Today's Domino Theory

Years ago, as cold warriors went about justifying America's war in Southeast Asia, a common train of logic was known as the domino theory. This held that the communists could not be allowed to seize South Vietnam, else they would go on to seize Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and, eventually, all of Southeast Asia.

It was lunacy, of course. But that has not stopped neoconservatives, 40 years later, from espousing a similar sort of domino theory. This time, it is democracy, not communism, that is spreading. According to the Bush administration and its ideologues, establishing a beachhead of democracy in Iraq will force the rest of the despotic Middle East to mend its authoritarian ways.

The world didn't work that way 40 years ago, and it doesn't today. The problem with this theory—OK, one of the many problems with this theory—is that it ignores the fact that the region in question comprises many different nations with distinct histories, cultures, and political processes.

Thus, while there is no denying that this has been a very good time for democratic reform in the Middle East, the notion that it is due primarily to recent pro-democratic pressure from Washington, or even that substantial progress has been made, needs a reality check.

Most notable, thus far, has been the collapse of the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon, a cataclysm due primarily to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri's murder remains unsolved, but it has widely been assumed to be the work of Syria— although Syria denies it. (And, in fairness, it could as easily have been a brilliant ploy by the CIA or Israel's Mossad.) Regardless, the upshot was a crowd of 25,000 Beirut protesters, in a rally that had been banned by the military, demonstrating for the end of Syria's military presence in Lebanon. By day's end, the government had fallen.

Events in Lebanon eclipsed movement in Syria, where leaders had already promised a pullout of Syria's military from Lebanon by year's end—not soon enough for the Lebanese protesters but a significant concession nonetheless. And later, Syrian authorities handed Saddam Hussein's half-brother over to American and Iraqi authorities, a rare display of cooperation with occupying Americans in Iraq.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, the 24-year dictator who is widely thought to be grooming his son to replace him, announced a request for constitutional amendments to allow multiparty presidential elections.

It's tempting to lump together the developments in those three countries, add the election in Iraq and municipal voting in Saudi Arabia, and point to it all as evidence that the Arab world is embracing the calls for democracy and freedom President Bush has made a centerpiece of his inaugural address and subsequent speeches.

But slow down. The opposition movements in Lebanon and Egypt long predate Bush's calls for Middle East democracy.

In Egypt's recent history, the U.S. has sided with the government and against its critics. Egypt has had pro-democracy and Islamist movements—participants have become objects of political repression, jail, and torture—for more than a half-century, spanning the dictatorships of Mubarak, Anwar el-Sadat, and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Even today, Egyptian opposition leaders say they don't want America's help. For good reasons, they don't trust us.

Those same opposition leaders also caution that Mubarak's proposal sounds more sweeping than it is. Unless opposition political parties are free to organize without repression and have equal access to what is largely state-controlled media, any presidential election there would be a farce. Simply having an election is not evidence of democracy—as we saw a month ago in Iraq.

In Lebanon, the famously splintered populace, numbering Christians, Druze, and Muslims, fought a vicious civil war from 1975 to 1990, and Syria has dominated the military and political landscape since. When Syria pulls out, Hezbollah—organizer of a much larger demonstration a week after the Lebanese government fell—will take over.

Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group by the State Department—not exactly progress. The assassination has united the opposition, but Syria still controls the presidency, the military, and the intelligence services in Lebanon, and forming any new government not dominated by Hezbollah or other pro-Syrian forces may be very difficult. Moreover, Omar Karami, the pro-Syrian prime minister who had been forced to step down, returned to the post 10 days later after the huge pro-Syrian demonstration.

All these events represent clear progress toward the goal of a more democratic Middle East. But Washington isn't responsible for everything, and Bush's new evangelism for democracy is no more than a minor contributing factor. The policy of trying to incubate Middle Eastern democracy is, on its own terms, a worthy one, but such policies take years, not weeks, to have an effect.

Give credit where credit is due: to the courageous opposition ranks in Lebanon and Egypt, who have withstood for years the apparatus of state repression to make a stand for what they believe in. And they still have a long way to go.

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