Iraq and Remaking the Middle East President Bush expressed his conviction that the U.S. mission in Iraq would advance the spread of democracy and peace throughout the Middle East. It now looks as if the war in Iraq has been a key factor in changing the region, but has it been as President Bush planned? Guests discuss Iraq and the remaking of the Middle East.
NPR logo

Iraq and Remaking the Middle East

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Iraq and Remaking the Middle East

Iraq and Remaking the Middle East

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Evacuations continue from Lebanon as thousands of people try to escape the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. U.S. warships and Marines will assist in the evacuation of an estimated 25,000 Americans in Lebanon.

Over the past few days, U.S. military helicopters have flown dozens of Americans, many of them ill, many of them children, to Cyprus. And the State Department has chartered a cruise ship to ferry hundreds more to safety.

So far, there is no sign that either side is prepared to stop the fighting, either in the north where Israel battles Hezbollah, or in the south where operations continue against Hamas in Gaza.

Only a few months ago, elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories were hailed as important steps toward democratic reform, developments that could entice terrorist groups to abandon violence and help establish more representative, more transparent, and more legitimate governments. That, in turn, followed a series of elections in Iraq, where sizable majorities appeared to reject insurrection.

All along, the Bush administration hoped that the installation of a stable democracy in Baghdad would prompt democratic reforms elsewhere in the region, and eventually transform the Middle East. Now some critics charge that the U.S. intervention in Iraq spawned new conflicts and new divisions in the Middle East, and that democratic reform has thus far bolstered Islamic fundamentalists.

This hour, we step back to focus on the consequences of Iraq, how it has changed the region, how it plays into the fighting in the Middle East, and the prospects of democratic reform. And we begin with Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, author of a forthcoming book called, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. He's with us from his home in San Diego, and thanks very much for being with us today.

Professor VALI NASR (Naval Postgraduate School, Author): Thank you.

CONAN: Is there a connection between Iraq and what's happening in Lebanon and Gaza?

Prof. NASR: Yes, to some extent there is. First of all, the violence in Iraq has obviously created a great deal more tension in the region, that is manifesting itself in far more military and violent confrontations, particularly with Israel.

But also, the shift of power in Iraq, away from the dominant Sunni minority that ruled the country for many decades, towards the Shiites, is also playing itself out in the conflict in Lebanon, as we are seeing traditional power brokers in the region - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt - criticizing Hezbollah and criticizing Iran's role as a regional power in ensuing struggle.

CONAN: Of course, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, those are all - and Saudi Arabia, of course - those are all Sunni-dominated countries. Iran, a Shia-dominated country: not Arab, but of course, Persian. Iraq, next door, as you mentioned, is majority Shia, and the United States' goal, I guess, in establishing democracy there, was directly or indirectly to install the Shias in power.

Prof. NASR: Well, the outcome was that. In other words, the perception in the West about democratization in the region was that you were liberating suppressed citizens, giving them civil rights, constitutional rights, and limiting state power. The assumption was that you're dealing with societies that are very clearly defined, only along citizenship lines.

But the reality in the region is that in many countries you have vertical divisions in society. You have ethnic or sectarian or communal minorities and majorities. And in some of these countries, like Syria, Iraq, you've had - or Bahrain - you have a minority rules over a majority, and the distribution of wealth and power is very clearly along the majority-minority line.

So as soon as you touch this setup, and in the case of Iraq, this was done rather violently, through war and destruction of the Iraqi state, it is inevitable that the political conflicts that ensue will at most immediately be along the lines in which people identify themselves.

CONAN: And as you mentioned, there are sizeable Shia minorities in many of the Gulf states, including Kuwait and Bahrain, and in Saudi Arabia, of course, as well. And by opening up, by calling for democratic reform as we saw in Iraq, people tended to identify not with a political grouping of one sort or another, but with a religious identity.

Prof. NASR: Well, or, let's call, religious identity, but this is somewhat like Northern Ireland, where you have the Catholic-Protestant conflict. It's not about faith and belief in God or doctrine. It's rather that religion operates as the primary identity - way in which people identity themselves and others.

