Waking from the Democratic Dream

The belief that the Middle East will quickly transition to liberal democracy is rooted in ignorance of the region's history and cultural values.

The time has come for the United States to give up on the notion of democracy in the Middle East. It isn’t going to happen, at least not anytime soon, and the country is starting to look silly with so many of its intellectuals clinging to a notion that has no basis in reality. Just look at Iraq, set upon a course that many Americans thought would lead to democracy, and paid for with the blood of more than four thousand American dead and some thirty-three thousand wounded. What do we see in today’s Iraq? A budding dictatorship moving in the direction of the last one—but with a big difference: this one is dominated by Shiites, a power arrangement that appreciably enhances the regional influence of neighboring Iran, considered by many Americans as their country’s most nettlesome adversary.

Look at Egypt, where the “Arab Spring” set American hearts aflutter with the prospect of democratic pluralism. The lesson there is that it’s impossible to overestimate the willingness of the traditional power blocs to upend any democratic structures or procedures that threaten their position and prerogatives in that venerable land. Consider tiny Kuwait, where the highest court just annulled the duly run parliamentary elections of February, in which opposition forces made serious gains against the country’s status quo forces. And look at Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where any democratic sentiments are quickly quashed whenever they gain any apparent traction at all.

And yet in the face of all this, and more, many idealistic Americans hold fast to the idea that if we can just provide assistance and guidance and apply sufficient military power against the bad guys, democratic institutions eventually will blossom in the region. The problem here isn’t just that this notion lacks any shred of realism; more significantly, it undergirds the constant call for America to apply military force in the region on behalf of democracy . . . or the prospect of democracy . . . or at least the prospect that some Middle Eastern nation might begin a long journey toward democracy. Consider, for example, Libya, where the demise of the dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi led many Americans to visualize the stirrings of a democratic impulse, made possible in large measure by America’s judicious application of force.

But then it turned out that the militias that emerged during the anti-Qaddafi fervor weren’t about to relinquish their weapons or their territorial gains and that the country couldn’t rise above the chaos of tribal, ethnic and sectarian strife. It isn’t clear that Libya is really a nation at present. True, we don’t often hear today the kind of rhetoric that President George W. Bush unfurled during his second inaugural address in January 2005, when he proclaimed America’s “ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” That now is seen as idle talk without any foundation in serious thought. But that perception doesn’t stop many from still seeing America’s goal as the spread of democracy—and democracy’s goal as eradicating tyranny.

The essential problem with all this is that it is grounded in ignorance. Americans can’t fathom the power of the Islamic idea that there is no spiritual “I,” but only a spiritual “We” that has entered into the quickened body as a reflection of the divine light. The Arabic word for this, as Oswald Spengler points out, is Islam—submission. He adds that the Western religious sacrament of contrition “presupposes the strong and free will that can overcome itself. But it is precisely the impossibility of an Ego as a free power in the face of the divine that constitutes ‘Islam.’” He explains that the Islamic prime sacrament is Grace, which knows no such thing as free will.

As Islam emerged in the seventh century, the consensus of the community became by definition infallible. As Muhammad put it, “My people can never agree in an error.” This concept of an infallible community consensus lies at the heart of two fundamental Islamic religious ideas—first, that the individual is meaningless outside this infallible consensus and, second, that government and religion remain inseparable. Those ideas were incorporated into Islam in the seventh century and remain to this day bedrock maxims of Islamic thought—and powerful doctrinal impediments to the democratic impulse.

Americans know that a central tenet of Islam is an absolute conviction that government and religion are intertwined as one. But they can’t bring themselves to see that this perception is fundamental and embedded in the culture of the region. Nor can they see that this reality will always militate against the democratic impulses that inevitably spring up from time to time within the hopes and dreams of many people of the region.

Further, many Americans can’t see that many secular mores and folkways of the region are the product of the bedouin culture, developed over centuries of isolation in an austere and unforgiving land. As David Pryce-Jones writes in his book The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs, Middle Eastern nationalism “simply adds what might be called an outer ring” to the tribal customs and judgments of Middle Eastern society.

This is particularly true of what he calls the "power-challenge dialectic," a residue from the tribal experience that both guides and constricts behavior at the national level. In tribal society, all males are theoretically equal and capable of exercising authority. Thus, to gain power a man must develop a following by demonstrating that he is heroic, ruthless, tough, cruel and understanding—in short, commanding. Since there are no formal means of selecting leaders, the informal realities unleash the power-challenge dialectic, in which challenge is the only way to get power and the accumulation of power invites challenge. As Pryce-Jones explains, the power-challenge dialectic has survived as a tribal legacy, perpetuating “absolute and despotic rule, preventing the evolution of those pluralist institutions that alone allow people to participate in the processes of the state and so to identify with it.”

The story of Western civilization is in significant measure the story of the slow, inexorable ascent of liberal democracy. It is a grand story, full of civic tension, brutality, sacrifice, intellectual exploration, heroism and triumph. But this is not the story of Middle Eastern Islam, which emanates from a separate cultural etymology and distinct cultural sensibility. It isn’t realistic to expect that the peoples of this cultural heritage will embrace in any serious way the structures, sensibilities and practices of an alien culture, however successful it has been in comparison.

But don’t take my word for it. Just look at developments in the Middle East in the wake of the American effort to remake Iraq and the Arab Spring of 2011. Do we see there an inexorable push toward democracy, or rather Pryce-Jones’s power-challenge dialectic at work? Anyone who sees the former should probably take a second look, but with a cold eye of realism.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His next book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians, is due out on June 26 from Simon & Schuster.