Democratic Roots in the Sand
by Stephen Schwartz

CalendarLive on June 22, 2003

Nineteen months after Sept. 11, in the immediate aftermath of the war in Iraq, "big books" on terrorism are giving way to more modest books on the challenges of democracy. But such meditations come at a peculiar time for the very concept of democracy. Almost unnoticed, the term has become a dirty word in the rhetoric of liberals and the left: After a faction of neoconservatives proclaimed that its goal was the democratization of the Arab and Muslim world, especially in Iraq, democracy suddenly became an object of widespread derision. This dismaying development was soon complemented by a revival of anti-democratic braying among new isolationists, exemplified by Patrick J. Buchanan.

Democracy, we were suddenly told, was an inappropriate goal for the millions of Arabs and other Muslims. Left and right identified democracy with Western imperialism, as if exporting a free press (to cite only one item of the democratization agenda) were the same as the British introducing opium from India to China in the 19th century. The underlying, if unspoken assumption, seemed to be that the Arabs and Muslims were unprepared and probably unfit for democracy, as if it were a matter of genetic predisposition.

Ignorance of Islam, and even of Islamic extremism, was a given among the Western "chattering classes." Less predictable has been the tongue-tied manner in which the defenders of democracy attempt to define their topic. Aside from almost universal confusion in the West about how these issues intersect with those of Islamic tradition, Washington policymakers also have succumbed to ignorance and diffidence in dealing with the ideals they claim to cherish. Put bluntly: Democracy is bourgeois revolution, based on the consolidation and triumph of entrepreneurial classes. So it was in France, so it was in the U.S., so it was in Germany and Japan, in South Korea and Taiwan, in Spain and Mexico, in Slovenia and Hungary. There is, simply, no other way. American military force enabled the German and Japanese capitalist classes to stabilize themselves and function within a democratic structure. Iraq has a chance to bloom in this way.

Yet Western commentators dance around this vulgar fact, and in "The Future of Freedom," Fareed Zakaria, a Newsweek editor and pundit, offers only a partial exception to this rule. His book is little more than a grab bag of useful insights combined with useless clichés. Above all, he has noticed that promising democracies, like India, his birthplace, can collapse into nationalist and even fascist regimes, as the state created by Nehru, on a multiethnic and multiconfessional basis, has given way to an ugly ultranationalism under the Hindu chauvinists of the Bharata Janata Party. The latter sprang from the movement that murdered Gandhi, then inherited the government that had followed Gandhi's vision.

Such would be a sobering matter for anyone to ponder, were it not, in the end, something other than news. Mussolini inherited the Italy of Garibaldi, not that of the Roman inquisition; Hitler took over a Germany that had basked, for a century, in the traditions of Goethean humanism and Bismarckian social welfare, much more than of Wagner. The path to Stalinism in the Soviet Union was laid as much by Tolstoy and the peasant Social Revolutionaries as by Dostoevsky or Rasputin. The America created by Jefferson tolerated slavery far too long, and the America left as Lincoln's legacy institutionalized Jim Crow. There is a common element here: bourgeois weakness. Nehru's India did not produce an Indian bourgeoisie capable of ruling the country, Russia has never had one, and America had to wait until civil rights were an indispensable requirement of capitalist growth for racial equality to be fully instituted.

Zakaria prefers to see the necessary foundation of democracy in a structural principle that he calls "constitutional liberalism." More obvious is the lesson that history is fickle, and that today's Arab democracy could produce tomorrow's new, improved Nasser, the Arab Napoleon, long awaited. But to paraphrase neoconservative pacesetter Richard Perle, when he was questioned whether an Iraq free of Saddam Hussein could turn in an Islamist direction: The risk is worth it, and the goal of the liberation strategy is to allow Iraqis to decide their future for themselves. "Creative destruction," a term originating with the economist Joseph Schumpeter, is the essence of bourgeois transformation: Rather than embodying a specific model, the liberation of the Arab and Muslim countries means sweeping aside obstacles, not imposing new ones.

Zakaria's capacity to understand the barriers to change, and its risks, is limited. He is excellent, and novel, on the legacy of Slavic Communism, noting that "Russia's fundamental problem is not that it is a poor country struggling to modernize, but rather that it is a rich country struggling to modernize If national resources were the measure of national wealth, Russia would probably rank on top globally." He also points out, "the Soviet state relied almost entirely on revenues from natural resources to fund itself. Thus, unlike the dictatorships in South Korea and Taiwan, it never created rules and policies to facilitate economic growth."

