The US is missing the point

The US is missing the point

WHICH is more critical to the US in the Islamic world: that a government be democratic, or that it be a friend and ally in the war against al-Qa”ida and Islamic extremism? In the Bush era, the answer has seemed unequivocal. We are for democracy first. For democracy is the best guarantee of our security interests. As Condoleezza Rice famously said in 2005 at Cairo University: “For 60 years, my country, the US, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

As the US expelled the Soviet Union from the Middle East, brought peace between Egypt and Israel, and won the Cold War, Rice”s statement was false and full of hubris and condescension towards 11 US presidents who, whatever their failings, put US interests above all else. Nevertheless, democracy became declared Bush policy. Pursuing it, George W. Bush and Rice demanded elections across the Middle East. What did they produce? Victories for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.

Why did free elections fail to advance US interests? Because the most powerful currents in the region are populism, nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, all of which translate into popular recoils from leaders seen as too close to the US. In survey after survey, Arabs and Muslims declared Bush to be the least admired world leader and the US among the least respected nations.

If the volatile people of this region harbour such hostile attitudes, why would we insist on elections that would bring to power regimes responsive to those attitudes?

After the victories of Hamas and Hezbollah, stability did not look so bad and the White House seemed to back away from its demand that friendly autocrats and monarchs seek the approval of the masses at the ballot box. US interests, in friendly regimes, appeared to have trumped democratist ideology. Now, however, the US is demanding that Pakistan”s President Pervez Musharraf remove his uniform, end the state of emergency and hold free elections, which will likely be won by the Pakistan People”s Party of Benazir Bhutto or the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif. Bhutto and Sharif had terms as prime minister twice in the 1980s and “90s, and both were charged with corruption and had to flee after Musharraf”s 1999 coup.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte delivered this tough message to Musharraf and was rebuffed, though the general agreed to step down as commander-in-chief by the end of the month and hold parliamentary elections in January. A new Supreme Court – the previous justices having been ousted by Musharraf before they could rule against him – has declared that the general is eligible for a new five-year term.

Thus we have a nation of 170 million Muslims with nuclear weapons in political chaos. Tribal leaders in the border regions have been giving sanctuary and support to the Taliban, and Islamist warriors have taken over the Swat Valley, 160km from the capital. There are reports of army and police surrendering to the Islamists, even of defections to their ranks. The roadside bomb that almost killed Bhutto and did kill and wound hundreds of her followers on her return is indicative of the insecurity in the cities. Pakistan could come apart.

What the situation in Pakistan tells us is that there are more important considerations than how leaders or governments are chosen. In the case of Pakistan, the first imperative is that the government in control of those nuclear weapons, be it autocratic or democratic, be stable, reliable and not hostile to the US. A pro-US general in charge of the army and nuclear weapons may be preferable to having custody of those weapons turned over to a coalition government of politicians brought to power through a plebiscite in a country where anti-Americanism is pandemic.

Indeed, given the US failure to anticipate or predict election results in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, how can we be sure that Islamists will not win a share of power in Islamabad? Not only in Pakistan but in other Muslim nations such as Egypt and Turkey, military men willing to intervene to prevent their countries from falling to Islamism are surely preferable to elected Islamists such as Ahmadinejad or elected leaders who may feel compelled to bend with the prevailing radical winds.

Order comes first, for without order there is no true freedom.

When one considers that today Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the sheikdoms of the Gulf are ruled by monarchs, and Iran”s president was democratically elected, we ought to recognise that while free elections are nice, national interests come first.