And in all of those countries that you mentioned, the Shia majorities and minorities are not getting their fair share of power and resources. And democratization allows them to make new demands. For instance, when there were municipal elections in Saudi Arabia last year, in the Shia regions the Shias voted much more overwhelmingly than did the Sunnis. And now, for the very first time, they sit on city councils and municipal councils and are able to ask for things that they were not able to ask before. And this sort of empowerment of the minority - or population group that was shut out previously - creates winners and losers. And the winners expect more then, and the losers are bitter and sometimes, as in the case of Iraq, lash back.

CONAN: Well, isn't this sort of thing inevitable? It may have been triggered by the American intervention in Iraq, as you suggest, but nevertheless, it was going to come up anyway.

Prof. NASR: Well, it might have come up in a less violent way had Iraq changed in a different manner than it did. But ultimately, the problem that we face is that the Middle East has to go through political reform and has to ultimately democratize. But democratization in the very short run will unleash the kind of communal identity politics that has been the product of the region's recent history. And the challenge for us is to, not to sort of ignore this, but rather to find out how you can give the region a soft landing, so it doesn't go through the kind of turbulence that Iraq is going through.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into this conversation. Joining us now, is Walid Kazziha, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the American University in Cairo. He joins us from his home in Cairo. Welcome, and thanks for joining us.

Mr. WALID KAZZIHA (Chairman of the Political Science Department at American University, in Cairo): Hi.

CONAN: And I wonder, as some democratic reforms have been underway in Egypt, as well - maybe not to the extent as in other places in the country - but I wonder, are these same kinds of tensions emerging there, as well?

Mr. KAZZIHA: Um, yes, there are tensions, due to the fact that the reforms that have taken place had allowed the admission of the Muslim Brothers, basically, into the Peoples' Assembly, where they have about 88 members out of 444.

CONAN: Um-hmm.

Mr. KAZZIHA: And that has made the majority party feel like it's losing its grip on the situation, and it's reacting to that. Sometimes through security measures, and eventually I suspect they would do that through a new electoral law.

CONAN: And the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, a, well a very large group of different kinds of people, but nevertheless opposed to the government in Egypt, and some say the group that gave ideological cover to Osama bin Laden.

Mr. KAZZIHA: Well the, the, Osama bin Laden ties have phased out in, in Egypt some time ago with the repentance of the Jihadi group and the Gamaa Islamiyya.

CONAN: It is...

Mr. KAZZIHA: Most of them have, have phased out. And the more, I would say, that the more, more moderate group represented by the Muslim Brothers seem to have gained the platform of the Islamists in Egypt, yes.

CONAN: At this point looking at the experiences in Iraq, in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere through the region, I wonder how, how do your students view democratic reform in the Middle East?

Mr. KAZZIHA: Well, everyone had, had a chance. At one time the majority were those who were able to control the street through their slogans of liberation, nationalism, even socialism, and they had their, their heydeys. Now as, as these groups in one way or another were discredited, due to losing the national, the national battle due to the failure of their social economic policies, the Islamists seem to move in and to take the place, and to champion the same kind of causes, but with a, a different ideological outlook.

CONAN: Vali Nasr I wanted to bring you back in on that point as well. Certainly in the Palestinian territories, and in Lebanon, the experience of elections there has tended to legitimize some of these radical groups.

Prof. NASR: Well that's true, and in the case of Lebanon it's a bit more complicated, because there were elections, but still the constitutional framework in Lebanon does not really reflect the demography of the country. The last census was taken in the 1930s, and for instance, different minority groups have different numbers than was the case then but the numbers in the Parliament don't reflect it. The problem of, of, the fact that militants or Islamic groups may do well in these elections merely compounds the sectarian conflict. In other words it is, it is an added problem. In the case of Iraq, we've seen that both in the - on both Shiites and Sunni side, it is the more Islamic groups that have done well. It is the clerical groups on the Shiite side, and it's also the Muslim Brotherhood groups on the Sunni side that have done particularly well. And sometimes they are much less compromising on doctrinal issues and on identity politics than might secular parties be.

