Ode to US Naiveté

The US is dangerously overzealous about establishing democracies in Middle Eastern regimes but fails to realize that democracy isn't just about free elections.

Obama bins Mubarak (photo credit: Ronny Gordon)
Obama bins Mubarak
(photo credit: Ronny Gordon)
In 2003, shortly before the war in Iraq, I arrived in Washington to speak to a group of senior officials and high-ranking officers. I told my audience: “I realize that you have decided already to go to war with Iraq. But I believe that as soon as you achieve your goals and topple Saddam Hussein, you should get out of there. Don’t stay in Iraq. Create an inter-Arab force that would take care of restoring law and order in Iraq.” For these words, I was almost stoned. Many in the audience yelled at me, “We are bringing democracy to Iraq, we shall give the Iraqi people the free democracy they deserve.” My protests that Iraq’s regime was not America’s business and that the Iraqis shouldn’t be taught by foreign nations how to govern themselves, were drowned out with counter-protests focused around inane democracy-and-free-elections rhetoric.
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Eight years have since passed and we know today that things in Iraq are going the other way; and if real democracy is ever brought to Iraq, the Shi’ite, pro-Iranian majority would soon take over. Is that really what America envisioned for the country?
I recalled this stormy meeting when reading a recent article in The New York Times. The same rhetoric about democracy and free elections - this time in Egypt - is once again being churned out. Yes, they admit, there is of course the Muslim Brotherhood, but democracy is more important. Yes, there is of course the Iranian precedent, but if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stays, it is only going to get worse. Who will replace him? In its editorial, The New York Times stated that “Mohammed ElBaradei, the former top nuclear inspector for the United Nations and a Nobel Laureate, is eager to lead.”  Hmm. Eager to lead. The Times apparently doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, that ElBaradei has no following at all, and even though being “eager” his chances are almost non-existent.The Times and many Democrats blame President Barack Obama for having acted too little, too late in showing the door to his old and staunch ally, Mubarak. The prevailing US attitude is, “We don’t care what will happen in Egypt, as long as new elections are held. We don’t care about setting aflame Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates – as long as there are elections. We don’t care if the Arab leaders lose their trust in America who can stab them in the back tomorrow. We don’t care that Israel will have to face a new surge of Islamic-fundamentalist governments, a wave of hatred, perhaps even a bloody new war. All that matters is elections.”
And one cannot help wondering about the Americans’ amazing naiveté in dealing with the Middle East over the last 60 years. CIA agents, led by Kermit Roosevelt, assisted and supported former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the early fifties, believing that they were grooming him to be America’s trusted friend. They didn’t realize that they were putting a tiger in their tank. Very soon Nasser turned to the Soviet Union and the Middle East became a new battlefront of the Cold War.
At the end of the Sinai Campaign in 1956 former secretary of state John Foster Dulles and former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower applied brutal pressure on Israel, forcing the evacuation  from Sinai without any guarantees. (Years later, Dulles admitted that he had been wrong). In 1979, when the shadow of the Ayatollah Ali Khomeinei was already looming over Iran and the Shah sought asylum abroad, the chiefs of the Iranian army begged the US to authorize them to seize power and stop the Ayatollah. But former US president Jimmy Carter bluntly refused and actually delivered Iran to Khomeinei (the Ayatollah and his supporters thanked Carter by occupying the American embassy in Teheran and humiliating the United States in the eyes of the whole world).
Former US president George W. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, pressured Israel to authorize free elections in the West Bank and Gaza; Israel’s warning that Hamas will win the elections didn’t help. The elections were held in January 2006 with Hamas winning of course, and Gaza has since turned into a terrorist enclave. In 2009, President Barack Obama spoke in Turkey and Egypt in attempts to launch an effort of conciliation with the Muslim world. We know what happened in Egypt; and we helplessly watch as Turkey becomes the lynchpin of an aggressive, anti-Western alliance with Syria and Iran. The same Iran that Obama had invited to engage in a peaceful dialogue with the United States; he is still waiting for Iran to return that phone call.
And now, back to Egypt. As soon as the first protesters flooded the streets, Obama and Clinton joined in the flurry to kick Mubarak out. Whereas last month they were hugging and cajoling him, this month he must be sacrificed on the altar of democracy. But democracy, our dear American friends, is not only about elections. It is also a state of mind, a mentality, and must include democratic institutions and checks and balances. You are surely aware that in most Arab countries if truly democratic elections were to be carried out, the Islamists, the fanatics - i.e. your enemies - will no doubt prevail.
So once again I ask, is that really what you want? The nice Egyptians who protest in the streets really want democracy, but we know they will be swept aside by the Muslim Brotherhood, and its al-Qaida, Hamas and Hizbullah allies. Is that okay with Washington? You enthusiastically support the will of the people, encapsulated in the oft-repeated slogan, “Mubarak must go,” and qualify it as “vox populi -vox dei” (the voice of the people is the voice of God).  But if the majority of the same people – in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, and indeed, in the rest of the Arab world - qualifies you as the Great Satan and Israel as the small Satan, should that too be called “vox dei” and obeyed as such?
In most of the Arab world, unfortunately, the choice is between an Islamic dictatorship and a military dictatorship. The Egyptian military, at least, don’t want to cut our throats. The writer is a former Labor Party MK and the official biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres.