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Intellectuals, democracy and empire

'Free people will set the course of history'

Robert Blecher

As the Bush administration struggled to find a justification for launching an attack on Iraq, churning out sketchy intelligence reports about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and links with al-Qaeda, Washington wordsmiths produced their own grist for the war mill: the prospect of a democratic pax americana in the Middle East. The importance of the pundits' contribution to the war machine should not be underestimated. As the task of swaying public opinion grew more difficult, rhetoric around freedom and democracy has become ever more central. In the weeks after September 11, 2001, George W. Bush did not talk of remaking the Middle East. But in successive State of the Union addresses, commencement speeches, press conferences and televised appeals to the nation, Bush showed increasing faith in the ability of the US to extirpate tyranny and implant freedom in this agonized region.

Presidents did not always profess belief in the region's democratic potential, nor did the intellectuals who served them. At the time of the 1991 Gulf war, shapers of public opinion such as Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes toed the first Bush administration's line that Washington should not aim to democratise the Middle East. But by the leadup to the junior Bush's war on Iraq, the same thinkers and pundits had reoriented their policy prescriptions, in many cases directly contradicting their writings of a decade ago. Employing their prodigious skills to trumpet the golden age of democracy, they have set aside their former convictions to serve power.

The push for American Empire has arisen from the convergence of diverse ideological streams. Reaganite neo-conservatives such as William Kristol and Robert Kagan leveraged the language of national security to ally themselves with unreconstructed Cold Warriors like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Yet given the lukewarm popular support for the war in Iraq, the march to war could not have succeeded without the assistance of Establishment academics and journalists such as Fouad Ajami and Thomas Friedman, whose mainstream credentials legitimised the administration's agenda among those who otherwise might have been opposed. Rooted in the language of national security and democracy, American Empire has been enabled by a convergence - not the congruence - of political agendas. Neo-conservatives, traditional conservatives and plain old-fashioned liberals have formed a coalition of Iraq hawks whose spilling of ink has been but a pale precursor to the spilling of Iraqi blood.

Those elusive Jeffersonians

The first Gulf war was fought with little optimism and no sense of historical mission. Democracy reigned triumphant, but not in the Arab world. With the fall of the USSR and the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, the US won the Cold War not through invasion or occupation, but through a long-term test of endurance. The eviction of Iraq from Kuwait notwithstanding, US interests continued to be served by Cold War strategy in the post-Gulf war Middle East. Containment targeted Iran and Iraq. Belief in the importance of regional policemen, rooted in the Nixon Doctrine, dictated alliance formation. Stability was provided by Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, their undemocratic features not only overlooked but encouraged. These limited goals were reflected in Bush the Elder's war aims: securing Saudi oil fields, reversing Iraqi aggression in Kuwait and restoring Kuwait's ruling family.

The Middle East, it seemed, had been left out of the democratic revolution. As Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush the Elder, told a press briefing in 1992:

Saddam Hussein is a terrible person, he is a threat to his own people. I think his people would be better off with a different leader, but there is this sort of romantic notion that if Saddam Hussein got hit by a bus tomorrow, some Jeffersonian democrat is waiting in the wings to hold popular elections. (Laughter.) You're going to get - guess what - probably another Saddam Hussein. It will take a little while for them to paint the pictures all over the walls again -(laughter) - but there should be no illusions about the nature of that country or its society. And the American people and all of the people who second-guess us now would have been outraged if we had gone on to Baghdad and we found ourselves in Baghdad with American soldiers patrolling the streets two years later still looking for Jefferson. (Laughter.)

Disarming his audience with jocular racism, Powell expressed his government's pessimism about bringing democracy to the Middle East. Eleven years later, on the eve of a new Gulf war, Powell would say that a US victory "could fundamentally reshape the Middle East in a powerful, positive way,"1 but in the early 1990s, the US administration believed that democracy could be achieved only through mass popular action. President Bush called on Iraqis to "take matters into their own hands," encouraging them to do what peoples across Eastern Europe had done to topple their own undemocratic regimes. Prior to April 1991, even hawkish groups such as the Committee for Security and Progress in the Gulf - a forerunner to the group of the same name formed in 1998 - limited their agendas to reversing the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Then the brutal repression of Kurdish and Shi'i rebellions convinced the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party of the necessity of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. In April 1991, a spate of editorials and op-eds in the Wall Street Journal urged the US to intervene to protect the Shi'a and Kurds. The importance of regime change was articulated as a moral necessity, yet today's shapers of public opinion had little to say about democracy per se.

