The ‘war on terrorism’ and the Cold War

Perhaps the lesson from the Cold War is that building democracies requires patience, moral compromises and, at times, putting national interests above lofty Wilsonian ideals.

Iraq bomb 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Saad shalash )
Iraq bomb 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Saad shalash )
There are parallels between the current “war on terrorism” and the Cold War. By learning from the West’s experiences during the Cold War, we can apply the lessons to the current conflict, particularly in the context of the Arab Spring.
During the Cold War, the US faced the dilemma of supporting anti-communist dictators and undermining democratic values on the basis that the alternative, supporting local populist movements, would result in the emergence of Sovie-tsponsored communist regimes that themselves would repress any democratic movements.
In the end the US “won” the Cold War and in places like Latin America democracy ultimately emerged triumphant, although the US paid a moral price for its often ambiguous and sometimes hypocritical policy. One might thus conclude that US policy during the Cold War in supporting anticommunist regimes was a necessary evil.
In the war on Islamic extremism, the US faces a similar dilemma. Should it support democratic movements seeking to overthrow secular autocratic or dictatorial regimes when there is a significant risk that assisting in the overthrow of such regimes will simply give way to the emergence of hard-line anti-democratic Islamic regimes? The US is often blamed for creating the conditions that give rise to Islamic extremism through its support of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, its support for Israel and its perceived failure to promote democratic values. However, the sources of Islamic extremism are far more complex and actually have less to do with US policy and more to do with local and regional factors. And there is no doubt that Islamic extremism is the greatest threat facing the West since the Cold War.
The problem the US faces in supporting democratic movements in the Arab world is similar to that faced during the Cold War since such support carries with it a high degree of risk that it will ultimately backfire. As has occurred in Egypt and elsewhere, democratic movements have been hijacked by Islamist forces who ultimately use the tools of democracy to destroy it.
Islamists do not believe in democracy. To them, democracy is an anti-Islamic Western creation that undermines their ultimate goal of creating an Islamic Caliphate guided by Sharia law. Sharia is their model constitution. When the Islamists come to power they gradually restrict civil liberties, demonize and persecute religious minorities and eventually do away with Western-style concepts of democracy.
This is what was happening in Morsi’s Egypt, this is the same struggle that is taking place in countries like Libya and Tunisia. We have even seen how Islamist tendencies are starting to erode Turkey’s democratic values.
Far worse consequences are likely to unfold in Syria if the Assad regime falls. This despite the fact that this regime is dictatorship at its worst, its forces responsible for unspeakable atrocities and its allies Hezbollah and Iran, like itself, sworn enemies of the US and its allies Israel, Saudi Arabia and others. Even in Israel they speak of the “devil you know” and many policy makers would prefer to see Assad stay in power considering the likely alternative of a failed state increasingly taken over by al-Qaida-affiliated forces with no red lines, no limits.
Radical Sunni Islam is an extreme machine of murder and violence. It preaches piety but engages in barbaric acts of violence, murder, rape and ethnic cleansing, openly promotes genocide and proudly displays its handiwork on YouTube; to it, these are badges of honor.
If these groups obtain nuclear or chemical weapons, they will have little to no hesitation in using them. As non-state actors, the “MAD” paradigm, Mutually Assured Destruction, does not apply. If the Assad regime falls, the al-Qaida affiliated groups will likely get their hands on some of Assad’s massive arsenal of chemical weapons unless the US and/or its allies undertake a complicated military operation requiring boots on the ground, since an air attack would create an unacceptably high risk of dispersal.
So, in determining whether to undermine autocratic or dictatorial regimes with the idealistic goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East, the US needs to ask the difficult question: are Middle Eastern societies really ready for democracy? At the end of the day, one has to make a judgment call as to the likelihood of democracy emerging in a given country before rushing to support the overthrow of the likes of Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad.
While this requires a country-by-country analysis, there does appear to be a significant risk that in many of these countries, an idealistic policy of undermining the “old” regimes in an effort to promote democracy will backfire and the US will inadvertently end up facilitating the emergence of much more hostile Islamist theocratic and antidemocratic regimes. Perhaps the lesson from the Cold War is that building democracies requires patience, moral compromises and, at times, putting national interests above lofty Wilsonian ideals.
The writer is a US lawyer living in Israel.