Islam versus the West

Is the U.S. trying to install democracy in the Middle East — or egging on a clash of civilizations?

Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi is one of several experts who spoke with Rolling Stone. Credit: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

IS OUR COUNTRY'S MIDDLE-EAST POLICY BASED ON SOUND geopolitical reasoning? Or are we flexing our imperial muscles, trying to bring the Islamic world to its knees? We convened a panel of experts to talk about the U.S. and the Middle East — what we understand about each other and what we don't.

How successful has the U.S. invasion of Iraq been so far, and what are the broader implications it has for the future of peace and democracy in the Middle East?
BENJAMIN BARBER: Even as a serious opponent of the war, I have to say that the four weeks of combat were brilliant and effective. But just as everything was done right in the war, almost everything has been done wrong since then. We have destroyed tyranny but created anarchy, instability and disorder. And the worst of the war is yet to come.

AHMAD CHALABI: The U.S. has achieved something of historical significance — removing one of the last Cold War Stalinist regimes — but what started out as a liberation has become an occupation: The U.S. promised to make an Iraqi provisional government but quickly backed off on that, saying it first had to get a better grip on law and order. These delays are strengthening fundamentalist forces and the possibility of radical resistance.

HOWARD DEAN: The president's dismal peacekeeping operation doesn't surprise me, because he set such a dreadful example in Afghanistan — not enough people to do the job, and a lack of commitment to do what needs to be done.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: The Pentagon expected to use the Iraqi army, bureaucracy and police force to run Iraq. But none of these institutions survived the war intact. Still, if we find a way to partner with Iraq to build a better nation, it could give way to huge opportunities for the region at large. In bringing down Saddam's regime, we've eliminated the most dangerous strategic threat to Israel, and that creates a better environment for resolving Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we produce a decent Iraq with self-government among different factions, we send a message around the Middle East that democracy is possible and that not every country with a multiethnic population has to be ruled by an iron fist. In short, if we build it, they will come.

CHAS W. FREEMAN: True, but that doesn't address the fact that the Bush administration was totally ill-equipped to execute regime change or install an interim government. They were like a dog chasing a car: This is something the dog feels he must do, but isn't sure what he would do if he actually gets the car. The war was meant to improve the lot of Iraqi people, but they have never been as bad off as they are now. The majority of Iraqis have no electricity or water; factories and schools are closed; unemployment is rampant. Democratization now appears to mean desecularization, turning the place over to religious parties. And the supposed blow against international terrorism seems to have been taken by terrorists as a boost to recruitment.

RACHEL BRONSON: But you can't expect instant results. In Germany after World War II, it took four years to get a constitution. In Japan, it took seven years until we formally ended the occupation. Why on earth would this possibly take any less time in a country that doesn't have the kind of social foundations conducive to democracy in the first place?

Few models exist for building democracy in an Islamic nation. Do we have reason to believe that the circumstances for democracy in Iraq are simply untenable?
BARBER: In most Muslim nations, democracy has never been tried or has been pushed aside after unsuccessful experiments. In Algeria, it is in deep peril; in Egypt, minimal liberties are being eroded by a fearful government trying to track down its fundamentalist enemies; in Kuwait, democracy is practically invisible, even after the war to liberate it from Iraqi invaders. American allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the oil emirates are hard-pressed to keep up the pretense of even aspiring to be democratic as their regimes struggle to survive.

DANIEL PIPES: Islam poses many barriers to democracy, but so did Christianity and Judaism at points in their history. They evolved. Radical Islam is not a religion, it is a totalitarian ideology along the lines of fascism or Marxist Leninism. After September 11th, it became the responsibility of the United States to come in and destroy militant Islam — it cannot be reformed; it must be defeated. Then we must promote a modern, moderate Islam that is compatible with civil society.

JAMES ZOGBY: This idea that Islam is some how incompatible with democracy is bogus. People who say this either are brain-dead or racist. The simple fact is that because of colonialism and imperialism, the Arab world never developed normally and therefore never had the opportunity to undergo the social transformation that ultimately makes democracy possible. England dominated Egypt in the nineteenth century, Italians did the same to Libya, the French did it, too, in Morocco and Algeria. After World War I, the British and French drew lines on maps and created Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Regimes were implanted, kings were created out of whole cloth. The question is not, "Is Islam compatible with democracy?" But, "Is the social development that exists in the Middle East compatible with democracy?" And the answer is, "Not yet. But it will happen."

BRONSON: Arab countries get their money primarily from two sources — oil and foreign aid — which means they don't rely on the participation of their population to generate revenue. The government owns the oil and gets the foreign aid, so there's been absolutely no reason to diversify the economy and encourage enterprise and innovation among the populace. There's no taxation, there's no representation.

