Democracy in the Middle East

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(Host) Commentator David Moats has been reading a new book that offers a provocative perspective on the possibility of democracy in the Middle East.

(Moats) I was remembering some of the things I thought back in the days after September 11 when we were all trying to figure out what had happened to us. It seemed to me back then we had been attacked by people in the grip of a demented destructive nihilism, that no ideology or grievance could justify what they did. What they did was in and of itself a sign of their madness. I still think that’s the case.

I was thinking these things because of a book I’ve been reading called “Terror and Liberalism” by Paul Berman. It’s Berman’s view that it’s not just the 19 hijackers who were crazy. He believes the Islamic world has succumbed to a death-obsessed form of totalitarianism something like Nazism or fascism. This obsession has taken secular forms – the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and the terrorism of Yasser Arafat. And it has taken religious forms – the suicide bombers in Israel, the terrorists of al Qaeda, and the ayatollahs of Iran.

It’s hard for Westerners, cozy and comfortable within their splendid democracies, to recognize the reality of what Berman calls “pathological mass movements.” But what could be more pathological than mothers sending their sons and daughters off to blow themselves up in suicide attacks? Or the human wave attacks of Iran during its war with Iraq? Or the incineration of thousands of innocents in New York?

The liberal democracies of the West are often slow to recognize the danger of these totalitarian movements. They were slow to recognize the danger of Hitler. Even French socialists were willing to make their accommodation with Nazism. They were slow to recognize the fascism of Serbia in the 1990’s. President Bush did a lousy job of persuading the world, that Saddam Hussein represented a similar totalitarian threat. It’s worth remembering though that liberal democracy can’t survive unless it is willing to defend itself.

Berman says that the great test for America came in the Civil War, which Lincoln saw as a test of whether a nation conceived in liberty could “long endure.” There is certainly reason to question whether invasion of Iraq was the best way to meet that test in the Middle East. Getting rid of the Iraqi Stalin was a step in the right direction. We’ll have to see whether democracy can take root within the chaos of Iraq.

I was having a conversation the other day with Dick McCormack, the former state senator, a frank and unapologetic liberal. “The ideological liberal kind of waltzes through life,” McCormack said, “delighted with his own virtue.” He was speaking about himself as much as anybody else.

In the Middle East it’s easy to be for peace. But when hell rises up in the form of pathological, nihilistic, death-obsessed mass movements, somebody has to say no to death and yes to life. That’s the struggle now under way in the Middle East. The American government often appears oblivious to the true nature of its own cause. But if the Iraqi people can enjoy “a new birth of freedom,” then this whole episode in history will make some sense.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

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