I have never quite figured out what views define a neo-conservative, and whether I am one or not, but others long ago decided this matter for me. Journalists use “neo-conservative” to describe me, editors include my writings in a neo-conservative anthology, critics plumb my views for insight into neo-conservative thinking, and hosts invite me to represent the neo-conservative viewpoint. As some of my oldest friends and closest allies are called neo-conservative, I happily accept this appellation. Indeed, it has a certain cachet, given that no more than fifty Americans have been called neo-conservative, yet we allegedly drive U.S. foreign policy. I mention all this because neo-conservative policies in the Middle East have been looking pretty good the past two months, as Max Boot amplifies in a column titled “Neocons May Get the Last Laugh”
- On Jan. 9, Palestinian voters trooped to the polls and chose Mahmoud Abbas, who proclaims his intent to end the armed struggle against Israel.
- On Jan. 30, 8 million Iraqi voters braved bombs and bullets to cast their ballots.
- On Feb. 10, Saudi Arabia held its first-ever municipal elections, a crack in the royal family’s absolute authority.
- On Feb. 26, Egypt’s president Husni Mubarak suddenly announced that the forthcoming presidential election will involve candidates other than himself.
- On Feb. 28, tens of thousands of demonstrators in Beirut forced the resignation of the pro-Syrian government of Prime Minister Omar Karami.
- If the Lebanese succeed in winning their independence, it could spell the end of Bashar Assad and the Baathist regime in Damascus.
These developments find some neo-conservatives in a state of near-euphoria. Rich Lowry of the National Review calls them “a marvelous thing.” Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post writes that “We are at the dawn of a glorious, delicate, revolutionary moment in the Middle East.” I too welcome these developments, but more warily. Having been trained in Middle Eastern history makes me perhaps more aware of what can go wrong:
- Yes, Mahmoud Abbas wishes to end the armed struggle against Israel but his call for a greater jihad against the “Zionist enemy” points to his intending another form of war to destroy Israel.
- The Iraqi elections are bringing Ibrahim Jaafari, a pro-Iranian Islamist, to power.
- Likewise, the Saudi elections proved a boon for the Islamist candidates.
- Mubarak’s promise is purely cosmetic; but should real presidential elections one day come to Egypt, Islamists will probably prevail there too.
- Removing Syrian control in Lebanon could well lead to Hezbollah, a terrorist group, becoming the dominant power there.
- Eliminating the hideous Assad dynasty could well bring in its wake an Islamist government in Damascus.
Note a pattern? Other than the sui generis Palestinian case, one main danger threatens to undo the good news: that a too-quick removal of tyranny unleashes Islamist ideologues and opens their way to power. Sadly, Islamists uniquely have what it takes to win elections: the talent to develop a compelling ideology, the energy to found parties, the devotion to win supporters, the money to spend on electoral campaigns, the honesty to appeal to voters, and the will to intimidate rivals. This drive to power is nothing new. Already in 1979, Islamists exploited the shah’s fall to take power in Iran. In 1992, they were on their way to win elections in Algeria. In 2002, they democratically took over in Turkey and Bangladesh. Removing Saddam Hussein, Husni Mubarak, Bashar Assad, and the Saudi princes is easier than convincing Middle Eastern Muslim peoples not to replace them with virulent Islamist ideologues. The Middle East today is not alone in its attraction to a totalitarian movement — think Germany in 1933 or Chile in 1970 — but it is unique in the extent and persistence of this allure. I worry that my fellow neo-conservatives are insufficiently focused on its implications. George Bush deserves high praise for his steadfast vision of a free Middle East; but his administration should proceed slowly and very carefully about transferring power from autocrats to democrats. The Middle East’s totalitarian temptation, with its deep questions of history and identity, needs first to be confronted and managed. To skip these steps could leave the region even worse off than during the era of unelected tyrants.