Democracy and the rule of law have gained decisively in the 60 years since World War II. In 1945 there were 20 democracies; today, according to Freedom House, there are 89 operating under the rule of law and another nearly 30 with regular and generally fair elections. Although sometimes democracies backslide into dictatorship (e.g. Venezuela), today over 60 percent of the world’s people and states choose their leaders by democratic processes.

These democracies don’t fight each other. Of the 29 major international wars since 1945, none has been between democracies. And in a number of additional states moving toward democracy, Natan Sharansky’s central question—can there be free debate in the public square?—can be answered in the affirmative.

During these six decades, democracy skeptics have tried several tactics to bolster their losing case. Some define democracy solely in terms of balloting, and then argue that when a dictatorship like Belarus holds a plebiscite but doesn’t become a democracy, democracy has failed. Armatya Sen has effectively destroyed this weak reed—obviously, democracy involves much more than balloting and is not solely a Western idea. There are many versions of what Sen calls “public reason” in different cultures (e.g., the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan)—traditions in which democracy, with balloting in time, can be rooted.

Another tactic of the skeptics has been to ignore Mongolia, Mali, and many other poor democracies and to assert that democracy can come only in the wake of wealth. Morton Halperin and his co-authors have effectively destroyed this line of argument in their superb book, The Democracy Advantage (2004).

The skeptics’ last redoubt has been cultural determinism. Their predecessors lost the argument that Germans, Japanese, Catholics, or Asians could never operate democracies. Today, with over half of the world’s Muslims—in Indonesia, India, Bang-ladesh, Turkey—living in electoral democracies, it is difficult to contend that Islam in general is inconsistent with democracy. So the skeptics have retreated into angry pessimism about Arab democracy. Ignoring the millions of purple index fingers proudly demonstrated by Iraqi voters last January and the remarkable subsequent events in Lebanon, they chide the U.S. for “imposing” democracy on Arabs—the inarticulated premise being that Arabs would prefer to be ruled by tyrants.

It must be admitted, however, as the UN-sponsored Arab Human Development Reports have stressed, that a number of factors do indeed hinder the development of democracy and the rule of law in the Arab world. In my view, most of the cited influences—treatment of women, intellectual isolation—derive from a principal underlying barrier: the heavy influence, driven by oil wealth, of the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia, particularly on the issue of education. Wahhabism’s fanatical views—anti-Shiite, anti-Sufi, anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, anti-female, anti-democratic—are essentially the same, except on one point, as those of the Salafist jihadists like al Qaeda. As with Stalinists and Trotskyites, true believers in an earlier totalitarian faith, there is a major schism between the Wahhabis and the Salafi jihadists over whether one owes primary allegiance to a single state (the USSR then, Saudi Arabia now) in order to effect world-wide totalitarian rule.

Although no one should doubt the enmity of the opposing camps—the Wahhabi-friendly Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef, works hard to defeat al Qaeda’s attacks against Saudi Arabia—none of this means that the Wahhabis have given up their own aggressive hostility to democracy, and especially to Arab democracy. Leading Wahhabi clerics urge young Saudis to go to Iraq as suicide bombers in support of the Baathists’ attempt to return to power, and many respond; the majority of Iraq’s suicide bombers are Saudi. So, in another echo of the 1930’s, totalitarian movements that stem from very different intellectual roots—theocratic (Wahhabi-Salafist) and secular (Baathist)—have teamed up in a modern version of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

By supporting autocrats over the years, while putting a reliable supply of oil as our principal objective, we have essentially said to the people of the Arab world: “Your job is to be polite filling-station attendants. Pump the oil for our SUV’s when we ask you to and shut up. Don’t bother us with complaints about your governments.” The Wahhabi-Salafist dream of a world-wide caliphate, like the dream of a Thousand Year Reich or of World Communism, can be attractive to disaffected young men. We cannot compete with it by offering a quarter-billion Arabs, with their memory of ancient accomplishments and culture, nothing more than the task of serving as polite filling-station attendants.

George W. Bush is the first President to have offered the Arab world democracy and the rule of law instead. For this he deserves much credit. But regarding Iraq, implementation of the Bush Doctrine has been scarred by four very poor decisions: (1) not calling on the American people for sacrifice, especially by moving sharply away from our reliance on oil, one of our greatest vulnerabilities and the financial lifeblood of the Arab world’s totalitarians and terrorists; (2) not training Iraqi freedom fighters in protected northern Iraq before March 2003, with the result that we had no Iraqi force in the coalition against Saddam; (3) not providing a substantial share of Iraqi oil revenues immediately to U.S. military commanders to let them employ Iraqi civilians quickly on appropriate reconstruction efforts; and (4) not following a strategy of protecting the people in some regions of Iraq and expanding those regions over time rather than launching search-and-destroy missions. Only the last of these decisions could still be reversed in such a way as to affect the outcome in Iraq over the next year or so.

The Arab world could never have begun to become free without removing Saddam Hussein, as the Clinton administration and, overwhelmingly, Congress recognized in 1998 with the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act. But now much more than the Bush administration’s reputation hangs on Iraq’s progress toward democracy. Success will demoralize the Arab world’s totalitarians and provide a positive model for its youth. Failure will embolden the totalitarians and terrorists to a degree that perilously endangers freedom for all of us.

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