Is the war on terror a war of ideas?

Posted: Jun 14, 2002 12:00 AM
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 dictators. 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.