It is increasingly clear that the Bush administration’s nation-building policy in Iraq is merely one component of an ambitious project to transform the Middle East politically.  That goal is consistent with the principles that President Bush expressed in his Second Inaugural Address, in which he announced that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.”

Bush’s bold statement symbolizes what Fred Barnes, executive editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, has described as a “shake-up-the-world” view.  Such an approach normally does not appeal to the most powerful country in the international system.  Historically, hegemonic powers, because they owe their dominant position to current international arrangements, tend to pursue conservative policies designed to preserve and enhance the status quo.  Upstart revisionist powers are the ones that tend to embrace revolutionary policies.  It is unprecedented for an incumbent hegemon to advocate revolutionary change.  Thus, the Bush administration is venturing into uncharted waters.

The rationale for the administration’s policy is not merely that it would be humane to bring the blessings of democracy to the Middle East (and other regions).  That is certainly one component, but the President and his foreign-policy team also believe that promoting democracy is the most effective antiterror strategy and will, therefore, enhance America’s security.  “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” the President stressed in his Inaugural Address.

In a speech to the National Defense University on March 8, Bush reiterated the argument that strengthening democracy is the only hope of stemming terrorism and protecting America’s security.  “It should be clear that the advance of democracy leads to peace, because governments that respect the rights of their people also respect the rights of their neighbors,” he said.  “It should be clear the best antidote to radicalism and terror is the tolerance kindled in free societies.”

In both speeches, the president conflated democracy and liberty.  That is a potentially dangerous misconception, because the former does not necessarily produce the latter.  Fareed Zakaria, formerly an editor at Foreign Affairs and now at Newsweek, aptly used the term “illiberal democracy” to describe political systems that have most of the democratic mechanics (periodic, more or less competitive elections; a national legislature with credible powers) but lack the rule of law, meaningful protections for civil liberties, and strong, vibrant civil societies.  There are a considerable number of illiberal democracies in the world today—most notably Russia under Vladimir Putin.  Moreover, even some of the democracies that most Americans would consider liberal often engage in thoroughly illiberal behavior toward certain groups.  Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the discriminatory policies of Estonia and Latvia toward their ethnic Russian inhabitants are prominent examples.

It seems a safe assumption that the Bush administration hopes for the emergence of liberal rather than illiberal democracies in the Middle East.  True, even the latter might be an improvement on the assortment of full-blown autocracies that are the norm in the region today.  When members of the Bush administration speak of a political transformation of the Middle East, however, it is apparent that they have something more ambitious in mind than modest improvements.  The question then arises: If democratic dominoes fall throughout the Middle East, what will be the probable characteristics of successor regimes?  Of course, no one can be certain about either the short-term or the long-term consequences of such a volatile process, but the nature of public opinion in the Middle East offers some hints—and rather sobering hints—about the likely near-term results.

Public-opinion surveys in the Middle East reveal a massive reservoir of hostility toward U.S. policies.  It cannot be emphasized enough that the original source of that hostility was largely a reaction against Washington’s policies, not American culture or values.  Michael Scheuer stressed that distinction in his seminal book, Imperial Hubris, but he is not the only expert to debunk the myth that the radical Islamic terrorist threat arose from a reflexive hatred of American liberty.  Even the report of the September 11 Commission conceded that hostility in the Islamic world was directed at specific U.S. policies.  Likewise, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board Task Force Report on Strategic Communication issued in September 2004 concluded bluntly: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.”  Unfortunately, that may be changing; there are now signs that their anger at the United States is becoming less discriminating.

The two most recent and comprehensive surveys were those conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in March 2004, which assessed public opinion in Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, and Pakistan (as well as five European countries), and a six-nation survey of Arab countries (Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt) conducted by Zogby International in June 2004.  Both found widespread opposition to U.S. policies and a lack of trust in Washington’s motives.  The trends also were not encouraging; the extent of opposition was greater than in previous surveys.

The Pew survey found that 66 percent of respondents in Morocco, 73 percent in Turkey, and 57 percent in Pakistan did not believe that the United States was sincere in her desire to promote democracy.  Similarly, 66 percent in Morocco, 51 percent in Jordan, and 58 percent in Pakistan believed that Washington was using the “War on Terror” as a pretext for other objectives.  When asked what America’s real motives were, large percentages cited such goals as controlling Middle Eastern oil, protecting Israel, and trying to dominate the world.  More than 70 percent of Jordanians cited each of the first two motives, and 61 percent cited the third motive.  When asked to rate Osama bin Laden, 45 percent of respondents in Morocco had a favorable opinion; 55 percent in Jordan; and 65 percent in Pakistan.  When asked to rate George W. Bush, the favorable results were eight percent, three percent, and seven percent, respectively.

The Zogby survey revealed similar results.  For example, 85 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia, 86 percent in Lebanon, and 86 percent in the UAE considered U.S. policies toward Arabs to be unfair.  When asked what their first thought was when they hear the word America, 49.5 percent in Saudi Arabia answered either “unfair foreign policy” or “imperialistic”—far more than for any other characteristics.  In Jordan, the figure was 47.5 percent; in Lebanon, 31 percent; in the UAE, 37.5 percent; and in Egypt, 32 percent.  Even worse, most of the other responses were neutral to negative in nature.  When asked what the United States could do to improve her image in the Arab world, the top three answers were: Stop supporting Israel; get out of Iraq; and change overall U.S. Middle East policy.

In short, attitudes toward the United States in the Middle East are extremely and increasingly negative.  When that is combined with the pervasive evidence of mounting public enthusiasm for conservative brands of Islam, the prospects for the emergence of Western-style democracies in the region are not favorable.  The very strong showing of Hamas-backed candidates in municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza and similar impressive showings by Islamic fundamentalist candidates in Saudi Arabia’s recent local elections are harbingers.  Moreover, if democratic systems accurately reflect public sentiment, the prospects for pro-American governments being elected are even more dismal.

