Authoritarian Rule May Be Iraq’s Only Hope

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published March 13, 2007, issue of March 16, 2007.

The only sacred cow left to slaughter in Iraq is the illusion that somehow, if the United States persists, democracy will survive and reign and be good for America and its interests. Admitting that democratization has failed and abandoning the democratization project is the real issue still to be confronted in the course of extricating the United States from Iraq without leaving behind total regional disaster.

All the other excuses for occupying Iraq have long been discarded. No weapons of mass destruction were found. There is far more terrorism there now than under Saddam Hussein. Direct American access to Middle East oil has only contributed to driving up the price. Charter members of the “axis of evil” are now candidates for compromise agreements with the United States.

Anyone who thought getting rid of Saddam was good for Israel now has to contend in Iraq with Sunni jihadis, pro-Iranian Shias and the Iranians themselves. Even the thesis that democratization of Iraq would somehow radiate to surrounding countries has been dropped: the Bush administration has stopped pressuring autocracies like Egypt to democratize and is trying to undo the consequences of Palestinian democratization.

Yet, the “democratic” regime Washington installed in Baghdad in the course of the past four years is still in place. It reflects the unique brand of American exceptionalism espoused by President Bush and the neoconservatives, together with the president’s evangelical belief that the evils of Islamist terror can be vanquished by means of a healthy dose of “liberty” and other American values.

By imposing instant electoral democracy on a traumatized and ethnically divided Arab country and allowing militant Islamists with their militias to run in and win elections there, the United States has created a dysfunctional and violent polity. As matters now stand, once American forces go home Iraq will quickly become a fragmented and divisive state or states — part or all of which are dominated by Iran — that draws Iraq’s neighbors into ethnic and religious conflict.

The present American-designed regime will not survive without the United States Army and Marines. The outcome for the region will be, quite simply, disaster. Stability in countries like Jordan and Kuwait will be seriously threatened. Iran’s long arm will intimidate the region. Israel’s security situation will worsen perceptibly.

The stakes, then, are huge. Hence the United States must not only try to restore a semblance of order before it withdraws. It must find a way to dismantle the grotesque parody of democracy it has created in Iraq.

Because the implantation of genuine democracy is impossible for Washington under present circumstances — and bearing in mind that Iraq with its history of violence and divisive sectarian composition is probably the last, rather than the first, Arab state in which such an experiment should have been carried out in the first place — America must now seek to leave behind a friendly authoritarian regime.

This is clearly a very politically incorrect idea, even for Americans and others in the democratic West who oppose the American presence and want it to end quickly. Nor is it easy for an Israeli who enjoys the fruits of democracy to make this proposal.

I apologize to my liberal friends and acquaintances in the Arab world who have struggled so hard for democratic progress and who welcomed the Bush administration’s attempt to impose democracy. Even they must recognize that that attempt not only failed, but was seriously counter-productive, particularly in Iraq and Palestine. Even they must concede that the way to democratize Arab countries is from within.

Dismantling Iraq’s democracy-cum-militia rule provides the only hope for genuinely reducing the regional damage wreaked by the American misadventure in Iraq. Quite simply, a way has to be found to declare martial law — heaven knows there are plenty of reasons to do that in Iraq — and install an emergency regime.

Bush’ spinmasters can always soften the blow to the president’s prestige by describing the new order in palatable quasi-democratic terms, as long as that order is predominantly Shia, pro-Western, very tough and not tainted by pro-Iranian and pro-Islamist figures and sentiments.

This is what all of Iraq’s neighbors, save the Iranians, want. Of course there is no guarantee that such a regime would survive. But it gives Iraq and the region a better chance to emerge from the transition engendered by America’s eventual departure with Iraq remaining in one piece and not under Iranian, or in the case of Anbar province, militant Sunni, domination.

Perhaps sometime soon, a smarter, more patient and more sensitive American government can again try to foster and encourage democracy in the Middle East. Certainly it can be sensitive to the need to pressure Arab dictatorships to liberalize.

But gradually: America’s allies in the region are nearly all autocrats, not democrats. More important, Israel’s partners in peace in the Arab world, Egypt and Jordan, are autocratic regimes, not democratic ones like Hamas in Palestine. So much for the theories of Natan Sharanasky and Benjamin Netanyahu about Israel being able to make peace only with democracies.

The strategic bottom line is clear: Undoing some of the damage in Iraq, so as to block Iranian hegemonic expansion westward and thwart Islamist militants, is far more important for the United States and the Middle East at this juncture in time than persisting with a failed and destructive experiment in democratization.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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