Good intention wreak unintended consequences in the Middle East

Hindsight should always be 20:20. Strangely though, we seem to be unable to learn lessons from our attempts at nation building, particularly in the Middle East. Why is this? Let us ponder the wreckage and see if we can learn the lessons that seem to escape our current leadership. Then let us examine how we might do things differently in the future.

So Iran, which claims that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, may be building the bomb. This seems a rational assumption. After all, its latest president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not exactly firing on all cylinders. For example, he thinks the Holocaust is a myth. Even though Iran is a signatory to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, he feels Iran can give lip service to it. Perhaps channeling the spirit of Saddam Hussein, he is quite comfortable throwing out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency whenever he finds it convenient. Never mind that by doing so he is violating the treaty.

Meanwhile, a leading Iranian newspaper is sponsoring an international cartoon contest on the Holocaust. Reputedly, this is being done so that Jews will know how it feels to suffer the gross sacrilege Muslims are going through with the publication of imprudent cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad. I have to wonder why Jews would feel offended if indeed the Holocaust were truly a myth. Do they think that Israelis are not aware of the many virulently anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish cartoons already routinely printed in Middle East newspapers? Moreover, there is the wee problem that it was not Jews but a Danish newspaper that published the offending cartoons. Meanwhile the rioting over these cartoons continues unabated across the Muslim world. Nine Muslims died today alone in Libya. These Muslims seem to think that by accidentally killing more people (all fellow Muslims so far) and destroying more property that the Prophet Mohammad and Allah are pleased. Somehow, I doubt it.

Over in Iraq voters in a recent parliamentary election, rather than voting for secular candidates, voted for sectarian and religious ones instead. The majority Shi’ites, at the insistence of their firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr, nominated Ibrahim Jaafari as the new prime minister. Jaafari is the current ineffectual interim prime minister. Sadr, of course, wants closer ties with the Shi’ite country of Iran and wants nothing to do with a national unity government promoted by the United States, or for that matter the United States.

In addition the Palestinians have elected Hamas into power. As you probably know, this is a political party whose professed aims include the destruction of the state of Israel. The many suicide bombers that have killed Israel citizens demonstrate the sincerity of their beliefs. Palestinians voted this way quite mindfully of the implications. Although unhappy with the outcome, even President Bush complemented Palestinians on how well they followed the Democratic process.

So perhaps democracy is spreading all over the Middle East. Arguably, even our current nemesis state Iran is a democracy. (It would flunk our test of being a real democracy, since clerics have the final say on whether a candidate gets on the ballot.) Unfortunately, Americans are not getting the desired outcome for the billions of dollars we invested. We assumed that democracy would to lead naturally to pro-Western, pro-American governments happy to sell us oil. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests (with Kuwait perhaps the exception) that in the Middle East people will vote for those with virulently anti-American, anti-Israeli and pro-Islamic state positions. For the most part, they are democratically saying, “Bring on theocracy!”

This should not surprise us. From interpreting the Quran, a theocracy should be the natural form of government in a predominantly Muslim country. Values we cherish like pluralism and secularism are much harder to instill when submission to the will of Allah trumps all.

Where did our good intentions go wrong? How did Iran become such a problem for the United States? Why are Iraqis voting for religious and sectarian parties? Why would the Palestinians, whose better relations with Israel are now finally bearing some fruit, suddenly prefer a religious government with murderous impulses toward Israel?

I see two overall reasons. First, our government has engaged in short-term thinking and ignored the long term likely consequences. Second, we projected our worldview on the Muslim worldview and assumed it would be a natural fit.

Case Iran. How did Iran get to hate us so much? It is because during the Cold War, we used Iran like a ten-dollar whore. It was just another pawn in our international chessboard. We wanted to deny the Soviet Union access to warm water ports. Therefore, it made sense for us to promote an Iranian king, the Shah of Iran. It was convenient for us to overlook his excesses and his oppression of his people. He was a means to an end: containing the Soviet Union. We discounted the ill will that would result if the Shah were overthrown. We assumed we could contain Iran so this would never happen. Our outcome in Iran though was partly a result of bad timing. Islamic fundamentalism was sweeping across the Middle East at the time. Iran was the first place in modern times where it would be tried as a form of government. Perhaps in the context of those Cold War times our choice was unavoidable. On the other hand, perhaps instead of allowing Iran to become a monarchy, we should have promoted real democracy. Had we done so perhaps its current clerics would not be associating us with the Great Satan. Perhaps instead of hearing regular chants of “Death to America” they would be peeling the bells for their democracy day.

Our tactics were similar in Iraq: contain the Soviet Union with what you have to work with. Consequently, we promoted Saddam Hussein, the very man we revile. Why did we help him? We aided him because our plan for containing the Soviet Union using Iran collapsed when the Shah was overthrown. In Iraq, we took big risks, including looking the other way as we did in Iran when Saddam ruthlessly oppressed its citizens. Saddam became too powerful and his ambitions became too imperialistic, resulting in a situation we could not contain.

As far as the needs of the Palestinian people, we have been unabashedly pro-Israel since its creation. We came late to the table in recognizing that the Palestinian people had legitimate needs. We looked the other way or offered the mildest protests every time another Jewish settlement was established in occupied Palestinian territories. We often aided Israel in the Security Council. We made sure that virtually no resolution against it would pass. We should have been cutting our aid to Israel as it expanded its settlements. More often, we simply increased our aid. The more Israel whined, the deeper we dug into our pockets.

This is what hindsight should show us if we were to look back on the past objectively. It should also inform us that democracy is not always the solution. Even if we are able to install a democratic government in a Middle East country, the odds are that its citizens will elect leaders opposed to our interests. Should this surprise us? For the culture of the Middle East is much different than our own culture.

Fostering democracy in the Middle East may or may not take wings, but it will not necessarily lead to a world more aligned to America’s interests. Neither is democracy in the Middle East a panacea for our nation’s long-term security. Perhaps President Bush is finally sobering up. In his latest State of the Union address, he said our nation is addicted to oil. Unfortunately his policies did a lot to increase our addiction. However if we were to follow through on his suggestion to dramatically reduce our need for oil from volatile spots like the Middle East, in the process we should also increase our national security. For whether democracy or more totalitarianism results in the Middle East in the future, the outcome is less likely to affect our national security.

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