January 02, 2006

Iraq is Not the First Arab Democracy

I have a new piece in the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal where I make the case that Lebanon is now what we hope Iraq someday will be: Lebanon the Model.

BEIRUT, Lebanon--Of all the rationales for demolishing Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the most compelling was the Middle East's desperate need for at least one free Arab democracy to act as a model and an inspiration for oppressed and demoralized citizens in the others. So far it is not working out, despite the recent successful elections. Most talk of Iraq on the Middle Eastern street revolves around occupation, terrorism and war. Iraq is not yet a model for anything. It looms, instead, as a warning. Hardly any Arab wants his country to become another Iraq. In time that may change, but right now that's just how it is.

Lebanon, though, is an inspiration already--despite the assassinations and the car bombs that have shaken the country since February. I have an apartment in Beirut, and I recently traveled to Cairo. Arriving back here was like returning to the U.S. from Mexico. Almost everyone I met in Egypt--from taxi drivers all the way up to the elite--was profoundly envious when I said I live in Beirut. "It is a free and open city," I told them, but they knew that already. Many Americans and Europeans still think of Beirut as a hollowed-out, mortar-shattered necropolis where visitors are well-advised to bring a flak jacket. Egyptians, though--at least the ones I talked to during my stay--know the truth.

Please go read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 2, 2006 11:33 PM

Comments

Great post Michael. I appreciated the Lebanon as Hong Kong analogy, I wonder what Beijing would have to say about that? Happy Hollidays.

Posted by: Sean at January 3, 2006 01:31 AM

Excellent points about Arabs needing their own homegrown democracy, and about Beiruit as a Hong Kong. (Nobody talks about tax rates?)

I think the Kurds, Sunnis, and secular, together, will barely provide enough check on the Shia majority in Iraq, but its not there yet as you say so strongly (too strongly?). After the US backed off Fallujah in April 2004, I wrote that, like Harry Potter, the Iraqis must fight for freedom for themselves. In Iraq, the future heroes are those Iraqis fighting and dying in the Iraq Police and Military; and even the victims of the terrorist bombs (or murders, like the one prepared for the string photographer).

I'm certain that with Saddam in power in Iraq, Syria would still be in power in Lebanon -- the people must have some strong belief that the authorities wouldn't massacre them. Bush's invasion of Iraq demonstrated a willingness to enforce regime change if the regime gets "too bad" (whatever that is).

The Chinese have no such luck -- they will still be massacred by their gov't if they go too far.

But if Lebanon can become a real model, that would be great.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at January 3, 2006 01:34 AM

Global Voices on Bahrain.

They are taking democracy steps, forward and backward and sideways.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at January 3, 2006 02:01 AM

Congratulations Michael, looks like you're achieving what you set out to achieve.

(I haven't solved my problem yet. And the other is not yet fully resolved. But soon.)

Todd

Posted by: Todd Grimson at January 3, 2006 03:00 AM

- Tom,

Re: Iraq
You say that “in Iraq, the future heroes are those Iraqis fighting and dying in the Iraq Police and Military…” ignoring the FACT that most police and army officers in the “new” Iraq are actually card-carrying members of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) a terrorist organization founded by none other than “Grand” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself!
For your info, Iraq's “freedom-loving” Interior Minister is a notorious thug named Bayan Jabr Solagh: the man has spent most of his life in Teheran and is on the record for calling for “the destruction of America and Israel and their lackeys”…
See, I wouldn’t count on him to fight the “global war on terror” whatever that means

- Michael,

Re: Lebanon
Far from being a “democratic template for the Arab world”, Lebanon’s Parliament is the fruit of the dubious 2000 electoral law (heavy on anti-Christian Gerrymander) drafted by Soviet-trained Syrian “legal experts” and imposed on Lebanon by General Hafiz-al-Assad and king Fahd Ibn-Saud: none of them is known as a friend of democracy…

As much as I have no sympathy whatsoever for the decrepit Marxist regime in Damascus, why focus 90% of your ire on Bashar al-Assad and his hapless/impotent Lebanese friends such as President Emil Lahoud?

Can’t you see that a weakened Syrian regime on the brink of collapse is no threat to Lebanon’s sovereignty anymore? I wouldn’t say the same of Iran or Saudi Arabia: as the French say, there’s no glory in shooting on an ambulance…

It should be clear by now to the people of the Middle-East be they Arabs, Persians, Kurds or Zulus, that people like Paul David Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith or Mike Ledeen don’t give a damn about say fair municipal elections in Zahleh, free speech in Mossul, or civil rights in Baalbeck!

Take a look at the so-called “Patriot Act” and you’ll see for yourself that these nefarious Trotskyite plotters are actually opposed to democracy and free speech in their own country: how can you trust them to promote liberty beyond America’s shores?

