Can Democracy Be a Weapon Against Terrorism?

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What the terrorists hate about America, President Bush told Congress last week, is "what we see right here in this chamber, a democratically elected government." He proceeded to elaborate: "Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan."

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Bold words. But casting the war on terrorism as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism is a little misleading — even dangerous. The anti-terror effort is an effort to rally humanity against cruelty, civilization against barbarism, extremism against moderation. But democracy doesn't quite make it into the binary oppositions involved in this fight. For one thing, none of the three "existing" governments the President cited are democracies — Jordan and Saudi Arabia are monarchies, whose leaders are chosen by heredity rather than by an electorate, while Egypt holds tightly-controlled elections from which the most popular opposition party is banned. And Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf, another key player in the anti-terrorism coalition, is nothing if not a self-appointed leader (he took power in a coup). Also, many of the freedoms cited by President Bush are severely curtailed in all four.

Of course, holier-than-thou political correctness may be an intolerable luxury right now. War is a messy business, in which you work with whomever shares your immediate objectives, no matter how odious their domestic policies. Remember that without Stalin in the Western camp, Hitler could conceivably have won World War II. But in the long term, eliminating the root causes of terror will involve, if not complete democracy, at least allowing citizens of Middle Eastern countries some voice their governance.

A new type of terrorist threat

The Western priority, right now, is clearly to muster all hands on deck for the fight against Bin Laden and his cohorts, no matter how dirty some of those hands may be. And some short-term political prices will have to be paid. Musharraf, for example, will considerably strengthen his grip on power in Pakistan by helping the U.S. — if he can survive the domestic backlash. U.S. sanctions against his government have been lifted, and he can expect billions of dollars of aid and credit as well as plenty of diplomatic favors. All for helping take down a Taliban regime Pakistan all but created. Still, for exactly that reason, Pakistan's intelligence services remain the West's best hope of actually finding Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Strengthening the hand of undemocratic regimes may be unavoidable in the short term. But in the long run, if the world is to be freed of the scourge of Islamist terrorism, that solution may not suffice — because unlike the state-sponsored terrorism of the 1970s and '80s, which came out of rogue nations like Libya and Syria, many of the terrorist groups Bin Laden has brought together first emerged under authoritarian regimes backed by the West.

Contemporary political Islam first exploded onto the world stage in 1979 with the Iranian revolution, which destabilized the politics of the Islamic world for almost two decades. That outcome was caused, in part, by the fact that the authoritarianism of Iran's pro-Western monarch, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, tolerated no democratic challenge to his regime.

The Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, which appear to have provided a number of key operatives for Bin Laden's networks, both emerged in situations where democratic channels were closed to Islamists and other opposition groups. In the case of Pakistan, the authoritarian regime of the late General Zia ul-Haq actually encouraged the emergence of Islamist groups as a bulwark against domestic leftists and a vanguard to fight the Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan. Now, some of those same Islamists may be coming back to haunt the current military government.

Can democracy work in the Middle East?

There's no easy answer here, because democracy isn't always the harbinger of freedom. The German elections of the early 1930s showed that something as mundane as a split between rival political parties whose combined share of the vote dwarfed that of the Nazis allowed democracy to enable totalitarianism. And many analysts suspect that truly democratic elections in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan might, indeed, produce Islamist governments hostile to the West.

At the same time, the temptation to suggest Islam and democracy don't easily mix should be avoided. Indeed, even Iran's limited forms of democracy has provided a platform for its people to vote for reformist President Mohammed Khatami to express their desire for a society based on laws and for coexistence with the West. Hard-liners may cling to power despite their repudiation by the electorate, but the voters' impact is undeniable — Iran may have been a state sponsor of terrorism in the past, but it is currently weighing joining the anti-terrorism coalition.

Arab authoritarianism has produced reliable allies for the West, but it has also created an environment conducive to the growth of Islamic terrorism. Stopping Bin Laden and his ilk requires an immediate consensus among widely different regimes on the need to stamp out the scourge of terrorism. But a long-term solution to the problem of terrorism emanating from the Middle East may require a profound shift in that region's politics.