Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Monday, July 26, 2004

Democracy a tool in neo-con hands

Asia Times - Asia's most trusted news source for the Middle East: "Middle East

COMMENTARY
Democracy a tool in neo-con hands
By Jim Lobe

Of the delusions that US neo-conservatives perpetrated in their drive to take the United States to war in Iraq, the most durable has been the notion that they are committed to the spread of Wilsonian democracy. As someone who has watched the neo-con movement over the past 30 years or so, I find this notion hard to accept.

My skepticism is based not only on their obvious selectivity. After all, one has only to look at their support for authoritarian regimes in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Tunisia and Jordan - as opposed to their eagerness to invade Iraq in the name of bringing democratic rule there - to find some glaring inconsistencies.

Nor is it the fact that neo-conservatives pushed hardest for President George W Bush to cease dealing with Yasser Arafat, who, after all, was elected by a substantial majority of eligible Palestinian voters on the West Bank and in Gaza, that suggests a certain hypocrisy or blindness on the issue. Neo-con hardliners such as Richard Perle believe Palestinians should be denied self-determination altogether.

Without doubt, neo-cons have long professed a devotion to democracy. Indeed, their main argument in favor of a US strategic alliance with Israel - a central and persistent tenet of the neo-conservative creed over three decades - has been the Jewish state's status as the lone democratic outpost in a region of seething and hate-filled Arab autocracies.

The question, however, is whether democracy promotion, especially in the Arab world, ranks anywhere nearly as high in their policy priorities as their commitment to Israel's security. And, to the extent they may perceive a potential conflict between the two, which one are they inclined to choose as the more important?

A brief look at the historical record may help provide an answer.

While the movement sprouted wings in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Israel found itself increasingly isolated at the United Nations, neo-conservatives first tasted real power under the late US president Ronald Reagan, who was especially taken with Jeane Kirkpatrick's attacks on his predecessor Jimmy Carter's human-rights policies, which, according to her, were disastrously undermining "friendly authoritarian" regimes, such as the Shah of Iran, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, the military dictatorships in South America, and even the apartheid government of South Africa - all governments that also enjoyed friendly relations with Israel.

Instead of hectoring such regimes on reform, she argued, Washington should have provided them unstinting support as allies in the global struggle against Soviet communism, both because Moscow was the far greater evil, and because "authoritarian" regimes could eventually become "democracies", while "totalitarian" ones could not.

Reagan applied these ideas. During his first term, Washington not only renewed military and other forms of support to "friendly authoritarians", but also launched the neo-con-inspired "Reagan doctrine" - the sponsorship of right-wing "freedom fighters", such as jihadis in Afghanistan, tribal nationalists in Angola, and ex-National Guard in Nicaragua who generally distinguished themselves more by fanaticism and brutality than by the democratic arts. At the same time, neo-cons were ecstatic about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon - not because it could further the cause of democracy, but because it meant the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Lebanon and a decisive shift in the regional balance of power against Soviet-backed Syria.

So if neo-cons were not big democracy boosters during their period of greatest influence under Reagan, when did they get religion?

Most analysts date their conversion to the latter 1980s when the "people power" movement ousted Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Chilean strongman General Augusto Pinochet was defeated in a referendum to extend his rule. In both cases, prominent neo-conservatives Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams, respectively, were serving at the top of the two relevant regional State Department bureaus. Neo-con pundits were quick to embrace these perceived deviations from the Kirkpatrick doctrine as a necessary course correction, particularly in light of the winding down of the Cold War.

While Wolfowitz and Abrams sided with those who wanted to remove the two "friendly authoritarians", so did a significant number of Republican lawmakers, some of them classic realists, such as Senator Richard Lugar, who had already broken with Reagan and the neo-cons over their support for South Africa. In that respect, the neo-cons were as much fellow-travelers as they were the vanguard, as they like to claim.

That conclusion is reinforced by their record through the 1990s. Contrary to myth, neo-cons, including Wolfowitz, who is widely considered the most Wilsonian on the neo-con spectrum, did not urge president George H W Bush to plant democracy in Baghdad during the first Gulf War in 1991. And although they did join with liberal hawks in calling for "humanitarian interventions" after the war and subsequently in the Balkans, neo-cons remained well within what became the post-Cold War realist consensus - that elected, more or less democratic governments, so long as they were not hostile, were to be preferred over "friendly authoritarians".

Thus when the Algerian military abruptly canceled elections in December 1991, neither realists nor neo-cons objected, because the alternative was thought likely to bring to power an Islamist government potentially hostile to the United States, and certainly to Israel. Indeed, in his An End to Evil published (with co-author David Frum) in January, Richard Perle cites Algeria as the reason he supports "democratization" in the Middle East, rather than "democracy" - a subtlety that would bring a smile even to the lips of master realist Henry Kissinger.

Similarly, when the neo-cons first began agitating for Saddam Hussein's removal in 1995-96, their arguments were based entirely on classic realpolitik of the kind they had used to defend Israel's invasion of Lebanon 13 years before. Thus a 1996 task force headed by Perle and that also included the Pentagon's current policy chief, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser, Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, argued that ousting Saddam was the key to transforming the balance of power in the Middle East decisively in Israel's favor, permitting it to "break" with Oslo and dictate terms to Syria and the Palestinians.

A follow-up paper by Wurmser called for the region to be reorganized according to "tribal/clan/familial alliances" that would create a "more stable balance-of-power system". In 1998, when the neo-cons and Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi were steamrolling the Iraq Liberation Act through Congress, its supporters, such as the neo-con-dominated Project for the New American Century (PNAC), focused entirely on the military threat posed by a rearmed Saddam. Even in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, when the PNAC warned that the failure to oust Saddam would constitute a "decisive surrender" to international terrorism, the democracy question simply was nowhere on the agenda.

It was only after the Afghanistan campaign to oust the Taliban that the neo-cons finally began to articulate the argument, denounced by one realist strategist as "neo-crazy", that anti-American terrorism was caused by oppressive Arab autocracies and that, by invading and occupying the most oppressive, Iraq, the US could create a pro-Western, democratic government in the strategic heart of the Arab world that would in turn provoke sweeping change throughout the region.

On the face of it, the argument has real appeal, particularly for the more idealistic of the neo-cons, such as Wolfowitz. To the increasingly Likudist mainstream of the movement - such people as Perle, Feith, Daniel Pipes, Norman Podhoretz and Michael Ledeen - however, it must sound like a great way to rally public opinion behind a war to shift the balance of power in the Middle East once and for all.

(This column was first published by the Daily Star of Beirut, Lebanon.) "