But neither, we might add, did most of the Western opponents of the Evil Empire formulate an adequate analysis of intrinsic Soviet weaknesses, which is why it is, finally, somewhat appalling that Zakaria should have to point these things out, 14 years after the Berlin Wall came down. Aside from Ronald Reagan, few of the conservatives or neoconservatives of his era were able to accurately predict the outcome of Soviet decay, and even fewer today are able to predict the details of the widening democratic revolution as it proceeds across the globe.

This failure is woefully evident when Zakaria turns to his fourth, and most essential, chapter, "The Islamic Exception." He begins by quoting Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who rejects demands for less repression of dissent by barking, "If I were to do what you ask, Islamic fundamentalists will take over Egypt. Is that what you want?" Zakaria goes on to cite similar claims from Yasser Arafat, who (in Zakaria's dubious accounting) allegedly rejected the Camp David peace plan of July 2000 by arguing, "If I do what you want, Hamas will be in power tomorrow." And he concludes with a citation from the serpentine Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the U.S., who "reminds" American officials that reform in the desert kingdom could lead not to "Jeffersonian democracy" but to "Taliban-style theocracy."

Absurdly, Zakaria comments, "the worst part of it is, they" — meaning a chorus of Mubarak, Arafat and Bandar — "may be right." And there the vessel of this book runs aground. Zakaria, elsewhere, is laudably clear about the diversity within Islam, but he has completely failed to grasp the diverse situations of the Arab regimes. The authoritarianism of Mubarak, Arafat and Bandar does not represent a uniform phenomenon. Mubarak, like the leaders of transitional countries such as Algeria and Uzbekistan, is forced to maintain repression because he is fighting a homicidal, terrorist ideology supported by the official Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia. These states are victims of this terror, and whatever else may be said against Mubarak's government, he does not use the terrorists to keep himself in power.

To attain democracy, countries such as Egypt must first, and mercilessly, defeat the enemies of democracy; democracy can tolerate its enemies, but only from a position of strength. That should be self-evident. Bandar, on the other hand, represents the sect and state chiefly responsible for Islamist extremism.

Change in Saudi Arabia could not produce a worse regime because, at least for its subjects, a worse regime is inconceivable; the Taliban represented, in reality, a somewhat diluted imitation of the Saudi rulers. And there would have been no Taliban regime without the Saudis, who viewed it as the Soviets once viewed Cuba: as a diverting experiment in puppet rule. An openly anti-American regime might emerge in Arabia as an outcome of American loyalty, rather than opposition, to the disintegrating Wahhabocracy, but at least we would know where we stood with it. Even Zakaria reflects the mental fog that afflicts Westerners when they discuss Saudi Arabia, calling it "moderate" on the same page with a description of its campaign for Wahhabization of global Islam.

Arafat exists between these two variants. Like Mubarak, he is beset by the Saudi-funded Wahhabi terror of Hamas, but unlike the Egyptians, Palestinians are not the victims of suicide terror. Hamas attacks Israelis, and Arafat's own team in the Wahhabi competition, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, likewise murders civilians. Unlike Mubarak, but like the Saudis, Arafat uses terrorism to give himself legitimacy, even if it makes his life less than comfortable. Failure to grasp this simple reality about Arab politics renders any commentary on the future of the Arab world worthless and thus seriously undermines Zakaria's work.

Joseph Braude's "The New Iraq," an account of Iraq and its potential for a democratic future, may, unfortunately, also be undermined by sensational reporting of events from the country and its surroundings that are making the liberation project of George W. Bush seem hasty and reckless. It is hoped, however, that the public gives Braude's work the reading it deserves, for he has composed a highly personal, occasionally eccentric, detailed and appreciative portrait of a society of immense possibilities.

The son of an Iraqi Jewish woman and descendant of Hakham Avraham Aslan, chief rabbi of Baghdad in the 1930s, the 28-year-old Braude knows that country's and other Middle Eastern countries' cultures well, having studied in Egypt, Iran, Israel and elsewhere in the region. But he is a commercial consultant by profession, rather than an academic, and it is his understanding of capitalism as a transformative force that gives this book its relevance. Braude outlines with confidence the nature of Iraq as a center of popular culture, as well as the practical side of the bourgeois-revolutionary vision for the Arab world.

His examination of Iraq supports the argument, sometimes drowned out in recent months by wartime rhetoric, that the country offered a tempting target for American intervention because of much more than its oil and its association with Arab extremism and Islamist terrorism. Braude demonstrates that, as a place with exceptional economic, social and cultural resources, a new Iraq could be the keystone of a modernized order in the region. In this, it would carry on its historic role as a center of Arab enterprise and of the worldwide Islamic community, and could even inaugurate the definitive entry of the Arab and Muslim nations into democratic capitalism.

It is a vision worthy of his and others' belief.

Stephen Schwartz is the author of "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror" and directs the Islam and Democracy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.