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Playing it smart in the Middle East


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March 03, 2006, 8:21 a.m.

Rocks and Ripples

Playing it smart in the Middle East.

Victor Davis Hanson

Fear in the U.S. of Russian nukes made strange bedfellows during the Cold War, like our relationship with the shah of Iran, Franco, Somoza, and Pinochet. The logic was that such strongmen, unlike Communist thugs, would evolve eventually into constitutional governments, or, unlike elected socialists, they could at least be trusted not to turn their countries into satellites of the Soviet Union.

We paid a price for such realpolitik when the Berlin Wall fell. Few gave us the deserved thanks for bankrupting the Soviet empire, but we did get plenty of the blame for the mess left behind by third-world dictatorships.

Now Middle East autocracies use the same "it's either us or them" blackmail. They hope to survive the tide of democratization by showing off their antiterrorist plumage. The problem is that the defeat of terrorism — like that of global Communism — ultimately rests with promoting freedom, not authoritarianism.

Decades of supporting right-wing authoritarians did nothing to ameliorate a dysfunctional Middle East. Perhaps support for democratic reform will usher in Hamas in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, something worse than Gen. Musharraf in Pakistan, and a shaky post-Saddam Hussein government in violence-torn Iraq, but what else is the United States to do?

About what we are doing now: We should keep supporting the process, but not necessarily the result; much less should we subsidize elected anti-Americans. The key is to keep a low profile and promote consensual government, but without bullying or grand moral pronouncements when the odious are elected.

We should praise the relatively free voting that ushered in Hamas, insist that they institutionalize the process that brought them to power, but under no circumstances give such terrorists any American money as long as they pledge to destroy Israel.

Allowing the autocratic Mr. Mubarak to go his own way without any more American largess may well empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Fine. Let the zealots talk all they want about bringing corruption-free government to Egypt at last, and hatred of the United States too. In response, America need only quietly explain that we no longer subsidize dictators — or terrorists who are elected to power through principled American support for democratic elections. I'm sure that after all the invective subsides, the Egyptians can sort out both our logic and idealism.

The key is consistency — and subtlety in expression. That way we avoid the unsustainable paradox that Americans are dying for democracy in the Sunni Triangle while subsidizing its antithesis in Cairo. And by the same token, we need not tour the Middle East demonizing Hamas; that will certainly not result in ostracism of that terrorist organization by "moderates," but it will give rise to the opinion that we behave hypocritically when the Arab street votes in someone we don't like.

After Afghanistan and Iraq, how silly to keep giving aid to the dictatorship in Egypt, either from the ossified idea that our bribe money stops it from starting a war with Israel (a war it would promptly lose), or that the alternative is the terrifying, all-powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

All we are doing instead is fueling all sorts of pathetic mythologies: that the United States opposes the will of the Arab people, or that our pressure alone stops the heroic Egyptian legions from marching into Tel Aviv, or that our support ipso facto stops incompetent Islamic radicals from bringing efficient, modern, and honest government to Egypt.

In a larger sense, the United States, after the necessary and much caricatured task of removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, may find its power enhanced by allowing others to suffer the consequences of their own stupid decisions. Already Hamas is asking the hated West for money — and sputtering that its charter of eternal war against the Jews, well, kinda, sorta means a truce for a while rather than a collision with the IDF.

The United States is finding the same results with the Iranian nuclear negotiations. Europe wanted multilateralism — they got it, and they won humiliation from the Iranians, with the possibility of nuclear weapons apparently now resting in the hands of the Russians, who sold the mullahs much of their nuclear hardware in the first place. Ever so slowly, after the French riots, the bombings in London and Madrid, and the Danish cartoons, the Europeans are learning that for all their anti-American triangulating, nice talk to the Iranians, and money given to Palestinian terrorists, they have won only contempt from the Middle East.

The result? They are coming back around to the United States, in a way that would be impossible had we sent dozens of envoys to London and Paris begging to restore the old Atlantic partnership. Gerhard Schroeder, after all, not George Bush, is now a paid lackey for a post-Soviet state-owned oil company, and Jacques Chirac is blathering in his dotage about using French nukes. The legacy of that sad pair of bystanders is only appeasement, cheap anti-Americanism, and oil deals with Saddam, while the United States has altered the very dynamic of the Middle East.

Iraq, of course, presents an entirely different sort of challenge. But even here, for all the recent furor, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's statements that the United States will not in perpetuity subsidize sectarian bickering in lieu of the formation of a coalition government will have a positive effect. We are putting the Iraqi security forces at the forefront, apprising the new government that $300-400 billion in military and civilian outlay may be winding down, and emphasizing force protection of our own troops.

In effect, we are saying that, in a perfect world, we would give Iraq ten years of unlimited American military and civilian aid, but in the messy real landscape of an expensive war against terrorism, four or five since 2003 might just have to do. The reality will be that the new government may soon be more forceful in setting its house in order — a far better scenario than if the Americans lecturing that we must stay until the Iraqis grow up, meet our standards, and can take care of themselves.

These opportunities are not a reaction against the purported unilateralism and preemption that took us to the Middle East in 2001-3, but rather a logical result of just such determination. We have such options precisely because an Assad no longer thinks an American statesman will wait obsequiously on his tarmac. Saudi financiers don't think any more that they can finance killers with impunity. And after the fate of Saddam Hussein, it is no longer possible for Pakistan's Dr. Khan, Libya's Khadafi , or Iran's Ahmadinejihad to count on the benign neglect of their nuclear trafficking.

Long-overdue rocks have been thrown into the stagnant lake of the Middle East, and now we must, with patience, carefully let the ripples of aeration do their work.

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