The Bush administration may win its high-stakes gamble to transform the Middle East into a bastion of liberal, freedom-loving democracies, and, if it does, both that region and the world as a whole would be much better off.  I would also concede that U.S. officials are right when they argue that the existing policy is probably not sustainable much longer and, in any case, has produced malignant results.  Yet the odds are against the administration winning its bet.

It is imperative to avoid the trap of assuming that the only choices are the status quo or a grandiose project of democratic nation-building.  There are several things that Washington could do to improve America’s reputation in the Middle East—and, indeed, throughout the Islamic world.

First, exit Iraq promptly and completely.  Few events have enraged opinion in the Islamic world (especially the Arab world) more than the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The pervasive belief that Washington intends to maintain permanent bases in that country exacerbates the situation.  The United States has allayed some of the worst suspicions that Muslims harbored by orchestrating democratic elections for the Iraqi national assembly.  It is essential, however, that the Bush administration exploit the window of opportunity afforded by those elections to transfer responsibility for internal security to the new government and begin to withdraw U.S. forces.  That withdrawal needs to be finished no later than six months after the new constitution is adopted and nationwide elections are held for a successor government.  Washington’s position should be that, from then on, Iraq’s fate is up to Iraqis.

Second, adopt an arm’s-length relationship with friendly autocrats.  Another potent source of anger among Muslim publics is the cozy relationship the United States has maintained with the likes of Hosni Mubarak, the Saudi royal family, and a succession of Pakistani strongmen.  There may be times when vital U.S. security interests require some cooperation with unsavory regimes.  At the moment, for example, the United States has little choice but to work with Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf to eradicate the remaining elements of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and western Pakistan.  Even in cases where cooperation in unavoidable, however, the United States should refrain from expressing approval of the regime—much less appearing to be the regime’s patron or bodyguard.  Washington’s multibillion-dollar subsidy to the Mubarak government is precisely the kind of relationship that we should avoid.  When the United States gets too close to autocratic allies, she risks becoming the target of popular wrath when those regimes are eventually overthrown.  That should have been the lesson of America’s excessively close relationship with the shah of Iran from 1953 to 1979.  Instead of moving from the traditional policy of propping up Middle Eastern thugs to a policy of seeking to unseat Middle Eastern thugs, we should adopt a third course: leaving the thugs alone as much as possible and waiting to see how they fare with their own people.

Third, adopt an even-handed policy on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  Most Muslims believe that the United States reflexively supports all Israeli governmental actions.  Washington must make a greater effort to distance itself from Israel’s policies and to phase out its three-billion-dollar per year subsidy to that country.  The United States cannot be an honest broker in a complex dispute when she acts so ostentatiously as the financial and diplomatic supporter of one party.  In addition to taking a more neutral position, the United States needs to adopt a lower profile.  U.S. leaders should make it clear to both Israel and the Palestinians that Washington cannot be the architect of a peace accord.  The belligerents will have to do that themselves, with the United States playing, at most, a low-key mediation role that is requested by both sides.  Arab populations may not be entirely happy with that posture, since they want Washington to pressure Israel and “deliver” Israeli concessions.  But they are more likely to respect a clearly principled position than the hypocritical policy the United States has pursued to this point.

Fourth, greatly narrow the doctrine of preemptive war.  There may be occasions when the United States must take military action to thwart an imminent threat to her security.  That is different, though, from the Bush administration’s conception of preemptive war, which appears to be that the United States has a right to attack another country if there is even the possibility that the country might, at some point in the indefinite future, pose a security threat.  The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq both frightened and angered Muslim populations.  The fear that the United States may attack Iran because of that country’s nuclear program has intensified both the fear and anger.  All too many Muslims believe that the United States intends to occupy and dominate the entire Middle East.  Narrowing the doctrine of preemptive war, combined with a clear statement from the White House that the United States has no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of Muslim countries absent a clear and compelling threat to America’s security, would help to decrease anti-American sentiment over time.

There is little doubt that the winds of political change are beginning to sweep the Middle East.  Supporters of the Bush administration’s policies argue that the U.S. mission in Iraq has been the essential catalyst.  It likely has been a factor, but there are others that have been equally important.  Yasser Arafat’s death has created hope for the first time in years that there may be a chance for meaningful progress toward solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri triggered an upsurge of nationalist resistance to Syria’s occupation of that country.  Those developments had nothing to do with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq or the holding of democratic elections there.

An even more crucial factor may be the emergence of Arab mass-media outlets.  The existence of Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and other satellite networks (together with growing access to the internet) has broken the monopoly on information that autocratic regimes had long exercised.  Muslim populations are now getting significant, unfiltered information about the conduct of those regimes, and their sense of outrage is beginning to be translated into political action.  Although the autocracies still have potent mechanisms to retain their hold on power, significant political change is likely in most Middle Eastern countries over the next decade.

The United States may not be entirely happy with the nature of those changes, however.  It is symptomatic of the dual-edged quality of change in the Middle East that Al Jazeera, which has done so much to break the informational monopoly of the corrupt autocrats, also features numerous news stories with a pronounced anti-American perspective.

One might hope that the Bush administration wins its high-stakes gamble to promote the emergence of liberal, secular, pro-American democracies in the Middle East.  That, however, is not the way to bet.  If democracy sweeps the Middle East anytime soon, it is more likely to bring to power populist, Islamist, anti-American regimes.  That will certainly be the outcome if Washington does not alter the policies that have so infuriated Muslim populations.  Before the United States proceeds further down the path of vigorous promotion of democracy in the Middle East, Americans had better ask themselves if they are prepared to live with the results.