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The war's silver lining

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We need to face up to the fact that the Iraq invasion has intensified pressure for democracy in the Middle East


Jonathan Freedland
Wednesday March 2, 2005


Tony Blair is not gloating. He could - but he prefers to appear magnanimous in what he hopes is victory. In our Guardian interview yesterday, he was handed a perfect opportunity to crow. He was talking about what he called "the ripple of change" now spreading through the Middle East, the slow, but noticeable movement towards democracy in a region where that commodity has long been in short supply. I asked him whether the stone in the water that had caused this ripple was the regime change in Iraq.

He could have said yes, insisting that events had therefore proved him right and the opponents of the 2003 war badly wrong. But he did not. Instead he sidestepped the whole Iraq business.

Perhaps he was simply reluctant to reopen a debate that came to define, if not paralyse, much of his second term. Or maybe he calculated that it was best to keep the current democratic shift in the region separate from the Iraq war, so that people who opposed the latter might still rally to support the former.

But if he had wanted to brag and claim credit - boasting that the toppling of Saddam Hussein had set off a benign chain reaction - he would have had plenty of evidence to call on.

Most immediate and dramatic is the flowering of what looks like a Cedar Tree Revolution in Lebanon - a mass demonstration of people power on the streets of Beirut to match the Orange revolution last December in Kiev. After nearly three decades of living under Syrian influence, and 20 years of partial military occupation, tens of thousands of Beirutis have taken to the streets waving Lebanese flags - united in their desire to send the Syrians packing.

They certainly have the choreography of revolution right. They have their barricades and flags, and even a martyr - in the form of Rafik Hariri, the ex-prime minister whose assassination last month triggered the current unrest. Hariri had made loud demands for the Syrians to leave and most Lebanese, and many beyond, believe his murder was Damascus's punishment.

So far, the protesters have brought down Lebanon's pro-Syrian government and seem determined to press on until they get what they want: mastery of their own country. One cautionary note: whether this movement reflects the full range of Lebanon's diverse population is hard to tell.

Elsewhere in the region, the ripple of change has been quieter but no less significant. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak stunned his people at the weekend when he announced that presidential elections later this year will no longer have just one name on the ballot - his. Multi-candidate elections are promised, though whether these will be free and fair seems more doubtful.

Equally hard to rely on is Saudi Arabia's round of elections this year and its promise that women will be able to take part - not this time, but next. Britain and the US also take satisfaction in Libya's decision to abandon its attempt to build weapons of mass destruction and Iran's recent promise to halt production of enriched uranium. It's not as if these countries have undergone some ideological conversion: rather, they're hoping to get America off their backs.

The big prize - the one the prime minister was so keen to show off at his London conference yesterday - is progress in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. After four years of stalemate and worse, the Palestinians are now led by a man who describes those who murder Israeli civilians as "terrorists" and who seems serious about putting the Palestinian house in order. Meanwhile, the Israelis are led by a man who, whatever his past, is now ready to risk his life to pull out of Palestinian land. The combination of Abu Mazen's embrace of the reform agenda demanded of him yesterday and Ariel Sharon's iron determination to pull out of Gaza - even in the face of a growing and credible threat of assassination - has made the prospects for their two peoples brighter than in years.

Of course, each one of these hopeful developments has its own origins and dynamics, distinct from the Iraq war. Syria may well have set in train the current Lebanese revolt last year when it sought a change in the country's constitution to keep a pro-Damascus president in place. If that was not provocation enough, the murder of Hariri in the heart of Beirut and in broad daylight seems to have been the last straw.

It's true, too, that those Gulf states now embarked on tentative reform, including Saudi Arabia, were spooked less by the Iraq war than by a post-9/11 fear of a US crackdown on the Islamist extremists in their midst. And in Israel-Palestine, the key shifts have been the death of Yasser Arafat, which has unblocked movement on the Palestinian side, and the realisation on the Israeli right that retention of Palestinian lands spells demographic peril for Israel's chances of remaining a Jewish state. Neither of those have anything to do with the bombing of Baghdad.

Even so, it cannot be escaped: the US-led invasion of Iraq has changed the calculus in the region. The Lebanese protesters are surely emboldened by the knowledge that Syria is under heavy pressure, with US and France united in demanding its withdrawal. That pressure carries an extra sting if Damascus feels that the latest diplomatic signals - including Tony Blair's remark yesterday that Syria had had its "chance" but failed to take it and Condoleezza Rice's declaration that the country was "out of step with where the region is going" - translate crudely as "You're next".

Similar thinking is surely at work in the decisions of Iran and Libya on WMD and Saudi Arabia and Egypt on elections. Put simply, President Bush seems like a man on a mission to spread what he calls the "untamed fire of freedom" - and these Arab leaders don't want to get burned.

This leaves opponents of the Iraq war in a tricky position, even if the PM is not about to rub our faces in the fact. Not only did we set our face against a military adventure which seems, even if indirectly, to have triggered a series of potentially welcome side effects; we also stood against the wider world-view that George Bush represented. What should we say now?

First, we ought to admit that the dark cloud of the Iraq war may have carried a silver lining. We can still argue that the war was wrong-headed, illegal, deceitful and too costly of human lives - and that its most important gain, the removal of Saddam, could have been achieved by other means. But we should be big enough to concede that it could yet have at least one good outcome.

Second, we have to say that the call for freedom throughout the Arab and Muslim world is a sound and just one - even if it is a Bush slogan and arguably code for the installation of malleable regimes. Put starkly, we cannot let ourselves fall into the trap of opposing democracy in the Middle East simply because Bush and Blair are calling for it. Sometimes your enemy's enemy is not your friend.

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Created by keza
Last modified 2005-03-23 04:12 AM

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