By Barry Rubin
Iraq is in a mess. Violence continues. Factionalism leads to endless bickering. Corruption is at high levels. Christians live in fear or flee altogether. Islamism is constantly creeping forward. Yet I would suggest that with all these shortcomings the “Iraqi model” is the best that can be expected for the Middle East.
What’s the worst-case scenario? Iran, Afghanistan, Gaza, Sudan, or the permanent civil war situation in Syria, Yemen, and probably Libya.
It isn’t that democracy is theoretically impossible or incompatible in principle with Islam or Arab society. The problem is that it just isn’t going to happen at this particular point in history. What you or I or small groups of moderate democratic Arabs, or naïve Western journalists want isn’t relevant here.
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The reporters can pal around with Muslim Brotherhood members every day of the week and talk about how moderate they are but that won’t make them moderate. Tens of thousands of well-financed, fanatical, hard-working, and tactically creative cadre are laboring long hours throughout the region to bring revolutionary Islamist dictators in each country.
They are opposed by dozens of moderates who are concentrated in the capital cities, have hardly any money, usually don’t know how to relate to the masses, have no strategic sense, are more badly divided than the Islamists and confuse writing an op-ed piece or holding a demonstration with organizing a mass movement to seize state power.
Wishful thinking has no place in political analysis or statecraft or journalism. The fact that the moderates are so much “like us” is not an advantage for them—except in getting favorable media coverage–but a fatal disadvantage in their own societies.
Personally, I would prefer that the moderates win, but then I grew up watching the Washington Senators baseball team finish in last place in the American League every year.
The model usually put forward, including by the Obama Administration, is the Turkish regime. It is rare in history for a democratic state to promote a foreign government that is so antithetical to its own interests in almost every way. There are some positions in common but far more that are different. Two put it as briefly as possible, there are two problems.
The first problem is that the Turkish regime is boosting radical Islamist movements and governments that are America’s biggest enemy. These include Iran, the Gaza Strip (Hamas), and the current government in Lebanon (Hizballah). The Turkish regime has tried to back the Muslim Brotherhood but has been rebuffed, since the Brotherhood has no interest in following non-Arab leadership. And in Syria, the Turkish regime has been backing the Islamists in the opposition, intending to produce an anti-American regime in Damascus.
The Turkish regime also loathes Israel and supports radical Islamist forces against it. Only regarding Iraq do U.S. and Turkish interests basically coincide.
The second problem is that the Turkish regime has systematically reduced democracy at home. Hundreds of moderates have been arrested on ridiculous charges. The armed forces, formerly the guardian of secularism and the basic democratic system, have been broken. The media is intimidated. Radical Islamists have been infiltrated into all parts of the government. This well-coordinated creeping tendency toward dictatorship has barely been reported in the West.
What is the Turkish model in terms of the Arabic-speaking world? It is a formula for radical Islamist groups to seize state power and fundamentally transform their societies while appearing to be moderate. It is a step by step process, the equivalent of the Russian revolutionary movement graduating from anarchism to Bolshevism precisely a century earlier.
The most surprising thing is not that the West has been taken in by this trick but that it has happened so thoroughly.
At a time when even Lebanon is governed by a combination of Islamists and radical clients of Tehran and Damascus, Tunisia has a mostly Islamist government, and when the secular Turkish republic is being transformed by Islamists there is not much of an alternative.
In Morocco and Jordan, as usual, the kings have brilliantly maneuvered to provide the appearance of democratic pluralism and even Islamist participation while he holds the reins. In Algeria, as usual, the army is running things. In Saudi Arabia and the small sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf (Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman), as usual, traditionalist regimes rule but they are now not so much intimidated by radical Arab nationalist threats as horrified by radical Islamist threats.
And at a moment when President Barack Obama has transformed America from being leader of the Free World to reflecting the effect, unrealistic elite from the Brie World, there’s not much hope from that quarter.
So that brings us to Iraq. As I’ve outlined above, the situation there is far from ideal. Yet there are some significant advantages. Internally, there are elections that mean something, a real element of pluralism, space for freedom of speech, and some working decentralization.
Of the greatest importance is the fact that Islamist elements have been defeated (in the Sunni case) or held at bay (in the Shia case). Things can certainly get worse but some stability seems to have been achieved at this time.
Another key factor is that Iraq is acting more “normally” as a state by minding its own business. It is not subverting neighbors or trying to take over the Middle East. Iraq also has decent relations with the West. This is a country that is trying to deal with its own problems. And if there is factionalism and corruption, at least it appears to be clear that no force can monopolize power and establish a repressive dictatorship.
Call it chaotic pluralism as an alternative to Islamist dictatorship. And, yes, that appears to be the best that can be expected in those countries not still dominated by traditionalist monarchies. It is certainly preferable to the “Turkish model.” Yet I don’t expect many people in the West to appreciate that point.
Is my assessment too pessimistic? Well, you are free to be optimistic. You can imagine an Israel-Palestinian peace based on a comprehensive treaty ending the conflict and establishing a two-state solution. You can fantasize about moderate Muslim Brotherhood leaders pragmatically getting down to solving Egypt’s problems by creating jobs, building housing, and establishing new industries. You can pretend that various forces will be grateful to America and President Obama for demolishing several dictatorships.
But none of this is going to happen. It is vital to understand why and to comprehend what must be done in the face of this situation.
By pretending to soar to the heights of democracy, the Islamists are on the road to autocracy, and an anti-Western, regionally destabilizing autocracy at that. By being so gullible, the West is assisting at the domination of the region of a repressive, anti-Western force that will set the region back 60 years (to the origin of radical Arab nationalist hegemony) if not 600 years.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.