Democracy did not figure high on the list of US priorities for most of the past decade. One could argue, in fact, that the Middle East became a good deal less democratic over these years. Jordan and Egypt reversed the limited democratic reforms they had instituted in the 1980s. After Islamists won the 1992 vote in Algeria, the ruling party cancelled the elections, leading to a bloody civil war. In Palestine Yasser Arafat, with the support and encouragement of Israel and the United States, set up a nightwatchman quasi-state that spent more than one third of its budget on the police and security apparatus. The "Damascus spring" that followed the death of Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad in June 2000 has morphed into a bitter cold winter of despair. The hints in the early 1990s that the Saudi monarchy would implement democratic reforms, including a consultative council, evaporated; the regime, in the face of mounting internal criticism, repressed dissent even more brutally. Faced with similar pressures, until quite recently the ruling family in Bahrain also refused to open its political system, kicking off a period of civil unrest. Yemen endured a civil war, which ended with the occupation of the south by the north under the guise of unification. In the 1999 election, Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Salih supposedly garnered more than 96 percent of the vote - a margin that is relatively low by the standards of the region, where elections have become an index of repression, not choice.

Perhaps the most egregious example is Kuwait. After promising democratic reforms in return for the US backing, the Al Sabah family failed to reinstate the constitution, delayed elections for the National Assembly and still does not permit women to vote. When questioned about the ruling family's poor record, Bush retorted, "The war wasn't fought about democracy in Kuwait." Privately, the Kuwaitis were getting the same message. Nazir Al Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador, reported: "I saw the president the other day on Friday (June 7, [1991]) and he walked up to me in the White House and said: 'Listen, Mr. Ambassador, we didn't fight this war for democracy or those [war] trials. Don't be intimidated by what's going on." 2 Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Mack found himself turning verbal somersaults to avoid calling for democracy, instead calling upon Kuwait's rulers to "maximize internal political participation in accordance with all traditional institutions."3

James Schlesinger, a former defense secretary, forthrightly summed up the US position on democracy in the Middle East: "Do we seriously want to change the institutions of Saudi Arabia? The brief answer is no; over the years we have sought to preserve these institutions, sometimes in preference to more democratic forces coursing throughout the region. King Fahd [of Saudi Arabia] has stated quite unequivocally that democratic institutions are not appropriate for this society. What is interesting is that we do not seem to disagree."4

Same pipes, different tune

Today's Iraq hawks agreed fully with the administration's position. Soon after the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, they warned that democracy was unlikely to come to the Middle East. Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and founder of Campus Watch, a website dedicated to policing academics who study the Middle East, pushed the line that Hussein's successor would be someone in the military. Succession would be based on power, not principles, leading Pipes to echo Bush's position that a "stable, defensible and non-bellicose" Iraq was the best conceivable outcome.5 Democracy did not figure in the equation. If the Iraqi regime was to be overthrown, it would be through a popular uprising, not foreign intervention: "It is now up to the Iraqis themselves to dispose of Saddam Hussein and his evil clique." Such a result was likely, Pipes thought. On the first anniversary of the Gulf war, Pipes incorrectly predicted, "Desert Storm is likely to lead to Saddam's eventual overthrow." 6

Like Colin Powell, Pipes in late 1991 preferred to see Saddam Hussein remain in power:

Iraqis, their neighbors and the outside world have all been served reasonably well by the delicate balance of power of the past nine months which leaves Iraq neither too strong nor too weak. And we still are. Yet this balance is a one-time thing; when undone, it is permanently gone. Now, as then, getting rid of Saddam increases the prospects of Iraqi civil war, Iranian and Syrian expansionism, Kurdish irredentism and Turkish instability. Do we really want to open these cans of worms?

