Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Promise and Perils of Mideast Democracy

Bernard Lewis has a fascinating and profound essay up today at Real Clear Politics. The piece is actually the text of a speech Lewis delivered in July, entitled "Bring Them Freedom, or They Destroy Us."

Lewis argues that there is a democratic tradition available to the developing Muslim states of the Middle East. There are, however, powerful forces of opposition arrayed against the expansion of free institutions, and these forces are firm and resolute, when much of the West is divided and weak.

A few key passages here are especially worth quoting, but I'm intrigued with Lewis' remarks about the impact of modernization and the influence of Nazi and Soviet ideologies on Mideast development:

In the year 1940, the government of France surrendered to the Axis and formed a collaborationist government in a place called Vichy. The French colonial empire was, for the most part, beyond the reach of the Nazis, which meant that the governors of the French colonies had a free choice: To stay with Vichy or to join Charles de Gaulle, who had set up a Free French Committee in London. The overwhelming majority chose Vichy, which meant that Syria-Lebanon--a French-mandated territory in the heart of the Arab East--was now wide open to the Nazis. The governor and his high officials in the administration in Syria-Lebanon took their orders from Vichy, which in turn took orders from Berlin. The Nazis moved in, made a tremendous propaganda effort, and were even able to move from Syria eastwards into Iraq and for a while set up a pro-Nazi, fascist regime. It was in this period that political parties were formed that were the nucleus of what later became the Baath Party. The Western Allies eventually drove the Nazis out of the Middle East and suppressed these organizations. But the war ended in 1945, and the Allies left. A few years later the Soviets moved in, established an immensely powerful presence in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and various other countries, and introduced Soviet-style political practice. The adaptation from the Nazi model to the communist model was very simple and easy, requiring only a few minor adjustments, and it proceeded pretty well. That is the origin of the Baath Party and of the kind of governments that we have been confronting in the Middle East in recent years. That, as I would again repeat and emphasize, has nothing whatever to do with the traditional Arab or Islamic past.
Read the entire piece. Lewis' writings had a substantial impact on the Bush Administration's thinking during the run-up to Iraq, although now, with the difficulties in Iraq, Lewis enjoys much less esteem in policy circles.

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