January 10, 2003

Democracy's disadvantage

The current conflict brewing between the West and the Arab World terrifies me. I said in a previous article that this war, whether fought diplomatically, militarily, or by a combination of the two, will dominate the beginning of the 21st Century just as the Cold War dominated the second half of the 20th Century. This statement needs revision. The war of civilizations will dominate the times to come, but in a way never before seen. America and her allies have two very large disadvantages: they are democratic and think rationally, and they expect that their enemies will do the same.

The disadvantage of being democratic stems from the inherent characteristics of an open society with freedoms of speech and press, and an authority derived from a majority, not an individual. In the battle of public opinion, the West always loses. This is not because there is more dissent among its citizens, but rather because they are not punished when they express their dissent, as is the case under totalitarian Arab regimes. If we went strictly by the "polls" as a measure of approval, then Saddam Hussein is by far the most popular ruler in history, winning last year's Iraqi elections with 100% of the vote.

In addition to losing the public opinion battle, the West also moves at a sluggish pace compared with the of the Arab world. This has nothing to do with superior organization or technology, but that a command from Hussein, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and Hafiz al-Asad of Syria is obeyed without second thought, while decisions in the United States and other western nations pass through legislative bodies, cabinets, and advisors before they are executed.

If that were all, I would be much more optimistic. However, Western nations have begun this fight with one potentially fatal incorrect assumption; that we are fighting an enemy who thinks the same way we do. During all of America's past conflicts, the enemy's moves could always be predicted and anticipated to a certain extent because their decisions, like our decisions, were executed while keeping two unmovable principles in mind: to minimize loss of life, and to emerge standing and able to continue living. During the Cold War, one thing that could always be counted on, was that the Soviets wouldn't be satisfied if everyone died. Their number one goal was survival. Even during World War II, the Nazi's goal was to rule the entire European continent and then go further.

The enemies of today do not follow this pattern. The goals of Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, and others include just one intention: to inflict the maximum possible damage on the West. Granted, these are some of the most extreme examples, but most current Arab rulers have shown little care for their own people's well-being, while building themselves palaces and secretly indulging in the very western economy and luxuries they claim are corrupting the Arab world. To these dictators, minimizing their own people's loss of life and ensuring their survival is at best a secondary goal, and at worst is simply not considered.

This is something that is very difficult to comprehend, but must be understood if the West intends to prevail in any conflict. This enemy cannot be confronted with the same mentality as were the Cold War or the world wars of the last century.

As a citizen of the free world, it is my hope that this clash of civilizations will not escalate into further armed conflict with loss of life, and that the current loathing of Americans and the West by the growing masses in the Arab world will subside. I also hope, with significant pessimism, that the Arab world has similar hopes for a peaceful resolution. Progress has already been shown in Turkey, where a government friendly to the West provides a bridge between our civilizations, and also in Iran, where a youth movement of students has appeared to protest suppression of free speech. I keep an open mind and hope that everyone else does as well.