The only way to avoid these consequences of toppling Hussein, according to Pipes, was "a very intrusive and protracted US military presence in Iraq." He counselled against such a course:

And here we revert to last year's dilemma: after American forces directly unseat Saddam and occupy Iraq, what next? There were no good answers to this question in 1990, and there are none today. If the administration calculates costs, it will reach the same prudent conclusion it reached early in 1991: don't stimulate regional havoc, don't take direct responsibility for deciding the future of Iraq and don't risk losing American lives - probably many more than were lost in Desert Storm - on behalf of vague and undefined aims. We all want Saddam gone; but unless Americans are prepared for an unlimited occupation of Iraq, we'd do better letting the Iraqis get rid of him.7

Given this persuasive case against occupying Iraq, one could easily mistake Pipes for an anti-war activist. It was not, however, a sense of solidarity with the Iraqi people that motivated these sentiments, as the following calumny reveals:

[The Middle East] is also a region which marches to its own beat, and nearly immune to such happy global developments as democratisation, increased respect for human rights and greater scope for the market ... Details shift but the basic picture remains surprisingly stagnant.

Americans should learn to keep their aspirations modest when it comes to the Middle East. With the exception of the Middle East's two democracies, Turkey and Israel, Washington should keep its distance. To get too involved permits the misdeeds and failures of others to become our own. Our will and our means are limited: we probably cannot reconstruct Iraq as we did Japan or Germany. Nor is our example likely to prevail; Egyptians and Saudis have little use for our political system.

The Daniel Pipes of 1992 is characterized by an unmitigated pessimism about the prospects for Middle East democracy. Even Germany and Japan, which later would become examples of successful US nation-building, are inappropriate models for "stagnant" Arab societies mired in the past. For all its strength, US power was seen as limited, to be used sparingly, in a region that had been bypassed by the New World Order:

This is not a call for disengagement, much less isolationism. As in the case of Iraqi aggression, the US government should use its influence to address specific problems: the security of Israel, the stability of moderate Arab regimes, the free-flow of oil, and the suppression of terrorism. But it must know its limits and not believe that the region is amenable to improvements along American lines.8

A decade after the 1991 Gulf war, Pipes has radically changed his tune. Abandoning his previous concerns about the complications that would arise from a US occupation of Iraq, he urged George W Bush to move on Baghdad: "the risks are overrated."9 In 2002, on MSNBC's "Buchanan and Press," he directly contradicted his earlier comments about the potential for Arab democracy: "It's in our interests that they modernise and it's in our interests to help them modernize and I think we know how. We are very modern and we can help them. Look, we've done that elsewhere. Look, for example, at Japan. We defeated the Japanese and then we guided them towards a democracy. We did the same with Germany. We should be doing the same thing with Iraq." Japan and Germany suddenly have become viable models for the region to emulate. The US occupation of Iraq might not be so bad, since the US now has the opportunity to "modernise" the Middle East, or in terms of what Pipes rejected in 1992, the region now seems to be "amenable to improvements along American lines." The US-led New World Order has finally made it to the Middle East: "The United States cannot pass up a unique chance to remake the world's most politically fevered region."10 Pipes has become a supporter of American Empire.

Same Hama, different rules

Pipes is not the only figure to have reversed himself. Thomas Friedman, journalist and self-appointed itinerant ambassador, established his credentials as a Middle East expert with his first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem. Therein he coined the term "Hama rules" (referring to Hafiz al-Asad's bloody repression of Islamist revolts in the Syrian city of Hama) to describe the guiding principle of politics in the Middle East: rule or die. This truculent logic informed his take on the Gulf war of 1990-91, which he saw as a mechanism to restore the status quo: 'This war was not about healing ... This war was never about competing visions for the future of the Arab world. It was about a thief who had to be stopped." 11 By 2003, he had decided the US was powerful enough to break the hold of Hama rules and create real change in the Middle East: "[O]ur kids will have a better chance of growing up in a safer world if we help put Iraq on a more progressive path and stimulate some real change in an Arab world that is badly in need of reform."12

