Ex-Pentagon Aide Cautions Neocons On Mideast Push

By E.J. Kessler

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.
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A former top-level Pentagon official is opening up a new front in the Middle East: He’s taking aim at the neoconservatives who he says have been viewing the Iraqi election and other recent regional developments as an invitation to a full-scale democracy push.

“We’re not going to transform the Middle East overnight,” Dov Zakheim told the Forward in a telephone interview, adding that democracy “isn’t a short-term enterprise or one that can be won by force of arms.”

Zakheim, who served as under secretary of defense during much of President Bush’s first term, said: “I support the idea of democracy, but we have to be cautious about it. This is not the first time Iraq has had an election. We shouldn’t view the future with rose-colored glasses.”

What’s more, the former Pentagon official said, those neoconservatives who viewed President Bush’s January 20 inaugural speech as a ringing call for remaking the Middle East are deluding themselves. In recent days, neoconservatives have been beating the drums for action to destabilize the governments of both Iran and Syria.

“What the president is saying is that democracy is a value. He has not laid out a specific blueprint,” Zakheim said. “The president is a pretty hard-headed guy…. Loads of presidents have laid out aspirations, in the tradition of Kennedy and Reagan.”

Zakheim honed his arguments in a speech January 28 before the World Affairs Councils of America’s national conference in Washington.

Using examples from the 20th-century history of the Middle East, Zakheim maintained that democracy has never taken hold in the region because it “was under Ottoman rule for centuries, and thus could not spawn viable political institutions.” Also, he added, “religious values, representation with authorities… [and] economic security simply appears to mean more to the average citizens of Middle Eastern states than does democracy. To assume that their hierarchy of values should mirror our own is no less Kiplingesque than to argue that they are incapable of becoming democratic at some future date.”

Zakheim told the Forward that little of what he recently has been saying conflicts with Bush’s vision.

“If I’m in disagreement with anyone, it’s the neocons, but this is not a neocon administration by any stretch,” Zakheim said. “A lot of neocons outside the administration have been viewing everything the administration does with their own perspective. They want to force the democratic issue across the board in the Middle East. It’s not consonant with the reality on the ground.… The facts and history don’t support them.”

Neoconservatives scoffed at Zakheim’s arguments.

“Zakheim’s objections to the ‘neocon’ idea of tying foreign policy to human rights and democratization took quite a blow when Iraqis marched to the polls two days after his speech,” Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, retorted in an e-mail message. “Democracy is a process. Friendly dictators may be better than prickly democracies for businessmen, but not for American national security. Friendly dictators can also backfire. Isn’t that the story of Washington’s relations with Baghdad? Consistent betrayal of people’s democratic aspirations can also turn ugly. Take Iran: In 1953 and 1979, American officials sided with a friendly dictator over the will of the people, and just look at where that got us. We shouldn’t make the same mistake three times.”

“It’s not only arrogant, but ignorant if not racist to suggest that certain peoples aren’t capable of democracy,” Rubin continued. “Arabs who live in the West have no problem with democracy. That suggests the problem is not culture, but rather rule of law. I’d argue that Zakheim’s tendency to look down upon the ‘natives’ is … Kiplingesque.”

Finally, Rubin argued, “The president’s job is to deliver the vision. The bureaucracy’s job is to draw the blueprint. What stymies foreign policy is when policymakers don’t all work toward the same goals, or when they cast aside guiding principles for wont of ever more specific instructions.”

Zakheim, an Orthodox Jew, has a history of speaking his mind. In June 2004, after he left the government, he gave an interview to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz in which he warned that the Israeli government “has in the past three years lost a strategic opportunity to make progress with the Palestinians” and that it was making “a huge mistake” if it thought that the Bush administration wasn’t eager to promote a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict. He’s also a longtime critic of Israel’s settlers.

In his January 28 speech, Zakheim argued that the “neo-Wilsonian notion that somehow America is the best vehicle for spreading democracy, or even that it is in America’s interests that the Middle East be politically ‘transformed’ in the near term, may be as fanciful, and indeed, as counterproductive, as was Woodrow Wilson’s own vision nearly a century ago.” In its policies abroad, Zakheim stated, the United States “must consider whether democracy is always superior to other forms of government” because “it is not merely democracies that we seek to support, but, far more important, friendly democracies” and “the choice between unfriendly, or even hostile, democracies, and friendly, or even supportive, authoritarian regimes is not a foregone conclusion in favor of the former.”

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