolling into Baghdad to overthrow Saddam Hussein. They were dreaming of the changes that might happen next here, in the only remaining government led by the Baath Party, a prominent writer in the capital said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being jailed a second time.

“The Americans came to Iraq to make it an example to the other countries to ask for change,” the writer said. “But what happened was the opposite. Now everyone is saying we do not want to be like Iraq.”


[Syrians] enjoy the small freedoms that their neighbors in dangerous Iraq no longer do — such as the ability to go out after dark. This month, after breaking the daily Ramadan fast, families chugged in their cars up the steep roads of Mount Cassion to stroll, sip colas and fruit drinks and take in the view of Damascus spread out below.

Seated on a plastic chair on the road with a friend, real estate salesman Mohammed Yousif gestured toward the city. Green lights of mosques glowed among the white lights of a capital fully powered and at peace. Speaking to a foreign journalist, the 42-year-old salesman measured his words carefully, answering questions with the blandness often seen in Iraq before Hussein was toppled.

“We are talking and enjoying ourselves,” Yousif said, waving the nozzle of the traditional water pipe he and his friend were using to smoke flavored tobacco. “This is our democracy. This is our freedom.”

For all its pimpish swagger, the Bush crowd has done nothing for six years but make this country weaker. With patriots like these, who needs traitors?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

4 thoughts on “Bringing democracy to the Middle East”

  1. I'm not as familiar with history as perhaps I should be, has 'helping' another country achieve democracy in the Iraq manner ever worked? South America, Vietnam, and Iraq all seem like pretty big failures to me. Korea was 50% success?

  2. Finn: Japan and Germany are the examples usually brought up, although of course the tactics were very different than the modern low-force ones. And I suppose one could make a case that France's aid to us in the Revolutionary War helped us to democracy, although of course that wasn't why they did it.

  3. Germany and Japan should be excluded from the model, btw; both had had previous experience with participatory democracy within living memory of 1945 and had a broad swath of the population that was willing to help the various occupying authorities with the reinstallation of said form of government. There were even former opposition parties that were able to reform.
    For the bonus round, the Allies never let the Germans or the Japanese run off with lots of high explosives, grenades, machine guns, or pistols; or, you know, that whole bit about de-Nazification–real DeNazification would have brought about serious levels of dysfunction, with much of Germany out of work,
    Chalabi and Allawi were certainly not democrats, nor were they particularly adept leaders.
    Plus, anyone who wants to give you jaw-jaw about counter-insurgency tactics and deployment, remind them that Malaysia was an ethnic slapdown where the British were forced to leave after paying for the independence of the country in blood and treasure for a decade.
    Mark is quite right; on the bright side, this charming cluster fuck will keep a whole clade of liberal arts college arabists roughly my age employed until we have grandkids.
    I intend not to fall on the Haliburton side; inshallah, in a year, there will be no such corporation.

  4. I would exclude post-WWII Germany and Japan for another reason. They are the only two situations I know of where the US was actually trying to build democracies. The normal situation is that the US government is trying to limit democracy, to keep it within limits. The US had fought the militaries of Germany and Japan, and didn't like them; we certainly didn't want to use them in the more common use of training them and having them available for military coups. Think of South/Central America, and much of Asia – the US government policy has been that real democracy is bad; tame 'democracy' is good.
    In Iraq, the Bush administration never intended for a democracy in Iraq. Plan A was to install Chalabi as dictator; plan B was to run a CPA government for several years, with CPA-approved caucuses voting for CPA-approved candidates.
    Only when Sistani threatened to unleashe the Shiite militias did the Bush administration support actual elections.

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