Can democracy defeat terrorism? [Archives:2005/873/Opinion]

September 1 2005

By Joseph S. Nye
The Bush administration provided three major rationales for going to war in Iraq. Only one remains at all credible: the need to transform the Middle East through democratization and thereby undercut support for terrorists. But does this argument really have any more basis in reality than the administration's previous claims of an “imminent” threat from weapons of mass destruction or Saddam Hussein's alleged support for al-Qaeda?

With post-invasion inspectors concluding that no WMD stockpiles existed, and intelligence agencies now convinced that the Iraq war's net effect has been to boost al-Qaeda recruitment throughout the Islamic world, the Bush administration is understandably emphasizing the claim about democratization. Indeed, it has become a dominant theme of Bush's second term. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it in a recent speech in Cairo, “Freedom and democracy are the only ideas powerful enough to overcome hatred, division, and violence.”

Cynics view this as merely an argument of convenience, one that has gained in prominence only because the other two rationales for the war collapsed. More importantly, skeptics also doubt the validity of the administration's argument linking democracy and reduction of terrorism. After all, British citizens in one of the world's oldest democracies carried out the recent terrorist attacks in London. Similarly, an American citizen carried out the worst terrorist attack in the United States before September 11, 2001.

The skeptics have a point, but they go too far. For one thing, it is still too early to judge the merits of the argument. A full assessment of the Iraq war and its effects on the Middle East will take a decade or more. Clearly, the January 2005 election there was a positive step for the region. In the last six months, there have been national elections in Lebanon and local elections in Saudi Arabia. Egypt has amended its constitution to allow it presidential election to be contested. Further elections are scheduled in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. As Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader said, “It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq.”

Perhaps that outcome shouldn't seem so strange. After all, as the columnist David Brooks recently observed, “If there is one soft power gift that America does possess, it is the tendency to imagine new worlds.” In other words, the invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent increase in the rhetoric of democracy in the Middle East, may have changed frames of reference about the status quo.

Democracy, however, is more than just elections. It also requires tolerance of minorities and respect for individual rights, as well as the development of effective institutions for resolving political conflicts in divided societies. If this occurs in Iraq, it may provide some post hoc legitimization for the war.

But such an outcome remains in doubt. In the short run, the invasion of Iraq has created an intensifying insurgency and incipient civil war. The presence of foreign troops creates a stimulus for nationalist and jihadist responses. The future of Iraq, not to mention democracy there, remains uncertain at best.

Nevertheless, we can still conclude from the Iraqi experience that while the development of democracy can be aided from outside, it cannot easily be imposed by force. While it is true that Germany and Japan became democratic after American occupation, it required their total defeat in a devastating war, and a seven-year occupation. Moreover, Germany and Japan were relatively homogeneous societies with some prior experience of democracy. It is hard to see such conditions repeated in today's world.

The Bush administration may be correct in arguing that the extremely high costs and risks of promoting democracy are less than the costs and risks of allowing the authoritarian status quo in the Middle east to persist indefinitely. But democracy is not the only instrument for a transformation that addresses the roots of terrorism. The development of civil societies, economic growth, and openness to the world are equally important. So is employing young men, educating young women, and addressing values of liberty and justice, which means ameliorating the sense of indignity in the region that stems from issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Moreover, democracy alone will not convert the current crop of extremist jihadis to peaceful change. If anything, too rapid a democratic transition may destabilize governments and enhance the extremists' opportunities to wreak havoc.

But, in the longer term, the slow, steady progress of democratization can provide a sense of hope for moderates, creating a plausible vision of a better future – the essence of soft power – that undercuts the message of hate and violence promoted by the extremists. Democratization can surely help remove some of the sources of rage that fuel terrorism, but it is only part of the solution.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2005.