These days right is left, left is right, liberals are wrong and conservatives are liberal. As confused as this may already sound, the logic behind the neo-conservative argument remains rather straightforward.
Neo-conservatives stress that opponents of the Bush administration’s agenda in the Middle East disregard years of intractable tyranny and betray the fundamental values of freedom and democracy. They contend that expressing any form of pessimism in the wake of Iraq’s dramatic January elections is insensitive at best and blasphemous at worst. Moreover, challenging the imperatives and consequences of the neo-conservative project amounts to collusion with an irredeemable enemy: the hate-filled fundamentalist. And by not revelling in fleeting moments of “success” marked by purple-fingers and the orchestrated toppling of statues, the anti-war Left apparently descends into a contemptible state of “illiberalism.”
Forgive me if I am not impressed.
President Bush and his followers righteously catalogue the atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s regime: the torture chambers, the mass graves and the gassing of the Kurds. But when the bulk of these horrors occurred, many of the architects of the recent war willfully supported Iraq’s secular Ba’athist regime, playing Iraq as a pawn against Iran in a deadly game of anti-Ayatollah chess. As Saddam drained the marshes of the Marsh Arabs and slaughtered the Kurds with one hand, his other hand vigorously shook Donald Rumsfeld’s after concluding oil pipeline agreements.
None of the reasons given for invading Iraq in 2003 ever suggested atoning for previous sins. 100,000 Iraqis have lost their lives over the past two years because of the threat of WMDs — a lie force-fed to the rest of the world for months. Also, as exhaustive studies confirmed what everyone else seemed to already know, Saddam posed no imminent threat nor did he have any substantive connection with al Qaeda operations.
Of course, this is all history, and history for neo-conservatives is an expendable commodity.
Now all that supposedly matters is the march of democracy. President Bush recently applauded the “critical mass” of popular movements erupting in parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. Yet this is where his narrative of an American-inspired proliferation of freedom begins to unravel. The recent “velvet revolution” in Kyrgyzstan saw thousands of protesters ransack the presidential palace of a premier who led one of only two Central Asian states to allow American air bases to be built for the war in Afghanistan. The other is Uzbekistan, ruled with an iron fist by the dictatorial Islam Karimov.
The more publicised Lebanese “cedar revolution” poses even more conceptual problems for politicos eager to “liberate” the country from the maws of Syria. A rally of a half-million Lebanese organized by Hezbollah dwarfed all other revolutionary demonstrations and sent a cold reminder to the West that Middle Eastern popular will rarely matches the plans of European and American foreign policy.
But, as a White House official said, “we are an empire and create our own realities.” The neo-conservatives who moan about the “illiberal” left are able to do so because the rhetoric of freedom, democracy and liberal secularism has been inextricably tied to the furthering of American hegemony. This is why, tragically, the galvazined forces of religious extremism have expanded throughout the region. In Iraq, with the occupiers monopolizing the language of secular reform and liberties, thousands turned to the fiery emancipatory zeal of clerics long suppressed by Saddam.
All “liberals” lament the triumph of narrow-minded dogma over greater egalitarian and humanistic ideals. What neo-conservatives fail to accept is that these ideals we cherish cannot thrive in a climate of domination and dependency. The contracts the Bush administration rapidly auctioned off to its closest friends and highest bidders have led to a reconstruction that is already being cited for unprecedented corruption and waste. In the meantime, poverty and depravation increase while Iraq is being thoroughly privatized and left beholden to foreign aid and the dictates of structural adjustment. Completely disempowered, the new Iraq’s first baby steps may be its last.
Neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism have mixed into a volatile cocktail. American freedom may mean free trade, but popular, secular movements in the Middle East have historically needed to champion the cause of economic justice. This has always been anathema to obvious American interests, yet remains the clearest path towards stable — and truly liberal — democratic societies in the region. And while prior forms of such rule often lapsed into corrupt autocracy, one cannot absolve the persistent role played by foreign intervention in shaping the politics of the Middle East. Most famously, democratically-elected Mohammed Mossadegh, whose popular push for oil nationalisation in Iran endangered Western oil interests, was toppled in an American and British-sponsored coup in 1953 and replaced by an eventually despotic monarchy. The historical legacy of such upheaval, of course, has now returned to haunt the United States: a radical Islamic state of Ayatollahs and anti-Americanism.
This episode, along with the current disastrous blunder in Iraq, must sadden and anger all true liberals. The prospects for secular, stable democracy look bleak — and the catastrophic damage caused now and more than half a century ago can never be undone.
Ishaan Tharoor is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.