With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

We're Winning Ugly in the Middle East, but that's Better than Losing Beautifully

Watching the amazing ugliness and incoherence of the Iraqi battlefront of the war on terror, it is easy to understand Otto Von Bismark’s comment that a special providence watches out for drunks, fools and the United States of America. Why? Because America is winning the war on terror. How? By slowly but surely making the Middle East safe for democracy. Indeed, it is even possible to argue that the American stumbling in Iraq is providing a cover under which reform can be presented as an alternative, even a rebuke, to American military power. In other words, the U.S. is winning the way it has often won, ugly.

Why? Because open societies rife with interest groups, skeptical press and political rivalries not only tend to win ugly but are seen to win so. This is the way Bosnia and Kosovo were won, this is the way the Cold War was won and this is the way the war on Terror is going to be won. Resiliency is the most important attribute of democracies. Brittleness is the most destructive attribute of tyrannies. Indeed, the United States (like Britain before it) has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to absorb setbacks, readjust strategy and rework tactics without undermining state integrity, long term diplomatic effectiveness or ultimate victory. This is just as true in the country’s internal struggle for a more perfect union as it is in its past wars against Nazism and Communism and its present War on Terror. So, while it is crucially important to achieve an orderly transfer of power in Iraq, it is just as important not to ignore the over all progress of the democratic forces in the Middle East apparent in the following developments:

1. The same USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll which revealed the strong Iraqi wish to get rid of their American bosses, also revealed that violence failed to sour Iraqis perception of democracy. Eighty-four percent of the Iraqis want their government to be democratic; 69 percent free of religious control; 70 percent are in favor of giving women the vote. Moreover, apparently the vast majority of those elected in a recent series of municipal elections in the Shia south resulted in the victory of secular independents and representatives of non-religious parties. It seems that Iraqis used the vote to limit rather than extend the power of their clerics. Even a female teacher was elected. The abhorant behavior of some American troops in Iraq demonstrates that citizens of democracies are not inherently superior to those living under tyrannies. They simply live under a better system of government.

2. Few are better informed of the progress in Iraq than those Friendly Iranians who told Nicholas Kristoff of the NYT that “the U.S. military ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq are going great.” Indeed, an estimated 1.2 million Iraqi refugees voting with their feet returned home from neighboring countries including Iran. And the inward flow continues at an average rate of 300 a day. In addition, millions of Iranians visitied Iraq as pilgrims. Permitting them to do so was not cost free since thousands of Iranian secret service agents used the opportunity to infiltrate the country and help ferment the Sadr rebellion. The payoff is the growing Iranian pressure on their clerics to reform the system. Iranians, at times led by women, are slowly losing all fear of their repressive clerics. Ignored by the Western media, but not by the Persian Journal, 250 Iranian women demonstrated in Teheran against an Iranian television program promoting polygamy. The Iranian hit movie about a thief turned cleric named The Lizard has the Iranians rolling in the isles in laughter while serving to demonstrate further the growing divisions within the clergy. The Iranian conservatives are fighting back. They won the elections though at the steep price of rendering them illegitimate. They also dared reinstitute the death sentence on Iran’s premier dissident, historian Hashem Aghajari. The latter is forcing the issue by refusing to ask for clemency. His case will do little to promote the Iranian strategy of dividing the Western alliance.

3. Iranian officials are complaining that the West has been denying it access to nuclear science. If so, perhaps the “coercive diplomacy” which failed in Iraq because Hans Blix lost his nerve and the Europeans played politics, may still prove its efficacy in Iran. The talk Muhamed El Baradei gave the students of the American University in Cairo cannot but raise hopes that El Baradei has learned the lesson of the Iraqi failure and that he may try to insure that war will no longer be the sole alternative to appeasement.

4. Indeed, one of the most encouraging developments is the manner in which serious Muslim individuals like El Baradei dare to criticize the backward "state of development" of the Arab countries, and the prevalent attitudes of constant "self-victimisation" and their tendency to "always asking the attainment of peace from others instead of working towards achieving it” themselves El Baradei even refused to scapegoat Israel arguing that "Israel sees that it cannot give up its weapons of mass destruction [WMD] in the absence of comprehensive peace, as long as there are countries or individuals that say that it will be 'thrown into the sea', and that its existence is not recognised in the region."

