Democracy in the Middle East

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(HOST) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore believes that the fabled warning “Be careful what you wish for” could well apply to the Bush Administration’s desire to democratize the Middle East.

(DUNSMORE) After the first two or three main reasons for invading Iraq didn’t quite pan out, the Bush people had to turn to one of the justifications for the war from further down their original list: We did it for democracy. The US decided to get rid of the despot Saddam Hussein, they told us, so that Iraq could be free and democratic. It would then become a model for the rest of the Middle East, and eventually we could all live happily ever after.

There will be two elections within the next month that will provide an interesting early glimpse of how a democratized Middle East might look. The results are likely to bear out Donald Rumsfeld’s famous words after the looting of Baghdad: “Freedom is untidy.”

In the elections for President of the Palestinian Authority on January 9th, Mahmoud Abbas seems likely to be chosen to succeed Yassir Arafat. Abbas is the favorite of American and Israeli officials because he opposed the violent Palestinian uprising of the past four years and believes in negotiations. But out campaigning in recent days, Abbas is taking a tougher stand on some issues than Arafat did. He’s calling for full Israeli withdrawal from the all the occupied Palestinian territories – and the release of all Palestinian prisoners – including the firebrand Marwan Barghouti, now serving five life sentences for terrorism.

As a concession to his reformers, Abbas has also agreed to new elections in Arafat’s powerful Fatah political movement, which Abbas now heads. That seems certain to bring in a younger and probably more militant group into the party’s top leadership. This could ultimately make the Mid-East peace process more difficult. But even if it does, the Palestinians can’t be faulted for being non-democratic. Likewise, with the January 30th elections in Iraq, the outcome is by no means certain to create a political situation there that will be pleasing to the White House.

Some observers think a victory by the Shiite majority could lead to an Islamic theocracy along the lines of Iran. Others fear that if the Sunni Moslem minority that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein carries out its threat to boycott the election, it will be left out in the political cold. And that would lead to the Sunnis stepping up their insurgency against the US presence and whatever government emerges. Still others are concerned that if the Kurds are dissatisfied with a confusing election outcome, they may try to secede, which could also ignite a civil war. It’s too early to tell how things will evolve, but at this point Iraq’s elections certainly don’t look likely to provide a way for the US to graciously and expeditiously withdraw.

The lesson here is that a policy of pushing democracy can have many unintended consequences. All politics is local, and people will choose what they think is right for themselves – not what we think is right for them – and for us.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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