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Column: U.S. Policy Limited Its Ability to Promote Mideast Democracy

Williston, Vt.

More than two years have passed since a Tunisian man immolated himself and launched what became known as the Arab Spring. While the changes set in motion by the various uprisings in the Arab world remain works in progress, it might still be revealing to examine the role played by U.S. involvement and foreign policy in shaping events.

It is difficult to convincingly dispute that the Arab Spring was not a direct result of the Bush administration’s catalytic invasion of Iraq. While that war destabilized the region and opened the door to change, it came nowhere close to fulfilling the neoconservative goal that was one of the motives for that invasion: establishing democracy in Iraq, which would then spread to other countries in the Arab world and create a far more friendly environment for Israel. As attractive an idea as it was, it essentially ignored everything that history has taught us about the Middle East and Islam: The belief that democracy will flourish in that region remains little more than an illusion.

But while it is highly unlikely that liberal democracy as practiced in the west will find a home in the Islamic world, it is certainly possible that, under the right conditions, our ideal of democracy ultimately could mitigate some of the more egregious excesses that Westerners tend to see in fundamentalist interpretations and applications of Islam.

Our major problem in the Middle East is that we are absolute captives of our own pre-9/11 foreign policy. During that period, we supported virtually every repressive regime in Islam. Our preoccupation with maintaining stability even led us to covertly interfere with and intervene in countries — Iran, for example — where liberalization looked to be taking hold.

In the process of implementing our policies, we stationed American troops on some of the holiest ground in Islam in direct contravention of Islamic practice, belief and law. In fact, some of our troops remain stationed in Saudi Arabia.

Additionally, in the eyes of most Muslims, we were trouble-making meddlers in the Palestine issue, blindly supporting Israel in every respect, even when it meant we were violating international law. In the process, we have left unsolved a regionally critical problem that has now festered for over 60 years.

Finally, we invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq in what was viewed by Muslims as a continuation of the Crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries. In doing so, we began to turn Muslim populations against us in favor of those elements in Islam that we have often found most objectionable.

When the Arab Spring finally arrived, the ill-will we had sown in the region relegated us to the sidelines, with no meaningful role to play. Worse, our support of repressive governments in the Middle East had been a major contributor to the fact that very few groups in the Islamic world had viable experience with governance. Despite their own protestations to the contrary, none were in any way democratic, and none were prepared or equipped to govern democratically.

Groups in the Arab world that do have governing experience include a few non-democratic monarchies, some powerful military establishments and a number of fundamentalist Islamic organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, hardly what we said we were looking for to govern in the region. In fact, through our previous foreign policy of supporting despotic regimes, we had left the area virtually bereft of the potential for any kind of democratic or enlightened rule.

Since 9/11, our combat troops, our network of jails, our “enhanced interrogation” techniques, our drone program and our clear contempt for Arabs as mirrored in our foreign policy have all worked to our disadvantage because they have turned even Arabs who once admired us into our sworn enemies.

Rather than witnessing the establishment of democracy in the Middle East, we are more likely to see the region remain under the sway of the sectarian, royal and military governments with which Arab countries are familiar.

It should be obvious to policymakers at this point that the U.S. would be best off withdrawing combat troops as soon as possible and suspending all other military activities in the region, with the possible exception of special-forces operations and the deployment of intelligence assets in counterterrorism operations. We should focus our efforts on staying involved culturally, diplomatically and economically.

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq and after spending trillions of dollars and setting off a conflict that costs tens of thousands of deaths and casualties, there remains little hope of replacing yesterday’s despots with anything other than today’s. That can’t have been good policy.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.