In their twilight years, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams debated the global significance of the American Revolution. Jefferson, as historian Joseph Ellis explains, saw the American Revolution as the initial spark in a “global struggle” for freedom that would “sweep around the world.”
On the other hand, with the rise of Napoleon in democratizing France, Adams viewed global democratization as a ship sailing into precarious “uncharted waters.”
Two hundred years later, the world finds itself in a similar situation, with the prospect for a democratic Iraq to ignite profound changes in the authoritarian Arab world.
In Washington, the conventional wisdom to defeat radical Islamic terrorism in the long term is to bring democracy to the Middle East. Democracy could usher in newfound harmony between the Middle East and the West.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration offered an overly idealistic tableau of American soldiers being greeted with rose petals in Baghdad. Discussion was stifled. Analogously, honest debate over the political temperament and reality of a democratized Middle East has been lacking. The American public deserves to be treated as adults.
Granted, the liberation of the entire Middle East from immoral totalitarian regimes is an absolute and necessary upgrade from the status quo for the Arab people.
However, the end result may not be as favorable to the United States’ interests as the current administration suggests.
Arab animosity toward the United States has both depth and breadth. Even in moderate Arab nations, such as Jordan and Egypt, the United States has a 78 percent and 98 percent unfavorable rating among its citizens, respectively, according to Zogby International.
To be frank, Osama bin Laden is more popular than George W. Bush in the Middle East. Simply turning anti-Western Arab royal subjects into anti-Western Arab voters will not produce a favorable result for the United States.
Democratically elected Middle Eastern leaders will embody the Arab world’s antipathy toward the United States, leading to isolationist or uncooperative governments. Trade and counterterrorism allies could become elusive for the United States. (Ironically, America today can maintain relatively cooperative relations with some Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia, because they are ruled by dictators that reject the will of the people.)
Democratically elected Middle Eastern leaders would make even President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac seem like soul mates.
Therefore, to advance American and Middle Eastern interests alike, the United States must both successfully push for democratic reforms in the region’s authoritarian regimes and, with much more difficulty and importance, win over the hearts and minds of the Middle Eastern electorate.
Neoconservatives excitedly point to the democratization of post-World War II Germany and Italy to paint the future of a democratic Iraq, and eventual Middle East, that will empathize with the United States. However, that “cookie-cutter” notion is not applicable to the whole world. The Middle East is not Western Europe. Germany and Italy lacked the ethnic and religious tensions that are fueling an insurgency in Iraq. In 1940s Western Europe, the United States fought oppressive dictators, while today the United States maintains relationships with dictators in the Middle East.
Given their attitudes toward America, the Arab people will not embrace the United States as the people of Germany and Italy did after the Second World War.
There has been too little work done to win hearts and minds and too much work done to lose them (i.e. Abu Ghraib). The extreme difficulty in winning hearts and minds is that the vast majority of Arab resentment toward the United States is based on American policies in the Middle East, especially toward Israel. However, such American policies should not and will not change.
Hence, the burden is on the United States to convince the Middle East of the righteousness of its policies and intentions and diminish the culture of anti-Americanism.
Even in Turkey, one of the most progressive Arab states with relative political freedom and freedom of the press, most Turkish citizens have a negative perception of America.
When visualizing the United States, the Muslim world needs to see the American helicopter ferrying relief supplies to tsunami-ravaged Asia, the most genuine representation of America, not Abu Ghraib.
Even with an all-out public relations blitz in the Middle East, generations will have to die out before Arab views of the United States significantly change.
In the “spirit of 1776″ that united Jefferson and Adams, the Middle East must be freed.
However, Jefferson could not and did not foresee some of the consequences of exporting ideas from the Declaration of Independence to France. Adams did. In the late 1790s, French ships seized American vessels, leading to the XYZ Affair and a “quasi-war” between France and the United States.
Similarly, through bringing democracy to the Middle East, the United States may be solving old problems, but could be creating new ones for itself in the region.