Is “Arab Democracy” Worth All This Chaos?

Washington forgot an important component—stability.

Fire in Beirut

Lebanon’s “cedar revolution” was exhilarating. The Syrians were kicked out of the country after years of occupation. The international community conducted a wide-reaching investigation into the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. “Lebanon,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “had, at one time, a great democracy that was prosperous and that the world knew for that prosperity.” The hope was that it would be so once again.

The updated National Security Strategy of the United States, published in March 2006, counted the developments in Lebanon in the section titled “Successes and Challenges since 2002.” “The people of Lebanon,” it stated, “have rejected the heavy hand of foreign rule.” When she had visited Lebanon just a month earlier, Rice was even more emphatic: “The Lebanese have made changes and there have been significant changes in this country over the last several months. They have been peaceful, they have been constitutional, and they have been within the legal framework, as is befitting a democracy.”

The U.S. administration—bogged down in Iraq and ridiculed by many for its vision of “Arab democracy”—was happy to take credit for the shift. Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt even remarked to the Washington Post, “It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.”

The Middle East roller coaster was on an upswing, and the view was magnificent. But the descent was fast and scary. And also predictable. What’s happening in Lebanon is a reflection of one of the most troubling aspects of the democracy project: the tendency to celebrate democracy without regard for stability.

Israelis were always suspicious of American idealism about the tough neighborhood they live in. The hawkish Ariel Sharon and the dovish Yitzhak Rabin had similar feelings about Arab systems of government: It’s better to deal with a strong, authoritative, reliable leader than risk the complications of a free and chaotic Arab society.

But the Bush doctrine complicated matters for wary Israeli leaders. To maintain good relations with the American administration, it became necessary to live with Arab democracy. It was the bitter pill one has to swallow to keep the doctor happy, even if the price was clear and high.

The problem was evident in the run-up to the Palestinian elections. Sharon didn’t want Hamas to run, but he decided not to fight it out when it became clear this was something the U.S. administration was going to insist on in the name of democracy for all. In Lebanon, things developed in a more subtle way. As the world rejoiced over the diminishing Syrian influence, it ignored Hezbollah’s continuing role. U.N. Resolution 1559 called for two things: Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of Hezbollah and the Palestinian camps. The first condition was implemented, but the second was basically ignored. When asked about this in her visit to Lebanon last February, Rice declared: “It is up to the Lebanese to decide who is going to govern this country. … Lebanon will resolve the situation in ways that are consistent with Lebanon’s desire to be a democracy.” So, a bomb was left on the side of the road just waiting for someone to pick it up and set off an explosion.

A new phenomenon called “Arab democracy” was born—that is, a democracy in which the militias are part of the government and in which the government is too weak to control the militias. Hamas has a majority in the Palestinian parliament and controls the government; Hezbollah holds 25 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament and controls at least two ministries. But in both cases, the weak leadership is unable to rein in the armed militants, who are effectively controlled by outside destabilizing forces, namely Syria and Iran.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—the one man with whom Washington and Israel are willing to deal—is totally impotent when it comes to the armed terror groups in the territories. And in Lebanon, the same forces are in play. A democratically elected government is unable to control Hezbollah. (One could argue that the story is basically the same in the emerging democracy in Iraq—but in Iraq, the United States is setting the course and paying the price, while in Gaza and Lebanon, Israel is paying the price.)

The situation presents a tactical and operational problem to those who need to fight and contain the armed groups—but it’s also a conceptual problem. Even as it backed Israeli raids in Lebanon, Washington was nevertheless irritated by the possibility of a major blow to the Lebanese political system—the same system and government it was taking credit for. Washington also repeatedly warned Israel to be careful with the Palestinian president—incapable as he is—so as not to undermine the great achievement of Palestinian democracy.

So, a dilemma is emerging: Is Arab democracy so important that maintaining it is worth paying the price of chaos and instability? And is there a way to establish an Arab democracy that’s stable from the outset?

This question needs to be answered by the Bush administration, because for the other players in the region, the answer is quite clear by now. For Israel—it’s security first, both in Gaza and in Lebanon, no matter what the consequences for democracy. In the Arab world, the reaction is similar. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal denounced Hezbollah by saying that their acts “will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot simply accept them.” What better way to remind the world, yet again, that getting rid of the region’s autocratic regimes can be a risky business.