Islam versus the West
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.