If you say it enough, they will believe it. The Arab world cannot establish modern, representative and tolerant democracies and therefore its masses must be ordained to live under brutal dictatorships. In his last and final state of the Union speech, President Obama reiterated the underlying justification for such belief: “The Middle East is rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”. It is an argument constantly propagated by orientalists, politicians and western thinkers. This fallacy typically concludes with a simple prophecy, that the region will forever remain mired in conflicts. What has been missing from the debate is the most important factor, power. Who has it, how is it being exercised and for what purpose. Change, whether positive or negative, is achieved when the balance of power reaches a tipping point.
They have been fighting for generations. Both the ultra-right tea party and ultra-left progressive spectrum of the American political elite embrace this fallacy with para-religious zeal. Unlike American politicians, Middle Eastern tyrants fully understand the social underpinnings of regional conflicts and are much more skillful in using the instruments of power to survive. Middle Eastern tyrants are especially renowned for their ability to manipulate and exploit the west fear of extremist Islamists to maintain their repressive regimes.
Take the Syrian tragedy as an example, pundits talking or writing about Syria are often quick to dismiss facts and adopt the same condescending justification: Culturally, ethnically or religiously, Syrians are doomed to remain in perpetual conflicts. However, the historic facts are quite different. Three snapshots in time are important to illustrate this point, years 1919, 1949 and 2012.
About 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson established the King-Crane Commission to assess the sentiments of the people of greater Syria concerning the future administration of their affairs. The commission conducted the very first public opinion survey in the Levant in the summer of 1919. The overwhelming sentiment was for American oversight over the affairs of greater Syria instead of Imperial British or French mandate. The commission recommended US mandate over the region, US Congress and Wilson administration ignored the commission recommendations. A lost opportunity, the US government was unwilling or incapable of using its influence or power to affect timely positive change. It is noteworthy that the King-Crane commission did not mention or come across any radical Islamist group even during the last days of the Ottoman Caliphate This raises the question of which forces and policies later brought radical Islam into existence and into the foreground of the world’s preoccupations.
Britain and France ended up dividing the area among themselves. France occupied Syria from 1920 until 1945. After independence from the French mandate, Syria maintained a functioning representative democracy for 18 years. A CIA arranged coup in 1949 interrupted Syria’s first democratic experiment bringing Hosni Alzaim to power as the first dictator after independence. In this case, the US government was successful in using its influence and power to affect change in Syria, the change introduced a chain of military dictatorship, a change for the worse?
Looking back, we may justify this first coup as a direct result of the geopolitical struggle against the USSR. By such justification, we ignore the fact that the sole purpose of the coup was to ensure the construction of the now defunct Trans-Arabia oil pipeline. The coup started a chain of military coups, however, a relatively healthy representative democracy flourished until the arrival of the Ba’ath party. Regardless as to the justification for the CIA coup, the fact remains, starting 71 years ago, the Syrian people were able to maintain tolerant representative democracy. This fact exposes the ideological demagoguery of those who insist that Syrians are religiously or genetically unfit to build and maintain a democratic governance. During these 18 years after independence, the historic facts are indisputable, democracy allowed Syrians to overcome sectarian distrust, struggle or conflict. Syrians even elected a famous Christian prime minister named Faris Khoury. In spite of the current shameful mayhem, sectarian strife and atrocities, this short-lived democracy between 1945 and 1963 is a shining example of the inherent tolerance of the Syrian people. Until this day, Mr. Khoury achieved the highest political position any Syrian Christian has ever reached. Those who now defend Assad as the protector of minorities in Syria should be ashamed of themselves, dictators are divisive by definition and modern democracies are the only true protectors of pluralism and minorities.
In May 2012, President Obama overruled the advice of his entire cabinet by deciding to abandon Syria to Iran, Russia and extremists. The failure of Iraq’s “alliance of the willing” made the Obama administration, and justifiably so, unwilling to commit troops in the Middle East. However, boots on the ground are a far cry from using US influence to tip the balance of power in Syria toward democratic forces. The administration argument is succinct but startling: “To support the transition from tyranny to democracy, we must first be assured of an outcome serving our own self-interest but without any meaningful exercise of power or influence”. This argument is leading Syria and the region either to the abyss of tyranny or to a protracted heaven for extremists. What rather enlightened, soft power, leading from behind, realpolitik logic accepts such an outcome? Only Obama and his ideologue advisors know.
One will naturally ask why ISIS, Al-Qaida and other extremist groups are so prevalent in Syria now. Religiously based political ideology is a precise but inaccurate answer. Yes, a small minority of Sunni Muslims are religious fanatics who justify ISIS and Al-Qaida crimes based on disputed theological underpinning. However, the creation of entities such as ISIS demands Machiavellian exercise of power not just a theological dispute about a religious text. One must then ask what powerful forces empowered these groups, how and for what purpose. In stark contrast to the Syrian uprising, let us explore where peace and tranquility prevail nowadays then ask who, how and why.
In Western Europe and Japan, it was American power in defeating the Nazi axis. In Eastern Europe. American perseverance led to the collapse of the USSR. In South America, it was American leadership in defeating communism. In South Korea, it was America standing up to tyranny. South Africa achieved peace after unprecedented international pressure against the apartheid state, led by America. Even in China, it was President Nixon extending a hand of friendship and economic opportunity. American power and leadership made all the difference in the last 100 years. Powerful nations and empires shaped history and throughout history, the answer to the following question was all that matters: How did those who hold power exercise it? Was it for good, for evil or for indifference?
Tyrants and extremists have a very deep symbiotic relationship. The extremists in Syria need Assad to recruit and Assad needs extremists to survive. Prognosis is the first step needed to find a cure for any ailment including the disease of dictatorships and extremism. It is incumbent upon thought leaders to go beyond prognosis and identify a cure. In political and social science, just like in medicine, symptoms are sometimes confused with causes. The golden rule in medicine is this: Cure the disease, do not just treat its symptoms. The exact truth holds in political and social settings: Eradicate dictatorships, do not just blame and fight its symptoms.