5. Another sign that the reform genie is out of the bottle is the message of published in this week’s Al Ahram: In it Gamil Mattar, the director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research in Cairo bemoans the “landmine which the Americans” implanted. Those landmines consist of “intensely pressuring certain Arab governments to undertake reforms, most of which touch on hitherto unquestioned privileges of the rulers; on hitherto denied rights of their peoples.” Mattar considers the pressure on all Arab governments as “a slur on their international reputation, a slight to their domestic dignity, and a smudge on their regional, Islamic and Third World credentials.” To make matters worse, “countries on which reform is being imposed are being asked to publicize their compliance, even if conditional. The aim of the public compliance requirement is to make rulers commit to reform before their nations. The embarrassment lies in the fact that many Arab governments feel that should they comply they would be accused by their own people of reforming without zeal -- only after coming under foreign pressure. Should they rebuff these pressures, these same governments would face a barrage of charges from all Western countries, all reform movements in the developing world, all civil society organizations worldwide, and their own peoples. They would be called dictatorial, denounced for refusing change and reform, and considered liable to indictment and punishment.” In other words, the people of the Middle East are buying into the American led pressure for reform movement even if the intellectuals are embarrassed. Be that as it may, an Arab League summit which the Tunisians postponed because of the reluctance of various countries to agree on a serious reform agenda, is about to open on May 22. It has yet to agree on the issues of democratic reforms, the role of women, civil society and human rights. But it is doubtful that the member governments would dare to avoid the issue. The Western press will note the inevitable attacks on Israel and the U.S., but the people of the Middle East will note the progress on reform.

6. The rise of self-criticism in Saudi Arabia is no less heartening. Just note Muqtedar Khan’s remarkable report in the same paper. It is called "Urgent Turn." It begins thus: “I have just returned from Saudi Arabia where I attended an international conference on terrorism (20-22 April) at the Imam Muhammad University in Riyadh. Imam Muhammad University is the factory where Wahhabism, a conservative sect of Sunni Islam, is produced and serviced in Saudi Arabia. A large number of Saudi clerics are educated and trained here. Nearly 20,000 students study the core teachings of Abdul-Wahhab, the founder of the Saudi Salafi (traditionalist) movement. In my previous visits in 1992, 1997 and 2000, I had found Saudis to be proud of what they had become. They had covered a distance of nearly seven centuries, on a wave of oil, in less than 30 years. They were confident and sure of themselves and their place in the Muslim world and on the global stage. Today many Saudis are confused, unsure, hesitant, apologetic and more willing to accommodate. Some are belligerent, even bellicose. But most people that I encountered -- students, political elite, scholars, businessmen, professionals and cab drivers -- are perplexed by terrorism within Saudi Arabia and by Saudis. For a society that was so remarkably free from the culture of self-criticism, I found the Saudi Arabia of today, more willing to listen; and that is the best news I have.” It is a small wonder, the jittery Saudi royal family is trying to scapegoat the “Zionists.” When even abused women dare speak out, the times indeed they’re a changing.

7. Greater attention to terror may give the impression of a constant rise in terrorist activity but the State Department’s Year in Review asserts that “There were 190 acts of international terrorism in 2003, a slight decrease from the 198 attacks that occurred in 2002, and a drop of 45 percent from the level in 2001 of 346 attacks. The figure in 2003 represents the lowest annual total of international terrorist attacks since 1969."

8. Europe, led by France, is finally facing the need to integrate its Muslim population. Opening local schools for the training of Imams is an excellent step in that direction.

9. The UN is back in Iraq and this time it looks as if it is not going to turn tail and run as it did a year ago.

10. Last but not least, after two years of stalling, the Palestinians decided to join the democratic band wagon and agree to hold elections. I suspect Bush's comment that absent serious reform 2005 no longer seems like a viable date for Palestinian independence had an impact.  Also worth commenting on is the new phenomenon of young Palestinians would be suicide bombers changing their mind and deciding they do not wish to die, after all. The PA arrested the young man. Hopefully, Amnesty International will keep a watchful eye on his fate.

Sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim recently listed seven hopeful developments in the Middle East. They include the overthrow of Saddam, the turnaround of Libya, the progress towards settlement in Sudan, the discussions between the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps, the moderation exhibited by the ruling Islamist parties in Turkey and Morocco. The reform instituted by young Arab monarchs and his own release from jail. In other words, far from losing heart, Americans should accommodate themselves to winning ugly yet again. Yes, it is at times heartbreaking but it could be worse, we could be losing beautifully.