Or take Richard Haass, director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff. In 1997, he described the notion that the US would be the world's only great power as 'beyond our reach ... It simply is not doable.' In terms of democracy, he stated forthrightly: 'Primacy cannot be confused with hegemony. The United States cannot compel others to become more democratic.'13 By 2002, he had become a spokesman for what the US could do instead of what it could not do to spread democracy: "By failing to help foster gradual paths to democratization in many of our important relationships - by creating what might be called a 'democratic exception' - we missed an opportunity to help these countries became more stable, more prosperous, more peaceful and more adaptable to the stresses of a globalising world. It is not in our interest - or that of the people living in the Muslim world - for the United States to continue this exception. US policy will be more actively engaged in supporting democratic trends in the Muslim world than ever before."14

Intellectuals who made their reputation within the academy have been no more consistent. Take, for instance, Fouad Ajami. In 1990, Ajami railed against the prospect of the US bringing democracy to the Middle East: 'The US is in the Gulf to defend order ... We're not there to impose our rules. The injection of questions of democracy into the debate is completely inappropriate."15 Yet 13 years later, he advocates precisely such an injection. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Ajami rejects the restraint with which the US conducted itself in 1991, arguing that the 'dread of 'nation-building' must be cast aside.' Ajami throws in his lot with those who 'envisage a more profound American role in Arab political life: the spearheading of a reformist project that seeks to modernise and transform the Arab landscape. Iraq would be the starting point, and beyond lies an Arab political and economic tradition and culture whose agonies and failures have been on cruel display.' As with Pipes, the rehabilitation of Japan gives Ajami hope that an 'opening for democracy' is emerging in the Middle East: 'The theatrics and megalomania of Douglas MacArthur may belong to a bygone age, but Iraq could do worse than having the interim stewardship of a modern-day high commissioner who would help usher it toward a normal world.' While the advertising consultants try to steer the US administration away from the language of empire, intellectuals are not constrained by marketing strategies. Ajami's rhetoric confirms that the Mandate - the internationally sanctioned occupation of the inter-war period that aimed to 'raise up subject peoples' - is the imperial form of choice for Iraq.16

"Bernard has taught us how"

Bernard Lewis rejects Ajami's open invocation of empire, yet his writings mesh with the American imperial agenda. Overall, Lewis has evinced a remarkable continuity over his half-century career, yet on the narrow issue of what the US can do to remake the Middle East, he too seems to have shifted his position over the past decade. In 1990, laying the roots for Samuel Huntington's later work, Lewis wrote the world faced a "clash of civilizations" that pitted "Judeo-Christian' against 'Muslim' culture. Islam was not monolithic, Lewis was quick to point out, as 'fundamentalism' was only one of many Islamic traditions: 'There are others, more tolerant, more open, that helped to inspire the great achievements of Islamic civilization in the past, and we may hope that these other traditions will in time prevail.' It is specifically violent Islam that has shaped Lewis' recent cultural theorizing and authorizes his prescriptions for US policy, yet he was more catholic in presenting the dilemmas that confronted the region in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war: '[T]here will be a hard struggle, in which we of the West can do little or nothing. Even the attempt might do harm, for these are issues that Muslims must decide among themselves." 17

Decide among themselves. This rhetoric of choice has been a consistent feature of Lewis's thought for more than 50 years, dating to his first monograph, The Arabs in History. In 1950, Lewis wrote that Arabs, faced with 'problems of readjustment,' had three choices: taking on some version of 'modern civilization,' rejecting 'the West and all its works, pursuing the mirage of a return to the lost theocratic ideal' or 'renewing their society from within, meeting the West on terms of equal co-operation.'

Over the next four decades, the Arabs did not live up the hope Lewis had placed in them, but the Gulf war seemed to widen the space for the Arabs to make the right choice. In the rebellion of the Kurds and the Shi'a, he saw the possibility of a new age:

It may turn out that the civil war that destroyed Lebanon was a pilot project for the whole region, and that with very few exceptions states will disintegrate into a chaos of squabbling, fighting sects, tribes and regions ... Or it may be that the peoples of the region will free themselves at last from the politics of bribery, cajolery, blackmail and force, and find their way to the freer and better life to which they have so long aspired. The important change is that the choice is now their own.18

Even as Saddam Hussein slaughtered the Kurds and Shi'a, Lewis retained his conviction that only the peoples of the region could remake their future: 'For the first time in more than two centuries, this choice is entirely their own ... Those who care about the Middle East and its peoples can only hope that they will choose well and soon.'19