CONAN: And at this point, we just have a minute or so with you left. Walid Kazziha, I wanted to ask you, do the prospects of democratic reform - are people looking at this positively, at this point?

Mr. KAZZIHA: They have been very much encouraged by it, to start with. And I think the support which the United States and European countries have afforded that kind of outlook has encouraged people quite a lot. However, as of recently, I think there is, there is a feeling that the U.S. is abandoning that kind of trust, and moving more towards a preference for stability and friendship with, with mainly autocratic leaders, rather than spreading the wings of, of democracy. And as a result of this, I think we have witnessed, more recently, some disappointment.

CONAN: Walid Kazziha thank you very much for your time, we appreciate it.

Mr. KAZZIHA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Walid Kazziha, chairman of the Department of Political Science at American University in Cairo, our thanks too, to Vali Nasr, Professor at the Naval Post Graduate School and author of the book, The Shia Revival. Thank you for your time today.

Prof. NASR: Thank you.

CONAN: More on this when we come back from a break. You're listening to special coverage from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Israeli warplanes continue to strike targets in Lebanon, today. Hezbollah launched new rocket attacks against northern Israel, and an Israeli general indicated their offensive could go on for weeks. We're stepping back to take a wider view of the conflict today, focusing on the region as a whole, particularly how the war in Iraq and the broader push for democracy in the Middle East are affecting the situation.

For hundreds of years, religious and tribal fault lines have riddled the Middle East. The relatively recent push for democratic reform in Iraq and elsewhere complicates an already volatile region. To join us to talk more about this history is Richard Bulliet, a professor of Middle East History at Columbia University and author of The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. He's with us from his home in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor RICHARD BULLEIT (Professor of Middle East History, Columbia University): Nice to be on thank you.

CONAN: Well, until about a week ago or so, Lebanon's Cedar Revolution was hailed as a great success story, is that over now?

Prof. BULLEIT: Oh I think that that is probably over. I don't see how one can go back to the, to the status quo after a bloodletting of the sort that's going on at the moment.

CONAN: And this was as a result of a, well, a by-product of the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, and the response to that, the ejection of Syrian forces from, from Lebanon. Yet it seemed that Hezbollah, as a Syrian representative in Lebanon, continued to wield considerable power, and that the government remained very, very weak.

Prof. BULLEIT: Well, it, it, I think was naïve to think that simply because the Syrian troops withdrew that therefore Syria would disengage in the fullest sense. Lebanon and Syria were for centuries more or less combined and it was only the French occupation after World War I that separated them into two states and during this period of military occupation by Syria you've also had massive numbers of Syrian workers coming into Lebanon. You've had great economic connections so, so Syria's always going to be involved.

CONAN: More broadly, talking about democratic reform in the Middle East, can you describe to us some of the earlier efforts in this regard?

Prof. BULLEIT: Well, during the post World War I period, various Arab states had elections of one sort or another, but because of the dominance of the French and the British, they really didn't qualify as sort of fully democratic elections. In Egypt, for example every time the popular Waft party was elected somehow the British would combine with the monarch to depose it from power and appoint an interim government. So democracy has, there have been elections but the notion of a parliamentary democracy with a fully functioning party system, that, that's what is new here. But I think you have to keep in mind, with Lebanon, that the - even though the Bush administration likes to think of this as part of the democratization that it backs up in the Middle East, it really came about because of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, not because of U.S. instigation.

CONAN: And I wanted to also talk about the development of political parties in the region. As we've seen in Lebanon, these are sort of religious identity parties and Hezbollah still retains its militia. And again, things seem to be breaking down the same kind of way in Iraq.

Prof. BULLEIT: Well in every - in every Arab country, pretty much, if you had completely free elections with all parties, or potential parties, welcome to put their views before the electorate, most specialists think that Islamic religious parties would win a majority, or a plurality, in every country. They are the best organized, they are the ones most responsive to popular needs, they are the ones that have the most populist agendas, and they're the ones that can affect and gain the votes.

