Mideast Democracy: Thank Bin Laden

Even the 9/11 attacks are subject to the law of unintended consequences.

By Timothy Garton Ash

Los Angeles Times

March 3, 2005

Has Osama bin Laden started a democratic revolution in the Middle East? One of very few universally valid laws of history is the law of unintended consequences. The effects of what men and women do are sometimes the exact opposite of what they intend. If that happens here, it would be hard to imagine a nicer illustration of the law.

Suppose Al Qaeda had not destroyed the twin towers in New York. Would the Middle East be in such ferment? Would there be demonstrators for Lebanese independence in what people have already called "Liberation Square" in Beirut? Would there now be a serious beginning for a Palestinian state, elections (however flawed) in Iraq and tiny palm-shoots of democratic reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia? And would the democratization of the wider Middle East be a preoccupation of American and European policy?

We can never know with certainty "what if…." But we do know what George W. Bush's foreign policy looked like before Sept. 11, 2001: Build up U.S. military strength but avoid Clintonian foreign entanglements; concentrate on great-power relationships, especially the rivalry with China. There was little talk of spreading democracy. Democracy promotion was Clinton-speak, except among a few neocons who did not yet have the president's ear.

And we do know what the Middle East looked like before 9/11: fetid Arab dictatorships, tolerated or even supported by the West because of oil, laziness and fear; political stalemate and bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians.

To say this does not mean that the Iraq war was right. There's a crowing triumphalist narrative out of Washington that is to be resisted because it's wrong and counterproductive. Here, for example, is what the undersecretary of State for global affairs, Paula Dobriansky, said on Monday: "As the president noted in Bratislava just last week, there was a Rose Revolution in Georgia, an Orange Revolution in Ukraine and, most recently, a Purple Revolution in Iraq. In Lebanon, we see growing momentum for a 'Cedar Revolution' that is unifying the citizens of that nation to the cause of true democracy and freedom from foreign influence."

Spot the odd one out. "Purple Revolution" in Iraq? Purple, as in the color of blood? There's a vital difference between a democratic revolution that is peaceful, authentic and generated by people inside a country and one that is imposed, or kick-started, by a military invasion and occupation.

To be sure, the former can and should be encouraged from outside. This help may even extend to the branding of the revolution. Vaclav Havel always insisted that the term "Velvet Revolution" came originally from a foreign journalist in 1989. But there's a problem if the brand name for Lebanese people power — "Cedar Revolution" — seems to come from a senior U.S. official who in the next breath talks about "freedom from foreign influence."

What is happening on the streets of Beirut is not a result of the invasion of Iraq, nor does it retrospectively justify that invasion. But it does, obviously, have something to do with American policy. The truth is that, starting with the shock of 9/11, Washington has groped its way, by a process of trial and error, to a strategic position that is entirely possible for democrats in Europe and the Arab world to engage with, if we choose to. A key part of that groping was the realization in Iraq that, although the United States could win any war on its own, it could not build democracy overnight, out of the barrel of a gun.

Now a remarkable thing is happening on the road to Damascus: The U.S. and France are walking down it arm in arm. At Tony Blair's London conference about Palestine on Tuesday, the French foreign minister and American secretary of State appeared together to demand "the immediate withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence forces from Lebanon." Meanwhile, the demonstrators in Beirut held up banners saying "Independance." That's not a misspelling. In Lebanon, freedom speaks French.

And the France of Jacques Chirac — that friend of dictators from Baghdad to Beijing — has responded by putting in a word for freedom. One Lebanese opposition leader, Camille Chamoun of the National Liberation Party, commented: "The free world is really helping Lebanon restore its sovereignty." The free world! When was the last time you heard that phrase from someone in the Arab world?

Of course we should not fool ourselves that the next steps will be easy. The demonstrators waving those cedar of Lebanon flags were mainly Maronite Christians, Druze and some Sunni Muslims. Members of the country's largest community, the Shiite Muslims, have so far largely stayed away from the anti-Syrian rallies. For them, there is also the problem of Hezbollah, both a political party and a militia, branded by Washington as a terrorist organization. Politicians like Chamoun and Walid Jumblatt have their own checkered pasts. They are hardly Havels. Anyway, there is no guarantee that the Syrians will swiftly or peacefully withdraw.

But whatever happens in Lebanon and Syria, the fact that France and the U.S. have lined up together in the cause of freedom is a hopeful sign. What we have now is an imperative for Europe to come up with its own proposals for enlarging liberty in the Middle East. It's not enough to say Iraq was the wrong way; we must go on to suggest the right one. This is an agenda for the whole of the European Union.

Institutionally, this means passing the constitutional treaty and giving adequate powers to the EU's prospective foreign minister. Politically, the necessary (though not sufficient) condition for any European foreign policy is that Britain and France, the two poles of a still-divided Europe, should agree. Lebanon and Palestine are good places to start thrashing out what should, in time, become a larger historical compromise between London and Paris. That would be another useful unintended consequence of Bin Laden.

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Timothy Garton Ash, author most recently of "Free World: America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West" (Random House, 2004), is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a Hoover Institution senior fellow.