Following the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador in London in 1982, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon to eradicate the PLO nest of Yasser Arafat, then holed up in Beirut.
Mission accomplished. The Israelis triumphed. Arafat and his PLO were expelled to Tunis. But that was not the end of it. In occupied Lebanon, an unanticipated Shia insurgency, Hizbollah, arose, bled the Israeli army for years, and eventually expelled it in 2000.
“We let the Shia genie out of the bottle,” said a rueful Yitzhak Rabin.
After 9/11, an impatient George Bush decided to solve his Iraq problem by invading the country and ousting Saddam and the Ba’athists.
Mission accomplished in three weeks. Bush triumphed. But our invasion, too, gave birth to an unanticipated insurgency that has now cost us 12,000 U.S. dead and wounded, and $200 billion, with no end in sight.
We, too, let a genie out of the bottle. But, whether one opposed this war or believed in it from the start, there is now no going back. The Arab world of 300 million will be changed forever by the U.S. invasion. We have unleashed forces that cannot be contained and we cannot control.
Watching brave Iraqis vote in defiance of terror threats, our hawks are claiming vindication. See, we were right all along, they say. See, the Iraqis want democracy, and the insurgency consists only of bitter-enders.
Pointing to the electoral victories of Hamid Karzai in Kabul, of moderate Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine, of democrats in Georgia and Ukraine, they echo the president: Freedom is on the march! Democracy is the future.
But when kings, autocrats, or despots are deposed and the people rejoice, it has not always meant democracy is assured. In modern history, people’s revolutions have produced tyrannies far more monstrous than the ones they have pulled down.
The American Revolution produced a constitutional republic in 1789. Yet that same year a French Revolution hailed by Jefferson ended in a reign of terror, Napoleon’s dictatorship, and decades of European wars.
In 1917, progressives hailed the revolution in Russia that deposed the czar, for it cleansed the Allied cause of the taint of despotism. But that November, Bolsheviks swept Kerensky aside, seized power, and began a 70-year reign of terror. In 1918, the detested Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated. The civilized world rejoiced. Fifteen years later, Hitler took power.
Bush and his acolytes believe that of greater relevance is what happened more recently in Eastern Europe. When the Soviet Empire collapsed, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, from the Elbe to the Urals, democracies arose to replace the crumbling dictatorships. This is the vision they see materializing in the Middle East.
But the comparison is invalid. The Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe were all imposed from above on Christian peoples who belonged to the West and had been moving toward democracy. The communist nations of Europe were kidnapped children who never forgot who they were or where they came from.
In the Arab Middle East, there is no memory of democracy. There is an unbroken history of despotism and domination by Ottoman Turks, then by Western imperial powers. To understand what kind of nations liberated Middle East peoples will construct, consider the most powerful currents running in the region.
With the imminent inauguration of the first Shia-dominated Arab state in a millennium in Baghdad, as a result of U.S.-sponsored elections, Shias in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Lebanon have seen a path to power suddenly open up. Every throne, every palace in the Middle East is today less secure.
What other forces has our invasion unleashed? One surely is the popular desire for freedom and democracy. But darker forces also roil the region. One is a virulent hatred of Israel and its American patron. From Morocco to Pakistan, Osama is as admired as Bush is hated.
Fundamentalism is on the rise, even in Iraq. There is a deep sense that only by a return to the Islamic roots that once made their civilization the greatest on earth can the greatness of Arab peoples be restored. And there is both a revulsion in this region against what is perceived as a decadent and toxic American culture and a will to be rid of U.S. political and military domination.
In the recent past, the dethroning of pro-Western monarchs has produced despots such as Nasser, Ghadafi, Saddam, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Whence comes, then, the hopeful expectation of what will follow the fall of friendly Arab autocracies?
In 1917, Wilson and Lenin both looked forward to the coming end of monarchy in Europe. Wilson thought democracy would rise from the ruins of the royal houses. Lenin believed it would be communism.
Today, both Bush and bin Laden believe in revolutionary change in the Islamic world. Bush believes democracy will arise as the despots depart. Bin Laden believes Islamism inherits the estate.
Both cannot be right.