Now in Iraq, we're happy to have SCIRI and Dawa - the Shiite religious parties -forming the government because we recognize that they represent the will of the majority of the Iraqi population, which is Shiite. But Hezbollah is exactly the same as the parties that are running Iraq. Has basically the same ideology. It also has 23 seats of the Lebanese Parliament. Hamas is not Shiite, but it too is a religious party, very much the same as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in fact it is more or less the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. And so the Egyptians who, the Egyptian government which despises the Muslim Brotherhood, is not happy about Hamas getting the majority in the Palestinian Parliament.

So the problem here is that democratization - if it occurs - has to go right down the, the front steps of Islamic political activism. And so you have two Theories. One theory is that activists in power will learn to moderate themselves. And the other theory is that it's better to have dictatorship and oppression, than allow these activists to be elected. The Bush administration has opted for democratization, and urging liberalization of elections. And the Egyptians, the Saudis, and others say, this is a dangerous course. You should not do this.

On the other hand, American tradition really does back the idea of democratization, as opposed to, to continuing dictatorship and police state rule. So, it really is a question as to whether these religious parties, once elected, will moderate. Hamas has only been briefly in power. Hezbollah isn't really in power, it simply is a partner in the government. So the question of when and by what means you know religious parties can learn to moderate, that is something we haven't really seen yet, except perhaps in Turkey.

CONAN: Except perhaps in Turkey. There are also examples elsewhere, in some of the Gulf States. There were just elections in Kuwait where women were allowed to participate for the first time.

Prof. BULLEIT: Right, but in all the Gulf States the, the, the elections are carefully controlled in their scope, by the ruling monarchs. As indeed, in Jordan, under King Hussein, the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to run for office but, but the control remained with the monarch. And that is one of the possible scenarios is that you, you have a strong president or a, or a forceful monarch, and you let the Muslim's win the elections and run parliament but then the ruler is in a position to, to throw them out if they get out of line. This was what was intended in Algeria back in 1992, but the nationalists there were fearful and they did not allow the elections to take place and that set off a civil war. So that's one of the risks here. Is that the longer you put off sharing power with these Muslim parties, the greater the volatility and the, the stronger the possibility of a public reaction that would make things more violent than necessary.

CONAN: Let me ask you another question about sort of regional politics. Obviously Iran and Iraq - rivals, bitter enemies over the past couple of decades, especially - the U.S. intervention in Iraq has changed that relationship.

Prof. BULLEIT: Yes, the, obviously the Shiite parties in Iraq are very close to Iran. Both of them had long been part of the opposition to Saddam Hussein and were supported by Iran. So this enmity of the Saddam, of the Saddam era is a thing of the past. On the other hand, the Sunnis, who are the supporters of the insurgency in Iraq, are very fearful of Iranian support for the Shiites as are the Sunni rulers in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. So the Sunni Shiite split remains, even though the specific Iraqi/Iranian split is not what it was.

CONAN: And without that Iraqi break on Iranian ambitions, Iran's role in the region is expanding.

Prof. BULLEIT: Oh I think that Iran's role in the region was destined to expand, in any case. Because, even if we had not attacked Iraq and brought down Saddam Hussein, his ability to be a, a break on Iranian ambition had been totally cancelled by the dozen years of American sanctions, the weakening of the Iraqi army, the no-fly zone, and so forth and so on. So Iran was, I think, going to become more and more important whether we invaded Iraq or not. But certainly, the way we've handled it and the way it turned out - not the way we expected, but the way it actually turned out - has made Iran even more of a beneficiary of these policies.

CONAN: And as you look ahead, again, a lot of people say, you know, you laid out the choices as either supporting oppressive dictatorships or allowing Islamic fundamentalists to hold sway. Nevertheless, these sectarian tensions, these religious tensions, have to be played out, don't they?

Prof. BULLEIT: Well, if you have a police state, you can suppress them, and that's what the so-called secular regimes in the Arab world have done. But that just leads to more and more frustration, particularly when the secular states do not prove to be effective rulers or, you know, galvanizers of economic progress.

