Grand Strategy in the Age of Mass Destruction

Is Democracy the Path to Peace?

By J.R. Nyquist


President Barack Obama greeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House this week, commenting on the close relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. The United States and Israel appear to want the same thing. By working toward freedom and democracy in the Middle East, the president and the prime minister hope to bring peace. Like President Bush before him, President Obama talked about the “oppressive” nature of certain terror-sponsoring states. What we are seeing, in terms of policy, is a remarkable degree of continuity between Obama’s policies and Bush’s policies.

In his turn, Prime Minister Netanyahu firmly stated that Israel cannot go back to the 1967 border because “these lines are indefensible.” According to the Israeli leader, “I’ve discussed this with the president. I think he understands.” Netanyahu further noted, “Hamas has just attacked you, Mr. President, and the United States, for ridding the world of bin Laden; so Israel obviously cannot be asked to negotiate with a government that is backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda.”

Netanyahu said that the Palestinians had to make a decision: either make peace with Israel, or keep faith with Hamas. “To make peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities,” Netanyahu explained. Israel cannot return to its 1967 border. In 1948 there were Palestinian refugees and also Jewish refugees. The small Jewish state absorbed the Jewish refugees from that war. The Arab world did not absorb the Arab refugees. According to the Israeli prime minister, the Arabs themselves must solve this problem. Having said this, Netanyahu told President Obama that he was committed to peace.

In a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress, Netanyahu outlined the Israeli position, saying, “Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.” Pointing to our common way of life, he said, “We stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace. We stand together to fight terrorism. Congratulations America. Congratulations Mr. President. You got bin Laden. Good riddance!” The Israeli prime minister explained to an applauding chamber, “Israel has always been pro-American. Israel will always be pro-American.” He further added, “You don’t need to send American troops to Israel. We defend ourselves.” More applause followed. “You’ve been very generous in giving us tools to do the job of defending Israel.” Netanyahu offered his thanks to the Americans. “An epic battle is underway in the Middle East between tyranny and freedom…. The tremors have shattered states and toppled governments. We can all see that the ground is still shifting. This historic moment holds the promise of a new dawn of freedom and opportunity.”

During Netanyahu’s speech a protestor broke into the chamber, shouting. The Israeli prime minister stopped talking and patiently waited. Then he said, “In our free societies you can have protests. You can’t have these protests in the farcical parliaments of Tehran and Tripoli. This is real democracy!” The applause was long and loud.

Netanyahu spoke of the teaching of hatred against Jews, the calls for Israel’s destruction, and the terrible dangers faced by his small country. He mentioned the Iranian effort to build a nuclear arsenal. “Militant Islam threatens the world…. Militant Islam could exact a horrific price from all of us… A nuclear armed Iran could ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It would make the nightmare of nuclear terrorism a clear and present danger….” He said that those who dismiss this threat had their “heads in the sand.” Furthermore, he added, those leaders that spew the venom of hate should be banned from every respectable forum on the planet. He asked America to send a message to Iran, that America will “never permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons.”

Perhaps the applause at this point was unthinking. Yet there was a great deal of applause in the chamber, giving the impression that a majority of the legislators were willing to endorse a preemptive strike on Iran. “If history has taught the Jewish people anything,” continued Netanyahu, “it is that we must take calls for our destruction seriously. We are a nation that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust. When we say ‘never again,’ we mean never again.” In other words, Israel will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. In response to this statement, the congressmen applauded. That is to say, they appeared to agree with the idea of a preemptive strike.

It would seem that the logic of preemptive war has somehow taken hold. Even President Obama appears swept up in the readiness to launch “unprovoked” airstrikes against Middle East dictators. Strategically speaking, Obama has adopted President Bush’s policy of bringing democracy to the Middle East. Looking back, it was November 2003 when President Bush gave a speech in favor of bringing democracy to the Muslim world. “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,” said Bush in a televised speech before the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington on 6 November 2003. Bush spoke of President Reagan’s call for freedom in Eastern Europe. “Reagan’s words,” said Bush, “were courageous and optimistic and entirely correct.” Then Bush made a prediction. He said that there would soon be new democracies emerging in yet another corner of the globe. “Our commitment to democracy is also tested in the Middle East,” he explained, “which is my focus today and must be the focus of American policy for decades to come.”

Similar sentiments are now expressed by President Obama, and by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The French and British have clearly demonstrated a similar commitment (see Libya). Yesterday it was America and its coalition partners toppling Saddam Hussein. Today it is the Europeans pushing for the removal of Muammar Gaddafi. It is remarkable to see how Bush’s logic is being picked up by others. While he was under attack, the former president refused to buckle under. He continued with his policy in the face of media hostility, falling popularity and bureaucratic resistance.

Bush did not accept that Islam was anti-democratic. “Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to the representative [form of] government,” noted Bush. “It should be clear to all that Islam – the faith of one-fifth of humanity – is consistent with democratic rule.” Bush gave no evidence for this, and he offered no detailed argument. His assertion was a statement of faith. He believed in the individual, regardless religion; and the individual wants freedom. Therefore, freedom would ultimately prevail.  

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama seem to be echoing the former U.S. president in their speeches. This is unmistakable, and worth noting. It was Bush who formulated it in the following way: The peace and security of the West ultimately depends on the emergence of democracy in the Muslim world. Dictators want weapons of mass destruction. Dictators support terrorism. With democracy and freedom you solve the problem of terrorism and nuclear proliferation at one stroke. This was described in Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, and it was alluded to by President Obama during his speech of the previous week. 

There is no doubt that freedom is desirable, and that freedom of a certain kind brings peace and prosperity. At the same time, however, freedom is no panacea. Ethnic strife, hatred and war come natural to human beings. It would be wonderful, indeed, if freedom were the answer to our Middle East troubles. While we pray it might be so, we should nonetheless be wary. In a book titled Because They Hate, Brigitte Gabriel wrote: “….there are still Americans who are unable or unwilling to recognize the nature or the extent of the threat presented by radical Islam. Whether motivated by naïve wishful thinking or rigid political correctness, they assert that Islam is a ‘moderate,’ ‘tolerant,’ and ‘peaceful’ religion that has been hijacked by ‘extremists.’ They ignore the repeated calls to jihad, Islamic holy war, emanating from the government-controlled mosques of so-called moderate Islamic countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia. They refuse to accept that in the Muslim world, extreme is mainstream.”

If Gabriel is right, democracy will not bring peace to the Middle East. It will bring war. “Islamic religious authorities and terrorist leaders repeatedly state that they will destroy the United States and Western civilization,” wrote Gabriel. “Unless we take them at their word, and defend ourselves, they will succeed….”