Whether it's economic, cultural or religious factors that undermined the spread of democracy in the Middle East, many Arabs think the U.S. is trying to foment a clash of civilizations rather than promote democracy.
ZOGBY: Absolutely. We have anti-Muslim fanatics in America — often Christian conservatives and hard-liners in the Jewish community--who go around making grossly generalized statements about Muslim culture and the need for a takeover. What's even more disturbing is that some of these people, like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, are closely allied with the president. Our attorney general, John Ashcroft, promotes racial profiling and unjust detentions of Arabs. James Woolsey, the former CIA director, publicly works himself into a lather, saying this is the beginning of World War IV. That spirals throughout the Arab media and gives way to rumors of extreme anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S.

BRONSON: A grave concern among Arabs is that this is a war against Islam, not terrorism.

PIPES: The idea that this is a war on terrorism is a euphemism. The problem is radical Islam; the symptom is terrorism. We're not anti-Islam, we're anti-radical Islam. But to defeat the radicals, we need to scrutinize Muslims — it's a matter of being sensible. If you're looking for a Nazi, it makes sense to look among Germans. If you're looking for a militant Islamic operative, you look among Muslims.

ZOGBY: This is the kind of bigotry that fuels the anti-American fire throughout the Middle East. We have to be vigorous about denouncing our bigots and extremists, just as we expect Arabs to denounce theirs.

DEAN: The irony is that it's because of Bush's closeness to the Saudis that our relations with the rest of the Arab world are so awful. The president refuses to do anything about our oil demands and refuses to confront the Saudis about their role in financing terror. If we're serious about fighting terror, we have got to look at where our oil dollars are going — and the key is oil conservation and renewable energy.

How do we get beyond religion in Iraq?
CHALABI: The fear that Iraq will be a theocracy is unfounded. When you hear that sixty percent of Iraq is Shia, it does not mean they are all fundamentalists and want to be in control. It's the same thing when you say that the IRA are all Catholics. Does that mean that every Catholic is a terrorist?

FRIEDMAN: I don't think Iraq will go the Iran route of a religious tyranny. It's a different society, a different sensibility. Of the sixty percent Shia majority, maybe thirty percent would favor some kind of Iranian-style theocracy. That's only eighteen percent of the population — a percentage that cannot impose its will over the whole country.

ZOGBY: The country is no closer to a secular democracy today than it was when Saddam was in power. Sunnis are recruiting fighters from around the region to join the battle against the U.S. And even the moderate Shias are beginning to see theocracy as a better alternative to the current situation.

Can democracy be force-fed by an occupying power, or must it be a homegrown, evolutionary process?
ROBERT KAPLAN: We must exert hard power, or we will be perceived as weak. We have to create a situation where the only people using guns are American troops. What we want in Iraq — as we want all over the world — is not necessarily an American-style democracy. We want a civil society, however it takes shape — even if it's under an enlightened despot. Freedom in the Middle East is impossible without authority. Then we can make that authority increasingly less oppressive.

ZOGBY: This idea that if we beat them up hard enough, they'll get the message, is an old, horribly obsolete British-colonial notion, and it will without a doubt put us on a collision course — a tremendous clash of civilizations.

But given the chaos in Baghdad, don't we have to forcefully restore order before we can begin working with Iraqis to build a self-sustaining government?
CHALABI: The U.S. military are very good soldiers but not good policemen. That's why, immediately, the U.S. needs to begin training an Iraqi national security force and withdraw its forces from Iraqi cities, which are creating tremendous tension.

BARBER: Our imposition of force goes well beyond controlling banditry. Even as the U.S. is saying it eventually wants to create conditions in which the Iraqis can govern themselves, it is busy making, on its own, almost all of the significant decisions about the shape of the economy that a democratic Iraqi government would want to make for itself. It's already been decided by the U.S. that the Iraqi energy industry will be privatized, as will its telecommunications industry.

Isn't it clear by this point that we didn't go into this war simply for humanitarian or security reasons — that we have made this incursion into the Middle East chiefly to safeguard our own interests?
FRIEDMAN: This is an imperial project, and an imperial project requires an imperial sensibility--one that balances the will of the occupying power with the interests of the occupied civilians. You do want to give the message to Iraqis that it's a partnership but also that you will turn the power over to them at a pace by which they can receive it.

It seems surprising to hear the word empire tossed around without apology or euphemism.
KAPLAN: It is a cliché these days to observe that the United States now possesses a global empire; the question now is how the American empire should operate on a tactical level to manage an unruly world. As I argue in the current Atlantic Monthly, for the time being, the highest morality must be the preservation — and wherever prudent, the accretion — of American power. At this point in time, American power, and American power only, can serve as an organizing principle for the worldwide expansion of liberal civil society. A world dominated by the United Nations — an organization that worships peace and consensus, and will therefore sacrifice any principle for their sakes — would be infinitely worse than the world we have now. Two or three decades hence, conditions may be propitious for the emergence of a new international system. But until then, it is largely the task of the United States to maintain a modicum of order and stability.