So in my view, I think democratization has to go forward, and I think that the Islamic parties have to be players. And the question is not so much is this a desirable policy so much as how do you make this happen in a way that will minimize the disruption that is likely to occur? And I think that's the challenge, really, for American policy.

I think the alternative of abandoning democratization and invading Iran and exceeding to the wishes of the dictatorial states in the area to support them in their crackdown of all opposition. I think that would be a disastrous policy for us. It would only increase the threat of terrorism, and it would make our claims to support democracy ring completely hollow.

CONAN: Richard Bulleit, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Prof. BULLEIT: Thanks for inviting me.

CONAN: Richard Bulleit, a professor of Middle East history at Columbia University, the author of The Case for Islamo-Christian civilization. And he joined us today from his home in New York.

Let's turn now to - as we mentioned, only a few months ago the elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories in Iraq were hailed as important steps toward democratic reform. Since toppling Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration has hoped that the installation of a stable democracy in Baghdad would prompt democratic reforms elsewhere in the region and transform Middle East.

Today critics are asking whether the efforts have instead backfired. For more on this, we turn to Michael Hirsh, senior editor at Newsweek, who's with us here in Studio Three A. Michael, good to see you again.

Mr. MICHAEL HIRSH (Senior Editor, Newsweek): Good to see you, Neal.

CONAN: And also Max Boot, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of the forthcoming book War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to the Present. And he's with us from his office in New York. Welcome to you.

Mr. MAX BOOT (Author; Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council of Foreign Relations): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Max Boot, let me begin. Is democracy building the best foreign policy option for the U.S. and the Middle East?

Mr. BOOT: I think it's really the only foreign policy option unless we accept this dysfunctional status quo, which has marred the region for so many decades and created the conditions under which terrorist groups like al-Qaida could flourish.

Now obviously, we're not going to transform the region overnight. And it's going to be a long-term process. It's not going to be done mainly by force. It's going to be done by trying to help Democrats in the region and trying to put pressure on the dictators, which I think we ought to be doing. And current events do not - to my mind in the slightest - invalidate the rightness of that policy.

CONAN: Michael Hirsh, same question to you.

Mr. HIRSH: Well, that certainly is the administration's line. It's what they are repeatedly saying these days, particularly as they're dealing with the conflict in Lebanon between their democracy agenda and their anti-terrorism agenda - one reason why you see so many mixed signals sent to the Israelis. In other words, take care of Hezbollah, but, you know, don't undermine the Lebanese government, which indeed is one of our models.

But whether or not this can succeed when it seems like right now the chaos is vastly more powerful an impact than the forces of order, I really don't know.

CONAN: We're talking about Iraq and the remaking of the Middle East. You're listening to special coverage from NPR News.

And Michael Hirsh, explain to me. How do you think that this situation in Iraq has effected the situation between Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Hamas?

Mr. HIRSH: Well, I think the most obvious effect is it's made Iran much bolder. Iran, which I think has always feared an American attack of some kind - and we've been hostile with Tehran since 1979. You can see the perception on the part of Iranian policymakers of how strapped down and drained the U.S. is in Iraq next door, how vulnerable we would be to some sort of Iranian counterattack if we decided to take on them in a military sense.

So I think Iranian boldness clearly in - we don't really know - persuading Hassan Nasrallah to go ahead with this act...

CONAN: The head of Hezbollah.

Mr. HIRSH: ...or just encouraging him to do so. It certainly seems to be part of the picture.

CONAN: And Max Boot, let me ask on that same point. Is the expansion of Iranian - is this in response to democratic challenges, do you think?

Mr. BOOT: No, because the Iranians were expanding their sphere of influence long before we arrived in Iraq. And Hezbollah and Hamas were attacking Israel long before we arrived in Iraq. So there's no cause and effect here.

I mean, I agree with Michael on a very limited sense in that I think some our setbacks recently in Iraq have emboldened Syria and Iran, especially because they have been helping some of the anti-American insurgent groups in Iraq. And we keep telling them to knock it off, and they don't knock it off and we don't do anything about it. So this creates a perception of weakness, which they are taking advantage of, to some extent, by attacking Israel.