Posted by: Dr Victorino de la Vega at January 3, 2006 03:07 AM

victorino or mec or whatever u choose to call urself tomorrow...

in life u can look at the glass half full or half empty...
iraq went from one of the most oppressive regime in the world to a country where some people are trying to make democracy work...
as for lebanon the 2000 law was bad and everything but it still managed to give a majority to the anti-syrians for the first time in 15 years... lebanon has free press and the state is less present in people's daily life than probably the most democratic country in the west.. i m not saying it s perfct but compared to the rest of arab countries its heaven on earth...
so let s focus on a way of making our democracy work better instead of focusing on the bad sides of it...

Posted by: alain at January 3, 2006 03:51 AM

Yes, the Hong Kong analogy is good - but it's still pretty free-wheeling, post-handover. A bit moreso than next door Shenzhen, which isn't exactly restrained. China is changing very rapidly.

Posted by: Doc at January 3, 2006 05:08 AM

Hi Michael,

Nice take on Lebanon and putting it in perspective versus the rest of the Middle East. Your points about Iraq, I think, are right on relative to Lebanon.

As Doc remarks on China, it is changing very rapidly and in terms of daily life, my 3 months in Beijing, 2 weeks in Jinan, and less time in Shanghai always made me wonder if I was really in a Communist country as always dramatized. A trip to a new Carrefour in northwestern Beijing's electronics district is especially eye-opening. To some degree, I think the Chinese (in the cities) are too busy making money and making their kids or themselves happy to react against the government too much, but down the road I believe they may start hoping for something more. But as it is now even, I feel it could be a model for countries like Vietnam and North Korea, even Russia.

Shawn

Posted by: Shawn in Tokyo at January 3, 2006 05:50 AM

Thanks for a good article. I think Iraq will come look like a very large Lebanon in the future. with Bagdad being like Beirut and the countryside being more traditional with respect to local identities. I could site Austin, Texas vs the counties surrounding Travis County, Texas. Austin is loose and wild and surrounding counties are Baptist!
Keep up the good writing. I wandered in from opinionjournal.com

Posted by: James Douglass at January 3, 2006 05:54 AM

Thomas Jefferson wrote about democracy in a private letter to Lafayette, "Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes, with an unprepared people, a tyranny still, of the many, the few, or the one."

It appears to me, that in the letter he was stressing that democracy must come from the people and by the people, when the people are ready for it. I am happy to see a peaceful revolution be sucessful. I think that a small part of its reason for success was a fear of US involvement on the part of Syria. However, from your stories, Michael, it appears to me that most of the success of the Ceder Revolution was due to brave young men and women who understood democracy, understood its value and understood its sacrifices.

A good example for the Middle East and for us... even with all of the weapons at our disposal, we can lead a nation to the voting booth, but we can't make it love freedom. Only the citizens of a nation can do that.

Ratatosk, Squirrel of Discord

Posted by: Ratatosk at January 3, 2006 07:12 AM

“Iraq is not yet a model for anything.”

Iraq should be a model for bold change by the end of this year. There was a huge drop in deaths via terrorism in 2005. This may be the most important factor.

You can opt for a fundamentalist religious society---or one based on a market economy---but you can’t have both. The majority Iraqis seem to desire an affluent lifestyle. I’m betting that the Iraqis will effectively marginalize the religious crazies.

Posted by: David Thomson at January 3, 2006 09:53 AM

Michael,

As a Lebanese transplant to the US who's lived through the terrible beauty that was/is Lebanon and has taken upon himself many a-time to lovingly and painstakingly explain Lebanon to all who care to listen, all I have to say after reading your blog, is: Where've ya been all my life??!!

Thanks for your outstanding work. Please keep it up.

Z.M.

Posted by: Z. M. at January 3, 2006 01:04 PM

I loved this article. I just recently visited Lebanon and this article made me smile. Thanks!

Posted by: Mark Balahadia at January 3, 2006 04:42 PM

Lebanon's economic growth has been revised to 1% and the public debt is out of control. I wish I could be as optimistic as you Michael, but I can't. The political situation can't improve under these conditions. We need growth, growth and growth.

Posted by: Vox P. at January 3, 2006 06:05 PM

Michael,

Great work. One thing that you might want to clarify is whether the different factions in Lebanon are geographically isolated from each other, or are rival groups interspersed? In Iraq, the geographical separation might prevent the balancing act that you discuss for competing factions. This separation could instead lead to calls for splitting Iraq into three countries.

Posted by: Dan Morgan at January 3, 2006 06:20 PM

The $60,000 question is whether there can be a slide back to the sectarian violence of the seventies and eighties. That is the downside of a weak government. This would make an interesting, as well as challenging follow-up article.

Posted by: MarkC at January 3, 2006 08:49 PM

Hi
I am an Iraqi lives in holland and just came back from Beirout (about 3 weeks ago)
I totally agree with you, Lebanon is more free country than all the Arab countries.

A reminder even in the time of civil war Lebanon was also like this.

