Thomas Friedman: The Kidnapping of Democracy

Our little experiment in shoving democracy down the world’s throat goes up in smoke – literally.

The Kidnapping of Democracy
Published: July 14, 2006

When you watch the violence unfolding in the Middle East today it is easy to feel that you’ve been to this movie before and that you know how it ends – badly. But we actually have not seen this movie before. Something new is unfolding, and we’d better understand it.

What we are seeing in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon is an effort by Islamist parties to use elections to pursue their long-term aim of Islamizing the Arab-Muslim world. This is not a conflict about Palestinian or Lebanese prisoners in Israel. This is a power struggle within Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq over who will call the shots in their newly elected “democratic” governments and whether they will be real democracies.

The tiny militant wing of Hamas today is pulling all the strings of Palestinian politics, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah Shiite Islamic party is doing the same in Lebanon, even though it is a small minority in the cabinet, and so, too, are the Iranian-backed Shiite parties and militias in Iraq. They are not only showing who is boss inside each new democracy, but they are also competing with one another for regional influence.

As a result, the post-9/11 democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world is being hijacked. Yes, basically free and fair elections were held in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. Yes, millions turned out to vote because the people of the Arab-Muslim world really do want to shape their own futures.

But the roots of democracy are so shallow in these places and the moderate majorities so weak and intimidated that we are getting the worst of all worlds. We are getting Islamist parties who are elected to power, but who insist on maintaining their own private militias and refuse to assume all the responsibilities of a sovereign government. They refuse to let their governments have control over all weapons. They refuse to be accountable to international law (the Lebanese-Israeli border was ratified by the U.N.), and they refuse to submit to the principle that one party in the cabinet cannot drag a whole country into war.

“Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinians all held democratic elections,’’ said the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi, “and the Western expectation was that these elections would produce legitimate governments that had the power to control violence and would assume the burden of responsibility of governing. … But what happened in all three places is that we [produced] governments which are sovereign only on paper, but not over a territory.”

Then why do parties like Hamas and Hezbollah get elected? Often because they effectively run against the corruption of the old secular state-controlled parties, noted Mr. Ezrahi. But once these Islamists are in office they revert to serving their own factional interests, not those of the broad community.

Boutros Harb, a Christian Lebanese parliamentarian, said: “We must decide who has the right to make decisions on war and peace in Lebanon. Is that right reserved for the Lebanese people and its legal institutions, or is the choice in the hands of a small minority of Lebanese people?”

Ditto in the fledgling democracies of Palestine and Iraq. When cabinet ministers can maintain their own militias and act outside of state authority, said Mr. Ezrahi, you’re left with a “meaningless exercise’’ in democracy/state building.

Why don’t the silent majorities punish these elected Islamist parties for working against the real interests of their people? Because those who speak against Hamas or Hezbollah are either delegitimized as “American lackeys”’ or just murdered, like Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

The world needs to understand what is going on here: the little flowers of democracy that were planted in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories are being crushed by the boots of Syrian-backed Islamist militias who are desperate to keep real democracy from taking hold in this region and Iranian-backed Islamist militias desperate to keep modernism from taking hold.

It may be the skeptics are right: maybe democracy, while it is the most powerful form of legitimate government, simply can’t be implemented everywhere. It certainly is never going to work in the Arab-Muslim world if the U.S. and Britain are alone in pushing it in Iraq, if Europe dithers on the fence, if the moderate Arabs cannot come together and make a fist, and if Islamist parties are allowed to sit in governments and be treated with respect – while maintaining private armies.

The whole democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world is at stake here, and right now it’s going up in smoke.

The Discussion: 8 Comments

Democracy cannot hold in the middle east until ordinary people’s income rises just like South Korea and Taiwan. For backward countries, it is capitalism first and then democracy second. We approach it in the wrong order and suffer for it.

