In 2003, more than a month before the invasion of Iraq, I wrote in the Weekly Standard that the forthcoming fall of Baghdad "may turn out to be one of those hinge moments in history events like the storming of the Bastille or the fall of the Berlin Wall after which everything is different. If the occupation goes well (admittedly a big if), it may mark the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better."
At the time, this kind of talk was dismissed by pretty much everyone not employed by the White House as neocon nuttiness. Democracy in the Middle East? Introduced by way of Iraq? You've got to be kidding! The only real debate in sophisticated circles was whether those who talked of democracy were simply naive fools or whether their risible rhetoric was meant to hide some sinister motive.
Well, who's the simpleton now? Those who dreamed of spreading democracy to the Arabs or those who denied that it could ever happen? Of course, the outcome is far from clear, and even in Iraq democracy is hardly well established. Yet some pretty extraordinary things have been happening in the last few weeks.
The most extraordinary event of all, of course, is Iraq's Jan. 30 election, when 8 million voters cast ballots despite insurgent bombs and bullets. Weeks earlier, Palestinian voters had trooped to the polls to elect a successor to Yasser Arafat. They chose Mahmoud Abbas, who proclaims his desire (sincerely or not) to end the armed struggle against Israel. Then, on Feb. 10, Saudi Arabia held its first-ever municipal elections. Only men could vote, but this was still a crack in the hitherto absolute authority of the royal family.
Now, in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has suddenly pledged to hold a multi-candidate election for president this fall. Will he allow a genuine contest? That opposition leader Ayman Nour remains in jail is hardly encouraging. But something significant has happened when the pharaoh feels the need to proclaim, "Egypt needs more freedom and democracy."
Bashar Assad, the Syrian strongman, is also feeling the heat. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a Feb. 14 bombing widely blamed on Syria has stirred worldwide outrage. Rivals from across the Lebanese political spectrum have united to demand the end of Syrian occupation. France and the United States, normally as divided as Lebanese Christians and Muslims, have joined to support a U.N. resolution calling for Syrian withdrawal. Washington already had made palpable its anger over Syrian backing of terrorism inside Iraq by passing the Syrian Accountability Act of 2003, which imposes sanctions on Damascus.
Assad is trying to deflect this growing backlash through token steps such as removing some troops from Lebanon and handing over Saddam Hussein's half brother along with 29 other Baathists to Iraqi custody. But the people of Lebanon will be satisfied with nothing less than true independence. If they succeed, the Baathist regime in Damascus, which has mulcted its richer neighbor for decades, could be a goner.
This week, tens of thousands of anti-Syrian demonstrators in Beirut forced the resignation of the pro-Syrian government of Prime Minister Omar Karami. Many are already starting to compare the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon to the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
It would be the height of hubris to claim that all these developments are due to U.S. action alone. Pressure has been building up in the Middle East pressure cooker for decades; the long-suffering people of the region do not need any outside prompting to list a long litany of grievances against their dysfunctional governments. But it was the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent democratic elections there that blew the lid off the region.
"It's strange for me to say it," says Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who would never be mistaken for a Bush backer, "but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq."
"Now with the new Bush administration," confirms former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, "we feel a stronger determination in liberating Lebanon and in promoting democracy in the Middle East."
Maybe, just maybe, those neocons weren't so nutty after all.