Posted by: LadyBird at January 3, 2006 09:14 PM

How I wish I had your optimism, and the fact that you are experiencing Lebanon firsthand and believe that it may serve as a model for Iraq is encouraging; still, Iraq has two huge problems: Iranian style Ayatollahs influencing a sizable Shi'ite majority nursing one hell of a grudge against the Sunnis, and all that oil, so inconveniently concentrated outside of the Sunni center of the nation.
We may very well have Iraq on the path to democracy, perhaps after a fifteen year period of civil war and foreign domination of their own, not unlike Lebanon; but at what price to us, and could it have been achieved peacefully over a longer period?
Thanks for another great dispatch.

Posted by: Dennis at January 3, 2006 10:42 PM

Michael,

Ok. Move along now. Nothing to see here.

Could you try another go at the Syrian border?

I want to know what the mood is on the Syrian street now that it seems Beirut is all good. And on another note, there is an early report that a top Syrian intelligence officer has defected to London and Bashar al-Assad has been asked to be questioned about the investigation into Harriri's death.

Now doesn't that make for some interesting, boots-on-the-ground coverage?

If not Syria, how about Jordan?

Posted by: Natasha at January 3, 2006 11:44 PM

And if not Syria or Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Posted by: Natasha at January 3, 2006 11:47 PM

Natasha,

I'm working on getting into Syria. It's complicated. Iran also is complicated, and may be impossible right now with that crazy bastard in charge of it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 4, 2006 01:48 AM

Michael, et al...
I have been a well-entertained lurker on this and many other Lebanon-related blogs for several months, but the quality of this piece from the WSJ (and your article about Libya in LA Weekly) prompt me to break silence.
I spent five weeks in Lebanon this summer, mostly with relatives in the Metn but also travelling about with Lebanese friends, from the Leb-Israeli border in the south to the Bekka Valley to Bcharre and nearby areas in the north. I totally agree with your positive opinion about the quality of life and the thrust of democracy in Lebanon -- you describe it very well. (The contrast you raise with Egypt is sad but Oh, so true.)
On the other hand, I know some Lebanese who deeply fear that there will be a move to partition the country, probably along sectarian lines - not to split the country entirely, perhaps, but maybe to develop some kind of Confederation a la Switzerland. They (and I) feel this would be a sad day for the country (and the region, for it would demonstrate that the internal mistrust is just too deep to be overcome by centripital forces,
I hope they are wrong, and that you, and the many bloggers who agree with you, are right.
Steve

Posted by: Steve at January 4, 2006 09:01 AM

Great minds think alike:

http://egyptiansandmonkey.blogspot.com/2006/01/bikini-contest-in-lebanon.html

Posted by: Asher Abrams - Dreams Into Lightning at January 4, 2006 09:39 AM

Michael,

I think you should go to Saudistan instead: if you truly believe in investigative journalism with a “freedom-loving” twist, the desolate Rub3-al-Khâli is clearly the place to be!

With some luck, you might even have the opportunity to interview faux sheikh Saad Al-Hariri and some of his Wahhâbist handlers.

Anyhoo, this pilgrimage to the mother of all Meccas should come as an eye-opener…who knows, it might even lead you to reconsider your views about what the US needs to do to support democracy in Lebanon and the greater Middle-East.

Cordially,

Doctor V

Posted by: Dr Victorino de la Vega at January 4, 2006 11:10 AM

Michael,
Excellent analysis. You've managed to breakthrough much of the simplistic rhetoric that has limited U.S. discussion of Middle East democracy. For much of the last four years, we've been told, or lectured on, what is wrong with that region: totalitarian regimes, backwardness, facism, etc. with scant mention of what is actually going right.
I guess it makes it easier for us to believe that real democracy or self-determination have never existed in the region so that we may feel better about ourselves when we break things.
It's easier to think, incorrectly, of the region as dominoes on a playing board, where everything tile falls either backwards or forwards.
The truth, of course, is more complicated.
Can we really know, for instance, that democracy alone will bring peace to the Middle East? How long will it take? What's the role of liberalism? What of corruption? How do you balance security with self-determinism?
What we really need are more people like you who are willing to go out into the world, rail against provincialism and see for themselves what is going on. We may find out that Lebanon already has a modern, pluralistic society. Turkey practices democracy. Iran has a grassroots reform movement. Malaysia is rapidly evolving. And yes Hong Kong may be changing China more than it is being changed.
Keep up the great work,
Cheers,
Scot

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Posted by: carter at June 25, 2007 10:19 AM

Lebanon is not the best model. A large portion of the country is under the control of a terror group that wants to continue to war with Israel. Israel is brutal when it is attacked and Lebanese are going to be the victims. The moderating influence in Lebanon is the large Christian population ( 30-40%)that has strong ties to the West. ( more than 5 million Lebanese Christians live in the West). Iraq's Christian minority is only 2 or 3%. This means that the main divide in Iraq is between two muslim groups. If there were three major religions in Iraq than there would be more harmony. Two religions creates more tensions.

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Posted by: huojia at November 14, 2007 08:33 PM

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Posted by: usr at November 22, 2007 01:45 AM
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