JOSEPH NYE: Indeed, the word empire has come out of the closet. With the United States representing nearly half of the world's military expenditures, no counter-vailing coalition can create a traditional military balance of power. There are huge and difficult responsibilities that come with that power. For better or worse, having invaded Iraq, we now own it. And we have to put it back together.

DEAN: It is not the intention of the American people to have an empire. It is not in keeping with our democratic character.

So this is an imperial incursion, not a tidy scheme for "regime change" that will finance itself?
FREEMAN: The big joke is that the American taxpayer will pay dearly for it. There is no way that Iraqi oil will pay for everything: It will take a $6 billion investment to restore the Iraqi oil system to its prewar production rate, at which point Iraq will be earning about $15 billion a year from oil exports. Reconstruction costs are likely to run $25 billion a year for the next five years, at least. Plus Iraq is just short of $398 billion in debt, which means that even if you get the oil flowing, you are still going to have a lot more money going out than coming in. We have gone out of our way to say that the international community is not welcome to contribute, so the U.S. taxpayer will end up footing this.

But even if we achieve some semblance of democracy in Iraq, isn't it more important for our future relations with the Arab world to commit ourselves to the Arab-Israel peace process?
FRIEDMAN: The Arab-Israeli conflict remains the most emotional issue in the region. To the extent that we can produce a better environment there, it's good for everyone in the region. It gives moderates more room to maneuver, it gives America better standing, and it will integrate Israel more deeply in the region. But if I had to choose: Which one would you put energy into first? It would definitely be Iraq.

KAPLAN: Nothing will help us more in getting the Israelis out of the West Bank and projecting power throughout the region and stabilizing things than showing that we're not going to cut and run from Iraq.

What was the general state of U.S.-Arab relations before Bush came on board, before 9/11, and how have they changed?
BRONSON: The most recent Pew Charitable Trust Poll shows America's favorability in the Arab world is at one of the lowest points in history — it said the bottom has fallen out of Muslim support of the United States. When the Bush administration first came to power, Israeli-Palestinian peace was not a priority — they didn't believe they could keep the two sides from killing each other. Now they have finally realized that the peace effort is critical to our national interest, which is a good step forward, but it will be difficult for them to make up for lost time.

NYE: To be successful in our future negotiations with the Arab world, we need to use both hard and soft power — and the Bush administration has used the former at the expense of the latter. Hard power is the ability to force others to do what they otherwise wouldn't do. Soft power is the ability to attract others to do the things we want. Our attractiveness has gone down considerably over the last two years, in large part from the unilateral ways we've executed our policies. If we want to prevent Al Qaeda terrorists from gaining new recruits, we have to be attractive to moderates in the Arab world, and that's where our soft power comes in.

FRIEDMAN: Though the Bush administration's unilateralist approach has dealt a blow to America's soft power, it has also created the possibility of good relations with the Arab world. Bush's victory in Iraq enabled him to encourage a change of leadership in Palestine and to elicit Prime Minister Sharon's cooperation.

But is Bush's unilateral approach viable over the long term?
KAPLAN: Precisely because they foment dynamic change, liberal empires — like those of Venice, Great Britain and the United States — create the conditions for their own demise. Thus they must be especially devious. If we are to get our own way, and at the same time promote our democratic principles, we will have to operate nimbly, in the shadows and behind closed doors, using means far less obvious than the august array of power displayed in the war against Iraq.

BARBER: The myth that the sovereignty of the U.S. can protect Americans at home, let alone anyone else in the world, was lanced and annihilated on 9/11. It signaled a failure of American supremacy. After all, the most powerful military in the world could not protect its own headquarters, the Pentagon; the most powerful economy in the world could not protect the cathedral of world capitalism in New York. The response should have been to acknowledge the new realities of interdependence and to seek greater co-operation and interaction with Europe and the United Nations. Rather, the response of the Bush administration was to try to reassert with a vengeance the sovereignty that 9/11 proved we no longer possessed. In effect, Bush said, if our frontiers no longer protect us, then we will extend them around the world — a new Pax Americana. We will go wherever we have to. Make Afghanistan an American province. Make Iraq an American outpost. The problem with this strategy is not only that it's unjust and immoral but that it reasserts the nineteenth-century concept of sovereignty that 9/11 proved doesn't work anymore. Perpetual unilateral war in the name of prevention will only intensify anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world and make us more vulnerable to terrorism.