Today, Lewis is still waiting for the Arabs to figure it out. His recent bestseller, What Went Wrong?, like his The Middle East: A Brief History of the Past 2,000 Years, presents a familiar choice:

If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination ... If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, than they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization. For the time being, the choice is their own.20

The rhetoric of choice implies agnosticism about what the future holds. As Lewis wondered during the 1991 Gulf war, 'Will there be more of the same, or can one really hope for democratization in the Arab world?'21 This agnosticism, however, is disingenuous because it is embedded in a historical narrative that removes the uncertainty that lies at the root of any real question. The narrative of his book - in fact, his entire oeuvre - updates 'decline theory,' that is, the notion that the Ottoman Empire was once a great civilization but began a steady and uninterrupted decline in the sixteenth century. Lewis extends this methodology from Ottoman history into the popular realm, showing how Arab 'problems of readjustment' (1950) or their 'spiral of hate and rage' (2003) stem from their inability to cope with the modern world. This overarching trajectory removes the uncertainty that Lewis affects; it is not a question of his earnestness, but rather the pessimism that suffuses his writing. He would have us believe that history is bi-directional, but the inertia of his narrative runs in one direction only. Without someone or something to arrest the decline, his structure - if not his words - tell us that the Middle East is destined only for more of the same.

Enter imperial America and its neo-conservative architects. US hegemony, for Lewis, offers the hope of rescuing a fallen people from their state of degradation. Not only will the US promote values of freedom and democracy; it promises salvation as the one power that can stand against the inexorable historical trajectory that pulling the Middle East downward. George W Bush recently articulated this historical mission: 'We meet here during a crucial period in the history of our nation and of the civilized world. Part of that history was written by others; the rest will be written by us.'22 Theorists of decline such as Lewis could not agree more. As they would have it, ever since Ottoman vitality petered out four centuries ago, the West has provided the ideas, inspiration and means to move the Middle East into the modern world. Left to their own devices, Arabs are destined to remain in the misery they have chosen for themselves. This explains why Lewis wrote in 1996 - when internal opposition constituted the only possible path to toppling Hussein - that 'in Iraq and Syria, an overthrow of the present dictators is unlikely to lead to the immediate establishment of a workable democracy.'23

The neo-conservatives, for their part, appreciate Lewis since he provides more than just an air of academic respectability for the administration's program. He offers a raison d'être for US hegemony in the Middle East. Paul Wolfowitz, the administration's main proponent for toppling Saddam Hussein, told a conference in Tel Aviv, 'Bernard has taught [us] how to understand the complex and important history of the Middle East and use it to guide us where we will go next to build a better world for generations.'24 In 1998, Lewis signed an open letter to President Bill Clinton that called for the toppling of Saddam Hussein with a massive bombing campaign and, if need be, ground troops. Co-signers included not only the neo-conservative pundits William Kristol and Robert Kagan, and the über-hawk Richard Perle, but also Bush appointees who have shaped the administration's policy: Elliott Abrams, Richard Armitage, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Zalmay Khalilzad, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

These blossoming links explain why Lewis was invited to participate in a meeting of the Defense Advisory Board on September 19, 2001 and subsequent meetings with Bush and Cheney. Lewis won't say what was discussed at these meetings, but they are said to have been influential in promoting Wolfowitz's agenda to attack Iraq.25 One report characterized Lewis as endorsing the line that the US 'was guilty of 'betrayals'' of the Iraqi people when it failed to support their uprisings in both 1991 and 1995. He promoted the Iraqi oppositional groups as viable, as the best hope for stable democracy in the Middle East.26 He told Bush and Cheney, like other officials, that the time had come to act for the peoples of Iraq.27 By late 2002, as the US war machine was gearing up, he told a conference at AEI that he is 'cautiously optimistic' about the prospect for developing a democratic regime in Iraq.28 Elsewhere, he declared himself 'very optimistic' about a post-war Iraq:

I think Iraq in many way is the most advanced, most developed of the Arab countries ... Although all this has suffered terrible damage at the hands of Saddam Hussein, it has not been entirely destroyed. I see the possibility of a genuinely enlightened and progressive and - yes, I will say the word - democratic regime arising in a post-Saddam Iraq.29

