Reconsidering the unthinkable

The success of January’s elections in Iraq, new flashes of democracy in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and massive rallies in Lebanon are causing some critics of the Iraq war to reconsider their skepticism of President Bush’s Middle East strategy.

A few are pondering a question they once would have found unthinkable: Could Bush have been right about the war?

On the second anniversary of President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, commentators, foreign policy experts and some politicians are re-examining their earlier views that toppling Saddam Hussein could make things worse in the Middle East.

National Public Radio analyst Daniel Schorr, often a critic of the war, recently recalled Bush’s pre-war prediction that an Iraq free of Saddam could transform the region. “He may have had it right,” Schorr wrote in the Christian Science Monitor.

Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a sharp war critic, has nevertheless allied himself with Bush’s democracy campaign in the Middle East. “Any breakthrough we get there, whether it is in Lebanon or Egypt, is a step in the right direction and I support the president in that regard,” he recently told reporters. Reid held out the possibility that he would give full credit to the president for starting a democracy boomlet in the region.

Not all war critics are ready to give ground on Bush’s Middle East strategy. Bush’s losing opponent in last year’s presidential race, Sen. John Kerry, was asked last week on CNN whether democracy’s stirrings in the Middle East could be traced to Saddam’s overthrow.

His answer: “No.”

Kerry went on to praise democracy initiatives in the region. “Look, I hope it works,” he said, but the Democratic senator from Massachusetts made it clear he believes Bush should get little credit.

Middle East experts are quick to assert that it’s unrealistic to expect democracy to flower quickly in a troubled region with no tradition of popular elections. Yet some tip their cap to Bush for challenging the Middle East’s long history of autocratic rule.

“Events in Iraq have stirred up things a little,” said Thomas Carothers, who runs the democracy project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and who raised questions about war in Iraq in the run-up to the conflict. “Some of what’s going on has the potential to be quite significant over a period of time. … The Iraq war will ultimately lead to a better political situation in Iraq. But let’s hold our horses. It’s probably a ways off, and democracy’s prospects in the region are quite unclear.”

At a minimum, the new manifestations of democracy in the Middle East, which followed the president’s inaugural address touting global freedom, appear to have taken some starch out of critics’ denunciations of the Iraq war.

Beyond that, some Democrats who supported the war are calling on their anti-war colleagues to quit dwelling on the war and more robustly support Bush in his Middle East initiative.

An open letter signed last week by 17 Democrats, five of them members of Congress, argued that “it is essential that partisan enmity not obscure America’s vital interest in helping the newly elected Iraqi government succeed. … Democrats should reaffirm our resolve not to leave behind a failed state in Iraq, because to do so would hand our jihadist foes a strategic windfall.”

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, says Democrats are in a muddle about what to do about events in the Mideast. “There’s nobody on the Democratic side stepping up with an alternative position,” he said.

The new political jockeying is occurring not because of a shift in public opinion about Iraq. A slight majority of Americans continues to hold that Bush’s decision to go to war was a mistake, according to a new ABC/Washington Post poll.

What’s driving the shift is the quick succession of events, especially the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq, in which the flames of democracy appear to be gaining strength.

Since the first of the year, the Middle East has witnessed Palestinian elections, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, the promise of multiparty voting in Egypt and a series of anti-Syria demonstrations in Beirut after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

At least some scholars believe this spurt of democracy is likely to continue.

“Democracy is more and more being seen in the region as the wave of the future,” said Abbas Milani, an Iranian and professor of political science at Stanford University.

Among Middle East scholars, skepticism is widespread that democracy will overtake the region soon, or even at all.

Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said it’s a mistake to compare this moment in the Middle East to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. “The two are simply not analogous,” he said. “We’re seeing some encouraging signs, but it’s not at all clear whether democracy will take.”

Michael Ledeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a leading proponent of the Iraq war, is likewise skeptical that democracy will prevail.

Ledeen praised Bush’s call for freedom throughout the world as a “good start, but it is not good enough to win.” He called on the president to give the leaders of Syria and Iran the same treatment he gave Saddam _ “regime change.”