TCS Daily

Liberalism in the Balance

By Michael Totten - March 8, 2004 12:00 AM

Pakistan's military dictator Pervez Musharraf pardoned Abdel Qadeer Khan for selling nuclear weapons secrets to North Korea, Libya, and Iran. Mr. Khan wasn't a second-rate scientist hawking cheap information. He's the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. If Saddam Hussein still lorded over Iraq, it isn't at all likely that Mr. Khan would have balked at helping him, too.

The Terror War is a race. On the one side we have a veritable axis of hard-line dictatorships trafficking in terrorism and genocide weapons. On the other we have the guilt-ridden self-doubting West that slowly and in fits tries to civilize and democratize the Islamic world.

Which will spread the farthest and fastest? Liberalism or terror? Democracy or nuclear-armed jihadist regimes?

The Triumph of Liberal Democracy

In The End of History and the Last Man Francis Fukuyama describes the dramatic expansion of liberal democracy in the 20th century. In the year 1900 only 13 countries in the world were liberal and democratic. In 1960 the number was as high as 36. And by 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, citizens of 61 countries had a liberal democratic system of government.

The implosion of the Soviet Union produced a shockwave that toppled regimes as far away as South America. But the tyrants of the Middle East were unmoved.

No Arab country is democratic. There are only a handful of non-Arab Islamic democracies. Freedom has a toe-hold in Iraq where the seeds of democracy are being planted. But the Arab world remains a political slum where threats still emerge as they always have from the unfree regions of the world.

If President Bush, the neoconservatives, and the liberal hawks have their way, the liberation of Iraq will produce another democratic shockwave. Democracy for Arabs is a good cause in its own right, but it's also in our self-interest. Liberal democracies don't go to war with each other. They have little use for extremist ideologies that inspire revolution and terror. Free societies acquire a healthy dose of pacifism, and anti-war movements keep reckless warmongers like Saddam Hussein out of power.

Perhaps it's presumptuous to say democracy is inevitable in the Middle East. Far worse to say that it is impossible. Democracy may have been born in the West, but the rise of free societies in Asia, Latin America, and Africa show that it's clearly exportable. Islam isn't incompatible with freedom. Look at Turkey. There's a Muslim country, right on Iraq's border, that has been a secular democracy for more than 80 years. Nor is there anything eternal and unchanging about Arabs that dictates a destiny of despotic social arrangements. In all likelihood Middle Easterners will lose their chains just as Germans, Japanese, Russians, and Latin Americans lost theirs before them. What we don't know and can't know is if their brutal regimes will first acquire the ultimate weapons of terror.

The Dark Side of Globalization

Globalization is a fact of the 21st century. The world is rapidly becoming one place. Nearly everything is available in some quantities everywhere. You can find Hollywood movies, French cheese, Turkish coffee, Chilean wine, Mexican tacos, and Iranian blogs on every continent except Antarctica. But it's not just the good stuff that gets exported.

Russia helped both Syria and Iran build nuclear reactors. North Korea claims it already has nuclear weapons, and openly threatens to sell them. In 2002 Iran began marketing chemical and biological weapons components in the Middle East and Africa. The Saudis say they may be in the market to buy nukes off the shelf. They already bought finished nuclear-capable warheads from China.

As more states acquire the worst weapons, it will be even easier for the remaining rogue regimes to pick up some of their own. Proliferation is bound to reach a tipping point where nukes will be available almost everywhere.

It's only a matter of time before the Middle East is stable and democratic. It's also only a matter of time before it's armed with nuclear weapons.

The Stakes

The terrorists and armies of the Middle East do not and will not have the military strength to impose a totalitarian version of Islam on the rest of the world. If they could, it wouldn't last long. Even in the Middle East it has a short shelf-life. Those who actually have to live under this system, like the Iranians today and the Afghans under the Taliban, struggle with all their might to throw it off. It's another of the 20th Century's dead-end ideologies. Let there be no doubt. We are going to win the Terror War. The only question is when and how we will win.

The greatest irony of the post-911 world is that so many Democrats hate the Bush Doctrine. Liberation, anti-proliferation, and nation-building are activist and liberal, not defensive and conservative. The perceived immorality of our actions may weigh heavily on their souls. But it's nothing compared to what we might have to face if our goal of limited war for democracy fails.

If the Middle East gets nukes before it gets freedom, it will be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to wage a war on liberal grounds. We'll be back where we were during the Cold War. The only difference is that the equation of Mutually Assured Destruction won't balance. Say what you will about the Communists. They did not want to martyr themselves to destroy us.

If terrorists detonate a portable nuke in a Western city, what's left of the Terror War will be nasty, brutish, and short. The West's so-far limited response will instantly become total and, in effect, genocidal. Any and all WMD-producing states will be considered targets for a unilateral nuclear counterattack, starting with capital cities. The UN will not be consulted. Millions could die in a day.

So the question is this. Will we win this war through liberation and nation-building? Or will we win by turning the Middle East into an ashtray? We are not going to win by sitting it out. Hans Blix will never disarm North Korea. Kofi Annan will never remove the Baathists from Syria, Al Qaeda from the tribal regions of Pakistan, or Hezbollah from the Bekka Valley of Lebanon.

We could win this war quickly if we were willing to annihilate enemy states. Our humane Western values are holding us back, which is exactly as it should be. But we can't slow down. We don't have time to change course or take a breather. This is a race with the highest possible stakes. While we argue about whether we should even be in the race in the first place, our enemies are moving as fast as they can. If anti-war activists persuade us to scale back the scope of the war, aside from increasing the probability of a massive attack on America, they'll make it more likely we'll be forced to win ruthlessly than with our moral values intact.

Michael J. Totten writes from Portland, Oregon. Visit his online home here. He recently wrote for TCS about what to do about Saddam Hussein.


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