Questioned about his alliance with Soviet Russia against Nazi
Germany, Churchill is reported to have said, "If Hitler invaded Hell, I'd
find something nice to say about the Devil."
At the start of our war on terror, for solid tactical reasons,
we had to accept as an ally Pakistan -- an undemocratic nation that had
previously distinguished itself as a promoter of terror. It was
uncomfortable, but arguably necessary, because our larger objective of
toppling the Taliban took precedence. Perhaps the infusion of American
thank-you notes in the form of dollars will tilt Musharraf in our direction
more permanently. It's difficult to say. But accommodations with unsavory
allies are sometimes necessary in international relations.
The odd thing about the war on terror is not that we have to
shave our principles to succeed, but instead the degree to which our
principles and our interests coincide. A cursory glance at the Middle East
and South Asia -- the region from which the threat emanates -- reveals three
kinds of societies.
In the first group are nations whose governments are (at least
outwardly) friendly toward the United States: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait
and the small Gulf states fall into this group. In these countries, the
people hate the United States because we are seen as propping up corrupt
The second group consists of nations with governments hostile to
the United States: Iran, (formerly) Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, among
others belong in this group. The United States is highly popular among the
people of these countries, probably because they assume that if their awful
governments hate us, we must be doing something right.
Last, there are the countries in which the governments are
friendly to us and the people are, as well. That is true of only two
countries: Turkey and Israel, the sole democracies in the region.
It would appear that promoting democracy, even among our
"allies," is in our interests. But not everyone sees it that way. As
Lawrence Kaplan points out in The New Republic, many in the State Department
scorn democracy and dismiss its advocates as naifs. They argue: a) that
Middle Eastern nations are not ready for it; or b) that dictators are better
able to control the terrorists within their borders than democrats; or c)
that the successor regimes are likely to be more anti-American than the ones
we endure now.
Regarding a), lots of nations have lived down their undemocratic
pasts: Japan, Turkey, Germany, Chili, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Spain.
All were dismissed as unready for democracy, and all have feely chosen it.
The notion that dictators can be more ruthless with their
terrorists and radicals is a snare. The Israelis naively assumed at the
start of the Oslo process that Arafat would be better able to handle groups
like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Instead, the Palestinians Arafat "handled"
were the democrats -- nearly all of whom are dead, while the terrorists were
given free reign.
As for the nightmare scenario in which dictators are toppled
only to be replaced with regimes that are even worse, there is one prominent
example, Iran. But the counter-examples swamp it. In the name of
"stability," the State Department opposed the break-up of the Soviet Union,
believing that fascists would succeed communists. It didn't happen. In
Central and South America, thanks to patient American pressure and
inducements, all of the formerly dictatorial governments, right and left
(save Cuba), have embraced -- to one degree or another -- democracy.
Is it possible to imagine a Saudi regime more inimical to our
interests than the current monarchy? Sure. But we should take their warnings
with a grain of salt. In the first place, this regime is almost as bad for
us as we can get, with its oil money spreading Wahhabism around the globe.
Second, the sheiks are worried not just about radical Islamists unseating
them, they are concerned about the radiating effects of freedom. If Iraq
should be liberated, who knows what ideas may stir in Arabian hearts?
The war on terror should be a war for democracy. Our interests
and our principles dictate it.