One of the most appealing thoughts about a possible war with Iraq is that it could help spread democracy, transforming a rotten political order in the Middle East. But more likely, such a war would render the Middle East more repressive and unstable than it is today. Democracy cannot be imposed through military force, even if force is used successfully to oust antidemocratic dictators. And our vital aims in fighting terrorism, securing oil supplies and protecting the lives of American soldiers will, in the context of the Middle East, almost certainly ensure that the spread of democracy will again take a back seat to our national priorities.
Aside from the significant challenges in Iraq itself, the picture in the rest of the region will be troubling. Regardless of our real objectives, most Arabs and Muslims will see in the war American imperialism. Governments in the region may support the war for fear of being on the losing side, or may simply stay neutral. Because support goes against the overwhelming sentiment of their citizenry, they will likely endorse our course through political repression. If King Abdullah of Jordan, like other rulers in the Middle East, has to face a choice between supporting the war while repressing his people and yielding to Jordanian public opinion by opposing our effort, it’s clear what our preference will be. For that we need not dig deep into history: our commitment to fighting Al Qaeda has understandably defined our current relationship with Pakistan in a way that has caused us to put aside democratic values in order to achieve a more vital goal. These values will likely be sacrificed in our relationship with other nations in the Middle East, even with the best of intentions.
At the same time, we would not be comfortable if democratic change in the region results in the victory of radical Islamist groups, as happened in Algeria a decade ago. Nor is it likely that we would be willing to accept democratically elected militant Islamist groups to run the Saudi government and control the world’s largest oil reserves as well as the pulpit of Mecca.
The political order in the Middle East is bankrupt today, and if stability means the continuation of the status quo, that would not be appealing. Change is necessary for the good of the people of the Middle East and for the good of the world. But not any change, and not through any means. The use of military force may be necessary for other reasons, but it is more likely to stifle than to nurture democracy movements in authoritarian Arab states.
America’s political success has undoubtedly been bolstered by its superior military power. But our military power itself is a product of a successful economic and political system. Those around the world who sought change of their political and economic systems did so in large part on their own—and in many cases with America’s political and economic success as a model. Those who want to achieve that success will have to emulate the model. And those who don’t will likely fail.
Powerful ideas are willingly accepted because they inspire, not threaten. Even those who are reluctant to embrace democracy, like the leaders in Beijing, have understood the need to emulate much of America’s economic approach lest they be left further behind. And in embracing a new economic approach, they have also unleashed a political process they will not be able fully to control.
Ultimately, America’s role is to assist in the spread of democracy and, above all, to inspire. Wars may simultaneously open up new opportunities for change, as in Afghanistan, and close others, as in Pakistan. But democracy cannot be dictated through war, especially when war is opposed by people of the region. The thought that, because America has unequaled power, we know what is best for others—even better than they do themselves—would not be comforting to most Americans. Certainly, such a notion is not compatible with the very ideal of democracy we seek to spread.