'Soft dictatorship' in Iraq would have made U.S. more happy, foreign policy expert says
Even before the ballots were counted, Iraq's election was hailed as a success - the seed for democracy in an Arab world dominated by authoritarian regimes.
But in a region where resentment of U.S. foreign policy is unrivaled and the mosque holds more sway than political leaders, the groups most likely to win free elections are ones disliked by the United States. For example, U.S. President George W. Bush would likely be aghast at an Egypt governed by the Muslim Brotherhood - which wants to turn the country into an Islamic state.
"This has been the classic dilemma for presidents since (U.S. President Woodrow) Wilson - the balance between American ideals and American interests," says Fredrik Logevall, an expert on American foreign policy at Cornell University.
"I'm skeptical that the United States would practice what it preaches on that question."
So, too, are Arab regimes or the oppressed Arab masses that Bush, in his inaugural address and State of the Union speech, vowed to support in their bid for greater freedom.
Islamist groups, wary at America's latitude with the label "terrorist organization," have concluded the freedom pushed by America is really a desire for U.S. clones. And this, in their minds, translates into freedom to allow miniskirts, unbridled sex for teenagers, and the separation of church and state - none of which sits well with conservative Muslims.
"The sense of complete and unfettered freedom is not a widely held value" among the Arab masses, says Jon Alterman, a former U.S. diplomat and Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"You don't have to talk long to these people to get a sense that this is a threat to all they hold dear. People don't want oppressive government, but that's not to say they would ascribe to Western-style values," he said.
Arab governments have capitalized on the West's unease with fundamentalist Islam to justify ignoring calls for reforms. Also, both Islamist groups and Arab regimes quickly judged that the Patriot Act and other post-September 11 security measures adopted by the United States legitimize the same sort of strictures that American officials have criticized in the Arab world.
For Islamists, this is hypocrisy. And for Arab regimes, argues Alterman, it's an excuse to argue there's no viable alternative to authoritarian rule.
But in most Arab nations, people are increasingly angry at what they regard as uncaring and corrupt leaders and have turned to Muslim clerics to inform their political thinking.
In Egypt, most analysts believe truly free elections would translate into new power for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group known for its past violence but which now says it wants to achieve an Islamic state through democratic means. It has rallied the disenfranchised, unemployed and oppressed with the call: "Islam is the solution."
In Palestine, the Islamic-oriented Hamas has begun a transition from militant group to political party, mirroring a transformation successfully carried out years earlier by the Hezbollah Islamic movement in Lebanon. In local elections in January, Hamas trounced the Palestinian Authority's Fatah movement, and analysts predict a similar sweep could happen in legislative elections in Gaza later this year.
But in what could be a window into the future, American officials responded to Hamas' move into politics by saying it did not change their view of the group.
Some analysts believe this attitude makes clear that American officials either have not fully grasped - or simply don't care to recognize - the idea that anti-American movements are not necessarily anti-democratic and that the democratic process must be allowed to develop at its own pace.
Successive American administrations have failed at this, says Georgetown University Middle East expert John Voll, linking America's suspicion of Islamic groups to "the heritage of the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis."
That perception of anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bias on the part of American officials has had very tangible results in the region - contributing to the sense of ill-will on the part of Islamic groups, particularly those seeking more mainstream political roles. It has also alienated people who were not particularly pro-Islamic.
In Egypt, a key U.S. ally, the American failure to speak out strongly when members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups are harassed by authorities or jailed without charge has fueled the belief that the United States is not sincere about promoting freedom.
"The president's rhetoric on liberty and freedom rings hollow in a world that makes more of the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib issues than the president does," said Alterman, the former diplomat.
Cornell's Logevall also noted that even in Iraq - which the United States has painted as the model for democratic reforms - the Bush administration was initially reluctant to hold early elections "because it was concerned about who would win."
"My sense in 2003 is that if they could have had a soft dictatorship under (former Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed) Chalabi, they would have been as happy as can be," he said, noting that U.S. officials began pushing for an early national election only after Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, demanded such a vote.
Voll of Georgetown University said that with a number of elections approaching in the Arab world, perhaps most importantly the vote for a Palestinian legislature, the United States will increasingly be faced with deciding where its best interests are.
"It leaves the U.S., I hope, with the question ... Do we support the democratic process or do we support people who we can see as our flunkies?" he said.
Published February 17, 2005, Taiwan News