July 14, 2006 @ 8:12 am | Comment

Tell me this – why should I care about Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinians? These guys have been going at it for decades, and it hasn’t affected my life in the least. Someone said all politics is local, and in my corner of the U.S.A. the Israeli / Palestinian conflict has no bearing on my life or the lives of the people in my community. So why should I care? People are waring in the Sudan, Somalia is a tinder box (again), etc, etc. But Israel and Palestine always seem to steal the headlines.

You may argue that instability in the Middle East leads to high oil prices. This is true. That’s why I believe the SINGLE BEST national defense policy would be a floor on gas mileage for ALL cars & light trucks sold in the US. The price of gas falls and the middle east countries profiting from our addiction will be forced into reform. Friedman has written all about this for a long time. The US needs to move forward with an energy policy that isn’t based on oil. The Middle East can come along for the ride if they want.

July 14, 2006 @ 2:46 pm | Comment

Unfortunately due to the US addiction to oil, the US is affected by what happens in that part of the world. Not to mention the Nuclear Genie that could escape (Pakistan, Israel, and Iran’s in progress).

More would be done to spread democracy in that part of the world by having oil at $70 per barrel, instead of the $78 it is at now, that mostly finances anti-americanism in a society that needs to go through the reformation, and is exporting their views around the world.

July 14, 2006 @ 10:46 pm | Comment

Israel is the single biggest recipient of American foreign aid. Israel receives annually 3 to 5 billions dollars which accounts for about one fifth to one quarter of the US foreign aid budget. As a US taxpayer, you are directly subsidizing Israel?s war machine. Israel gets more money than the entire continent of Africa! If somebody can explain to me why this small and wealthy country gets so much money when there are so many others in need.

It can be argued that blind support for Israel is causing a backlash for the United States. Witness today George W. Bush holding Israel blameless in its attacks on Lebanon. Some of the 9/11 hijackers motivations has to come from American policies in the Middle East.

July 15, 2006 @ 8:09 am | Comment

wki, I agree. For some reason, Israel is the “third rail” of American politics. Any criticism is automatically labeled “anti-Semitism,” which is simply absurd. But the backbone of PNAC, the neo-con Project for a New American Century that is basically running the foreign policy of the Bush Administration, is support for Israel, support that is so total and absolute that it comes at the cost of America’s own national interests.

There is absolutely no reason the US should be giving Israel billions of dollars of foreign aid. Absolutely none. And it is past time for American politicians to show some leadership and condemn what Israel is doing in Lebanon.

July 15, 2006 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

But Otherlisa, what about the Second Coming? The Apocalypse? Are you suggesting that that doesn’t affect us all?

July 16, 2006 @ 12:49 am | Comment

I think the world should help the Arab moderates in places like Lebanon by giving more money and weapons to the moderate Lebanese government in order for it to be able to excersize it’s sovereignity over it’s own land instead of the radical Islamist Hizbollah which effectively rules southern Lebanon. The world should also help Israel because it is the only side in this conflict at the moment which is genuinely interested in peace. It’s all a matter of giving money to the moderates and sanctioning the extremists and those who give shelter to radical Islamists.

July 16, 2006 @ 5:37 am | Comment

As I was watching the Sunday morning shows yesterday (Meet The Press, etc.) it occurred to me that there has NEVER been an open, honest and respectful debate in the mainstream media about wether the US should be sending so much foreign aid to Isreal. In my humble (and respectful) opinion, it’s time for Israel to stand on it’s own feet.

It’s time for the US to start reducing the amount of aid (American taxpayer cash) it sends to Israel.

It’s time to recognize that supporting the only true democracy in the middle east isn’t going spread more democracy elsewhere.

It’s time for Americans to be able to speak out against support for Israel without being called anti-semitic or some other label that distracts from the real debate.

It’s time to recognize that the US government (Republicans and Democrats) are pawns of the Israeli lobbyists and will do ANYTHING for Israel so long as it keeps them in office. This is bad government and does very little to serve the needs of the majority of the American population.

No, I’m not a “bed wetting” liberal. I’m a moderate Republican who is sick and tired of only hearing a very biased, one-sided opinion. It’s long overdue for open and respectful debate on this issue.

July 17, 2006 @ 8:38 am | Comment

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