But these were huge problems before we tried to anything in the region, in Iraq or elsewhere. And in the case of Lebanon, Michael is talking about the conflict between democratization and anti-terrorism. Well, in fact, they're one in the same. Because the democratic revolution in Lebanon last year was very incomplete, because Hezbollah remains outside of the effective democratic process. Although they have a couple of ministries and they are represented in the parliament, they also have a militia and they haven't disarmed as called for under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. And nobody's been willing to enforce that resolution.

And so Lebanese democracy will actually be helped in the long run if Israel can actually smash Hezbollah militarily, which remains a big if at this point.

CONAN: Yet, Michael Hirsh, Hezbollah was able to forge alliances, political alliances with other groups - Christian groups in Lebanon and make arrangements that seem to be heading down towards the path of selecting politics over violence. And yet, last week, we saw what happened.

Mr. HIRSH: Well, I think that what Max describes certainly is one of, you know, the better outcomes. But the danger is that if Israel overreaches in its response, a lot of innocent Lebanese get killed, it destabilizes the Lebanese political situation.

You have to remember, Hezbollah is not just a terror group supported by Iran, which is the portion that you hear of it here in Washington and in the West. It's a very effective political party, one reason why they won so many seats in the parliament that provides a lot of social services - indeed, in some ways, the analog of what Hamas did in the Palestinian territories, which is why Hamas defeated Fatah in their own elections. So you have the danger of a backlash effect, where a majority Lebanese population that perhaps was with the West, with the United States - you know, one of the few pockets of support - turns against the U.S., particularly as we're seen to support Israel so dramatically.

CONAN: Stay with us, Michael Hirsh and Max Boot. We'll have more after we take a short break, continue our coverage of the conflict in the Middle East. Plus, Hezbollah and Hamas demand the release of prisoners held in Israel in exchange for captured Israeli soldiers. We'll take a look at who those prisoners are and why they're important.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to special coverage from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

U.S. helicopters today carried more than 100 American citizens out of Beirut and away from the ongoing battle between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. As operations continue, there is no sign yet that either side is prepared to stand down.

Our focus this hour is on wider questions about the Middle East, and whether -as some critics claim - the U.S. invasion of Iraq spawned new divisions, new crises and new conflicts in the region. Our guests are Max Boot - he's a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations - and Michael Hirsh, senior editor at Newsweek Magazine.

And, Max Boot, I did want to follow-up in this question that thus far, at least - and yes, it's early days - but the democratic elections in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon - and in Iraq for that matter - have elected governments that are unable to enforce their writ over the country.

Mr. BOOT: Well, that's basically the case. I mean, it takes more than an election to create an effective democracy. And there's a real challenge in the years ahead to try to create effective democracies in all those countries. I think the Bush administration is right to try to kick-start the process, but nobody could possibly claim that we've arrived at the endpoint already.

Clearly in the case of, for example, the Palestinian authority - yes, you've had elections but you don't have any of the other building blocks of democracy such as independent judiciary, apolitical police force, freedom of the press, those types of things - which are vital. And you basically have one group taking over and then using its militia to try to carry out aggressive operations.

And you have something similar in the case of Lebanon, where, yes, you have a genuine democratic government, but you also have one militia group, Hezbollah, which has refused to disarm and remains - to some extent - outside the political process, both in and out of it. And, of course, in Iraq, you also have groups from the Sunni insurgents to various Shia militias, which also remain with one foot in the political process and one foot out of it.

And, of course, you can't have a real democracy functioning as long as some people resort to guns. And that's a huge, huge problem. But that doesn't invalidate the notion of democracy as being better than the previous systems in those countries.

CONAN: Michael Hirsh, some said that the administration policies overemphasized elections at the expense of some of those processes that Max Boot was talking about - the groundings of democracy.

Mr. HIRSH: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think that this has been a problem going back to way we dealt with immediate - post-Soviet Russia as well. I mean, you'll hear many critics - people like Joseph Stiglitz talk about all of the very rosy colored advice that was given to Mikhail Gorbachev in those days about, you know, you got to have elections and that should solve most of your problems and convert you into a market economy when no institution-building was done.