Lewis has remained consistent in his assessment that even the most optimistic of scenarios will come to pass slowly. In 1996, he wrote: 'Democracy cannot be born like Aphrodite from the sea foam. It comes in slow stages.'30 More recently, he said that the US cannot simply install an American-style democracy; it is 'unrealistic' to think that a political system can be engineered overnight, especially if it appears to be the result of 'forced change by an external force.'31 Today, however, the US can create the conditions under which Iraqi and Middle Eastern peoples might make, at long last, the correct choice. US tutelage will arrest their centuries-long period of decline and restore the grandeur of antiquity. For the Lewis of 2003, unlike the Lewis of 1990, the West has an active role to play in this process. The agnostic has become a believer.

Making the right choice

Like the stewards of American policy, Lewis thinks that political culture can be remade by simply opening the playing field and allowing Iraqis to make the right choice. While some in the State Department do not find the democracy domino theory credible32, the neo-conservatives have been assuming that once Iraq gets on the right track, other countries will hop on the democratic bandwagon. Choice, however, has not always been a viable mechanism for change, since at certain moments when peoples of the Middle East have made choices - in Iran in 1953, for example - the US forcibly reversed them. The rhetoric of choice obscures the fact that US policy will necessarily involve the use of military might. Administration officials have spoken only vaguely about their plans for specific countries, but when they do, one gets the feeling that the spread of democracy might not be smooth as their optimistic rhetoric implies. When Undersecretary of State John Bolton found himself in front of a friendly crowd in Israel, for instance, he proclaimed with uncharacteristic forthrightness 'that he has no doubt America will attack Iraq, and that it will be necessary to deal with threats from Syria, Iran and North Korea afterwards.'33 Democracy, it seems, will grow out of the barrel of a gun.

Yet even once the democratic 'choice' is made, US interests will not be assured, since new democratic polities could disregard US cues. French and German democracy has not been a great boon to the current administration. Iraq's non-democratic neighbors are providing the greatest assistance to the US, whereas relatively democratic Turkey has caused consternation among Washington planners. Even beyond the war, continued US support for Israel, demands for basing rights and efforts to extract greater oil profits could inflame public opinion, which in turn would produce restraints on governmental co-operation. At the very least, a government accountable to its people would demand concessions from the US in exchange for co-operation, which is perhaps why Douglas Feith recommended to an AEI conference in 1998 that the US push a notion of democracy built around limited government and personal freedoms, not majority rule.34 Bernard Lewis is similarly apprehensive about democracy running amok. While he rails against the 'deep-seated, insidious prejudice...[that] Arabs are incapable of democratic institutions,' he nevertheless cautions that 'we should be realistic in our expectations. Democracy is strong medicine, which has to be administered in small gradually increasing doses otherwise you risk killing the patient'; Hitler, after all, came to power 'in a free and fair election.'35 Lewis worries that that democracy will give Arabs the chance to choose wrongly, disappointing him once again, as they have done repeatedly over his career. For Feith and Lewis, democracy needs to be scaled back, lest the US actually get the robust democracy that the Bush administration claims to want.

Conservative intellectuals in the US, for their part, have not hesitated to make the right choice, allying themselves with US Empire. They have recently attacked the field of Middle East Studies for failing to pay homage to the 'essentially beneficent role in the world' that the US plays.36 In dubbing the entire field a 'failure,' servants of empire such as Martin Kramer have implied that scholarship on the Middle East is of value only inasmuch as it supports US policy. By this standard, the Iraq hawks have succeeded mightily.

Accommodating themselves to the political fashion of the day, they have prioritized political expediency over intellectual rigor and consistency. Middle East academics have been accused of 'groupthink' and illegitimately politicising their scholarship, but ironically, it is the Iraq hawks whose work is politicised in the most literal sense, reflecting policy groupthink and the Washington consensus. Are Japan and Germany suitable models for reconstructing Iraq? Is the 'injection of the question of democracy' in the Middle East appropriate? Is the region 'amenable to improvements along American lines'? Can the US military create the conditions for democracy? The Iraq hawks now answer these questions in the affirmative even though very little has changed in the region to give hope to the partisans of democracy.

