The growing onslaught waged of late against making "democracy" the centerpiece of the Bush administration's strategy toward Muslim and Arab countries is truly amazing. Even more astonishing is that many of these critics served Republican presidents.
One might have expected that they would moderate their criticism of the Bush Doctrine, especially since promoting democracy has such an honorable pedigree as a goal of American foreign policy. But the opposite is the case. Let's take the fall 2005 issue of the reputable National Interest magazine as a telling example of how scathing these attacks have become.
It should first be noted that the National Interest was established 20 years ago by Irving Kristol, the spiritual leader of the neo-conservative movement in American politics. Over the years, it has become quite a respectable periodical, boasting Henry Kissinger as its honorary chairman, while former secretary of defense James Schlesinger chairs its advisory board.
As we glance at the list of contributors who are troubled by the Bush Doctrine, we find Dov Zakheim, who served in the Pentagon under Ronald Reagan; Richard Haass, who was at the State Department during Bush's first term; and Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under presidents Gerald Ford and the elder George Bush.
THE CRITIC'S case can be summarized: Democracy may be elbowing its way into the Middle East, but not exactly in the manner that some of its more strident advocates would necessarily prefer. There is the questionable notion, as Haass observes, that "democracies are unlikely to go to war with one another." And there is the proposition that the absence of democracy in the Arab world is "largely responsible for the alienation of so many young men and women," who then turn to radicalism and terrorism. But, asserts Haass with proven perspicacity, a democratic Middle East would not be terrorism free.
All those who assail the Bush Doctrine claim it is disingenuous. Despite the rhetorical commitment to democratic government, there is as yet little sign, say David Hendrickson and Robert W. Tucker, "that the administration intends to make serious effort to push democracy in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Egypt."
The call for free elections in Egypt did not challenge Egypt's banning of the Muslim Brotherhood - I would add, for good reasons. Yet, any election without the participation of the Brotherhood would scarcely deserve to be called "free and fair." How do the proponents of the doctrine reconcile these contradictions? They don't. They simply ignore them.
Promoting democracy, say the critics, is - and should be - one goal of American foreign policy, but it cannot be the single dominant objective. When it comes to relations with Russia or China, Saudi Arabia or Egypt, and Iraq, other national security interests must naturally take precedence over concerns over how these countries choose to govern themselves.
The kings, presidents and other rulers who tell their American interlocutors that they support a path of gradual reform for their conservative societies do have, writes Zakheim, a record of many decades of being allied to the United States. Replacing or even alienating the Arab traditional rulers is unlikely to introduce freedom and the rule of law, nor safeguard the vital national security interests of the US (and of Israel), he argues.
And as for the theory that absence of free elections in Saudi Arabia contributed to the rise of al-Qaida, the attempt to promote a rapid Western model of democracy will certainly not contain or eliminate fanatic Islamists, either in Saudi Arabia or in Morocco. We know now that many of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks in the US, and subsequent attacks in Madrid and in London, had been exposed to the freedom and the benefits of Western democracies. That experience may have only exacerbated their sense of alienation, frustration and resentment.
A Belgian of Moroccan descent masterminded the Madrid massacre in 2004 and a Dutchman born in the Netherlands to Moroccan parents murdered the filmmaker Theo van Gogh. In court last July, the assassin justified that killing, saying that Islamic law instructed him "to chop off the heads of everyone who insults Allah or the prophet."
None of this means that a gradual process of democratization should not take place. But not in a way that destabilizes the whole system.
Israelis in particular ought to be rather cautious in rushing to embrace the democracy doctrine. We had better notice how we cope with the prospect of Hamas's possible participation in the Palestinian Authority elections.
Technically, it could be argued that it would be natural and democratic for all to participate in the elections. But we rightly take exception to that logic. We should also bear in mind that the Arab countries that have signed peace agreements with Israel could probably not have done so had they been ruled by a freely elected parliament. Nor is it likely that a freely-elected Egyptian democracy would have supplied oil to Israel for the last 25 years, or publicly committed to supply natural gas for the next 20 years.
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to Mexico, the Netherlands, and ambassador at large.