I think the same, you know, you do have the same problem there. You had the problem with the Iraq occupation where there wasn't enough institution building by the U.S. authorities.

But I do think that doesn't necessarily answer the question of whether this was the best policy at this juncture. And indeed, whether you can have Islamic-dominated governments that are popularly elected that are compatible with long-term democracy. The one test case we've had of an Islamist takeover, democratically - at least in terms of the elections that were held after the Iranian revolution is Iran. And now for, you know, for a generation and a half.

And what we've seen is a case of stagnation where the Islamist has not wanted to give up power. You have this real question of whether these Islamist parties that are allied with the Iranian revolution in some way - Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood, or any of them - would ever give up power once having taken it in a popular election.

We faced that question with Hamas, and we don't know whether the two are compatible.

CONAN: And in Turkey, there has been a change of governments in different kinds of, different situation.

Mr. HIRSH: Yes, very, very different circumstances in Turkey. We don't want to delve too much into the history. But this, you know, happened during a different period (unintelligible), a very different leader.

CONAN: But let me ask you fundamentally about Max Boot's point, and that is what's the alternative to promoting democracy?

Mr. HIRSH: Well, I don't think in the long run there's any alternative to the Arab world joining the international system - which means becoming more open both in terms of economy and government. I think there's some question about whether you can impose it. And this goes back to, I think some false premises put forward by people like Paul Wolfowitz in the early days of argument for the Iran-Iraq war, and he used to compare it to East Asia. Well, if you look at the evolution of most of the East Asian democracies, and they are remarkably successful, it happened over a period of several generations and it was a slow process where economic reform led to the creation of a middle class, and that led to popular demands for democracy. And indeed, you have regimes that went from autocracies to democracies. But a very, very slow process.

This is completely different from what, you know, what has happened here in the Mideast, with the added complication of these Islamist groups.

CONAN: And the sectarian divides. Max Boot?

Mr. BOOT: Well, Michael, I mean, there's some truth in what you're saying, but keep in mind that in the case of East Asia, democracy did not just miraculously materialize. It often had something to do with American action, most spectacularly in the case of Japan, but also in the 1980s in the case of the Philippines and South Korea, where we basically told our authoritarian dictatorship clients in those countries, we're not going to support you anymore. We're going to support a democratic process.

And I think we should be doing something similar in the case of the Middle East. That's not imposing democracy, but I think we should stop trying to prop up dictatorial regimes. For example, in the case of Hosni Mubarak, who receives two billion dollars a year in U.S. aid and represses all opposition. I think that's a bad bargain, which is basically causing the people of the region to focus their hatred on us and not on their regime.

So, I don't think we can impose democracy, but I think we can certainly change our policy so that it's more democracy friendly and not reflexively supportive of dictators who claim to be backing us, which I think in many cases, as in the case of Egypt or Saudi Arabia, is a bad deal.

CONAN: Yet leaders of those countries look at the same situation and don't want to uncork what they regard as chaos.

Mr. BOOT: Well, that's absolutely correct. And unless we can be more successful in Iraq, that's going to be a huge setback for democratization in the Middle East. If, as our initial appearance of success in Iraq was a boost for democratization in places like Lebanon, so now our setbacks are giving democracy a black eye. There's no question about it. So that's all the more reason why I think it's important for us, and really for the Iraqis, to succeed in transforming their country.

CONAN: And would you agree, Michael Hirsh, that the acid test will come in Iraq here?

Mr. HIRSH: Well, that's - certainly one of the acid tests will come in Iraq. Although, I think, you know, currently, if you listen to, you know, Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker the other day, where he hesitated for long seconds when asked whether we're winning in Iraq and said, well, we're not losing. I think that, you know, there is still very great likelihood that Iraq will never be a model, or at least for generations will not be one.

CONAN: Michael Hirsh, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. HIRSH: Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Hirsh, senior editor at Newsweek magazine, with us here in Studio 3A.

Max Boot, appreciate your time.

Mr. BOOT: Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Max Boot, a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming book, War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History, 1500 to the Present.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.