Democracy Comes to the Middle East
By Jeff Lukens
When Ronald Reagan said the Soviet Union was destined for the "ash heap of history," many in Washington called him a simpleton. Maybe we should all be so simple. Two decades later, another patronized president is achieving another huge victory in the cause of freedom.
What is happening in the Middle East is nothing short of revolutionary. Even while violence continues in many areas, never before have so many people in the Arab world been willing to stand up to authority and demand their liberty.
In the past six months, we have seen national elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine. Saudi Arabia has had municipal elections. Demonstrations have forced a presidential election in Egypt. In Lebanon, Christians and Muslims have joined to topple the Syrian controlled government. And in Syria, dissidents are beginning to speak out.
Popular revolts do not always succeed. Recall Iraq's own history after the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam brutally repressed the Kurds and Shiites.
Natan Sharansky says in his new book, "The Case for Democracy," that freedom is about the right to dissent. It is about declaring one's opinions without fear of reprisal. Sharansky stresses that freedom abroad and security at home are linked, and that there can be no peace or justice without democracy.
Countries that do not protect the right of dissent, and other human rights, can never be reliable partners in peace. Sharansky should know. He had firsthand experience as a dissident in the Soviet Union.
Over the years, Sharansky saw how different Western leaders either courted or confronted the Soviet Union. Only when the people inside the Soviet Union saw a determined and sustained effort by the West in the 1980s did they gather the courage to speak out and eventually topple their government. The lesson learned from that experience now applies to the Middle East.
Democracies do not attack other democracies because they rely on the popular backing of their people, and most people go to war only when absolutely necessary. Where some in a democracy prefer war, a majority will always prefer peace, and democratic leaders cannot ignore the will of the people.
For a despot, on the other hand, the hazards of war are often more advantageous than peace. Having enemies give them a reason to enforce loyalty upon their people. Another Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov, summed it up nicely, "A country that does not respect the rights of its citizens will not respect the rights of its neighbors."
To avoid war, Sharansky says we should focus on making democracies, and not on making peace agreements with dictators. All people are capable of democratic self-rule and deserve to be free. Democratic success in places like Japan, Germany, South Africa, Russia and many Latin American countries sustain this logic. Now we must apply it to Muslim countries.
As democracy takes hold, people once repressed begin to feel liberated thus becoming more productive, thus producing a greater standard of living, thus producing less desire to terrorize and make war on others, and thus bringing greater security for everyone.
Saying that some people are better off under authoritarian rule harkens back to how people once justified slavery and apartheid. The assumption that terrorism has its origins in Islamic religion or culture is condescending and wrong. Generations of oppression are the reason the region has become a breeding ground for terrorism.
In an amazing turn of events, the "Arab street," now looks to America for support, and threatens those who rule over them. Most ordinary Arabs are not consumed by theories of conflict between Islam and the West, or by the so-called imperialism of American culture.
While the insurgency continues in Iraq, it is going nowhere. Insurgents have nothing to offer but more bloodshed, and the Iraqis know it. When they were free to choose, Iraqis chose an elected government. Likewise, most Palestinians voted for peaceful statehood, and not terror against Israel.
So, why now is this all happening in the Middle East? Dare we say that American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought the entire Middle East to the turning point of embracing democracy?
With gas prices at an all time high, it is obvious we did not go to war for oil as many have claimed. The Afghan and Iraqi elections are confirmation that our purposes there were sincere. By committing our resources to their freedom, we have enhanced security for people throughout the region, and for ourselves.
While much is still to be done, we should remain hopeful. We are witnessing the dawn of freedom and democracy in the Middle East that our nation has helped foster.