Can Democracy Defeat Terrorism?

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.”