A week ago, I left for Jamaica, ready for a week of warm water and sunshine. I came back Saturday tanned and rested, ready to resume my role in the thinking, working world.

Jess Cox

Apparently, I picked a bad week to opt out of the daily news. Syria announced that it would be gradually pulling its forces out of Lebanon, ending 15 years of occupation. There are public demonstrations in the streets of Beirut. And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced last Saturday that he would finally cede to the nation’s first contested election in modern history.

We’d do well to examine these events critically. These announcements, along with the recent elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, should give us hope of a democratic Middle East in the very near future. This hope, however, should be tempered with the knowledge that, on the ground, little has changed from a week before. Though it has promised withdrawal, Syria continues to occupy Lebanon, and will likely continue to exert great influence over its politics even after its forces are removed. In Egypt, the promise of a contested election is offset by a likely Mubarak victory, continuing his 25 reign at the helm of the Egyptian government.

Indeed, these are the whispers of democratization — encouraging changes in the winds that may signal better times for a place that for so long has been politically repressive and economically stagnant.

An overzealous few, however, have jumped the gun on the issue, proclaiming these events to be the birth of Middle East democratization. Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post wrote last Friday, “We are at the dawn of a glorious, delicate, revolutionary moment in the Middle East. It was triggered by the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and televised images of 8 million Iraqis voting in a free election.” Last Thursday, Max Boot of The Los Angeles Times triumphantly asked “Well, who’s the simpleton now? Those who dreamed of spreading democracy to the Arabs or those who denied that it could ever happen?”

Aren’t we getting a bit ahead of ourselves, boys? Thus far, very little has actually happened on the ground. Promises in Lebanon and Egypt are nothing more than talk. Encouraging talk, but talk nonetheless. Meanwhile, United States troops are still fighting and dying in Iraq, tied down by an insurgency that few in the Bush Administration seemed prepared to accept or handle. There is no timetable for their removal.

The trend lines may indeed be shifting in the Middle East, but so long as the despots remain in power, so long as the U.S. remains in bed with the worst of them, and so long as our policies continue to be viewed with resentment by the Arab street, then I’ll continue to be skeptical. We all should be skeptical.

Skeptical that, if this is indeed revolution paid for with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the results of the aforementioned revolution will ultimately make America safer. Democratic rule in the region won’t erase the poverty, disillusionment, and angst that run rampant throughout the Arab world. It won’t by itself stop global terrorism. As University Professor Juan Cole commented on his website yesterday, “There is no guarantee that a more democratic Iraq, Egypt or Lebanon will produce less terrorism.”

But back to Boot’s question, who is the simpleton? In short, it’s still the pro-war Right. They got the weapons wrong. They got the insurgency wrong. And even if these fledgling movements do indeed lead to a democratic Middle East, we should be wary of giving too much credit to the Bush administration. They sold the war in Iraq on the basis of national security and weapons of mass destruction — not on producing a ripple effect throughout the Arab world. If they had other intentions, then these needed to be more clearly telegraphed to the American people and to the world. Now, with no weapons and mounting U.S. casualties, Arab democratization should only be treated as a fortunate by-product of the war in Iraq.

Regardless, it’s not my turn to eat crow — not yet, anyway.

 

Adams can be reached at dnadams@umich.edu.

 

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