21 May 2004

Broken Engagement

What the West supplied to the people of the East was, as former Solidarity leader and Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek told me, very simple: hope. They knew there was a countervailing force to the occupying Soviet power which had repressed them and subjugated their political systems. Democracy could reemerge in Central and Eastern Europe because of a several decades-long dance between popular resistance and cautious Western leaders who moved ever so carefully to provide support and encouragement without provoking the use of repressive force by the Communist governments in reaction or generating actual armed conflict between East and West.

So, when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an 'Evil Empire,' or stood before crowds in Berlin and proclaimed 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,' he was reaching a receptive audience on the other side of the wall. The neoconservatives persist in seeing a vast difference between Reagan's policy of confronting the Soviets and previous American administrations' tack of containing it. In fact, it was precisely those decades of containment and cultural engagement that made Reagan's challenge effective.

Bush, of course, has accompanied his invasion of Iraq with similarly bold and eloquent rhetoric about the prospect of peace and democracy throughout the Arab world. But it is hard to exaggerate how differently his words and deeds have been received in the Middle East, compared to Reagan's behind the Iron Curtain. While heartening some advocates of democracy, Bush's approach has provoked perhaps the fiercest and most alarming anti-American backlash in history. To take but one example, a March poll conducted by the Pew Center found that the percentage of people in Muslim countries who think suicide bombings are justified has grown by roughly 40 percent since the American occupation of Iraq. Even the most Western-friendly, pro-democratic media outlets in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon now openly question whether the Americans are anti-Islamic crusaders bent on assisting the Israeli occupiers of Palestine. This is a long way from Prague, circa 1989.

The reaction of the Middle East to America's invasion of Iraq should hardly have been surprising. Only willful blindness could obscure the obvious fact that the political and cultural conditions in the Middle East are profoundly different than those in the states of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. To one degree or another, the values and forms of democracy were part of the historic culture of the states of Central and Eastern Europe: There were constitutions and parliaments, in one form or another, in the Baltic States, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere before World War II. In some cases, these precedent experiences with democracy dated back into the 19th century.

This is evidently not the case in the Middle East. The Enlightenment never much penetrated the Ottoman frontiers, and so the great conflicts of faith versus reason and the value of each individual and his conscience which defined Western civilization were largely screened out there. Modern states in the Middle East emerged after the Ottoman Empire crumbled, and except in the cases of Turkey and Lebanon, there was nothing comparable to a Western democracy. Instead, 'state socialism' was eventually imposed upon tribal and colonial heritages in many Arab states--replacing the Ottoman Empire with Western-drawn boundaries, authoritarian rulers, and, at best, pseudo-democratic institutions. Through it all, Islam--with its commingling of secular and religious authorities, and the power of its mullahs and its more fundamentalist, anti-Western sects--remained a significant force. As the example of Iran shows, elections and parliaments can be subverted by other means of control.

Even the Reagan administration never tried to anoint an exile as leader of the Soviet Union or anywhere else in the Soviet bloc. You cannot impose a democracy in the absence of a civil society. You cannot create a civil society by ignoring the traditional liberties that make the West different. You cannot hold thousands of people in prison because you've decided habeas corpus is all too difficult. Abu Ghraib has around 8000 prisoners. Releasing 300 is a public relations exercise. Both the Red Cross and General Taguba say that 70 to 90% of them should not be in prison because they are only victims of random sweeps and checkpoints. There is no effective system of habeas corpus. Why? And why is that, long a matter of public record, not a controversy?

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