Much has changed elsewhere, of course. The murder of over 3,000 civilians on September 11 gave renewed impetus to American hegemony and stripped away the public's hesitation to project force around the globe. It is this change that accounts for the consensus that includes establishment commentators and neo-conservative rabble-rousers. As they would have it, the potential for democratization has arisen from the fortuitous coincidence of Saddam Hussein's obstinacy and American beneficence. Leaving aside the question of US intentions, this formulation omits a third aspect of the current historical conjuncture: the newfound American willingness to occupy nations and remake them in its image. The US has used force on previous occasions to overthrow governments. What distinguishes the current moment - and the Iraq hawks' about-face since the 1991 Gulf war - is the apparent zeal to inculcate a new set of political and cultural sensitivities among an entire people. This imperial enthusiasm is specious, however, in that talk of democracy is little more than a mechanism for creating compliant states that will 'choose' to further US interests. As the US military has wielded its weapons in the service of American Empire, so too have its intellectual boosters.


Robert Blecher teaches history at the University of Richmond (Virginia, USA). He has worked and travelled extensively in the Middle East, including stints with human rights organizations in Damascus and Jerusalem. This article was originally published by the Middle East Report Online in March 2003, and is reproduced with the author's kind permission.



1. Quoted in Daniel Pipes, 'America: Be Ambitious After Iraq,' Jerusalem Post, February 12, 2003.

2. United Press International, July 5, 1991.

3. Louise Lief, 'Kuwait's Fight for Democracy,' US News & World Report, May 13, 1991.

4. Quoted in Alain Gresh, 'The Legacy of Desert Storm: A European Perspective,' Journal of Palestine Studies 26/4 (Summer 1997). Gresh offers a similar laundry list of setbacks for democracy in the Middle East.

5. Pipes, 'Why Arabs Aren't Rioting,' Wall Street Journal (Europe), January 23, 1991.

6. Pipes, 'One Year Later: Was Operation Desert Storm Worth It?' Philadelphia Inquirer, January 16, 1992.

7. Pipes, 'Let the Iraqis Get Rid of Saddam,' Washington Post, December 22, 1991.

8. Pipes, 'After Desert Storm, No Real Change in the Middle East,' Jewish Exponent, January 17, 1992.

9. Pipes and Jonathan Schanzer, 'On to Baghdad? Yes - The Risks Are Overrated,' New York Post, December 3, 2001.

10. Pipes, Jerusalem Post, op cit.

11. Thomas Friedman, 'What the United States Has Taken On In the Gulf, Besides a War,' New York Times, January 20, 1991.

12. Friedman, 'Thinking About Iraq (II),' New York Times, January 26, 2003.

13. Nicholas Lemann, 'The Next World Order,' The New Yorker, April 4, 2001.

15. Robert S. Greenberger, 'Calls for Democracy in the Middle East Are Creating a Dilemma for White House,' Wall Street Journal, October 8, 1990.

16. Keith Watenpaugh, 'The Guiding Principles and the US 'Mandate' for Iraq: Twentieth-Century Colonialism and America's New Empire,' Logos 2/1 (Winter 2003).

17. Bernard Lewis, 'The Roots of Muslim Rage,' Atlantic Monthly, September 1990.

18. Lewis, 'Mideast States: Pawns No Longer in Imperial Games,' Wall Street Journal, April 11, 1991.

19. Lewis, 'Rethinking the Middle East,' Foreign Affairs 71/4 (Fall 1992).

20. Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 159-160.

21. Lewis, 'Who Will Win, Who Will Lose in the Gulf,' Wall Street Journal (Europe), February 21, 1991.

22. Speech given by Bush to the American Enterprise Institute on February 26, 2003, as reported by New York Times, February 27, 2003.

23. Lewis, 'Islam and Liberal Democracy: A Historical Overview,' Journal of Democracy 7/2 (1996).

29. Paul Singer, 'Domino Democracy,' Jerusalem Post, April 7, 2002.

30. Lewis, 'Islam and Liberal Democracy: A Historical Overview,' Journal of Democracy 7/2 (1996).

31. Forward, October 11, 2002.

32. Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2003.

33. Haaretz, February 18, 2003.

36. Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001), p. 129.


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