The Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance, By David Gardner

The West claims that it wants democracy in the Middle East, but is it ready for the consequences?

"Always keep a hold of nurse/ for fear of finding something worse." David Gardner does not actually quote Hilaire Belloc but, according to his wide-ranging and provocative new book, the last lines of his "Cautionary Tale" could well be used to describe Western policy towards the Middle East for most of the past century. Europe and America have found it convenient to prop up or do business with an array of autocrats, differing only in the degrees of repression they inflicted, because we fear the alternative that democracy may unleash – the "men in turbans" – even more. "The Arab world," writes Gardner, remains "marooned in tyranny", while those who try to "claw their way out of that pit" find that the West keeps "stamping on their fingers".

These are harsh words, although their truth is evident in the West's long-term alliances with the absolute monarchies of the Gulf; in its shameful inaction during the Shia and Kurdish uprisings in Iraq; in its friendly relations with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who, since 1981, has kept his country under emergency laws that allow for indefinite detention without trial; and in its tolerance of the secret police state run by the father-and-son Syrian presidents, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad (the latter of whom enjoys a rather innocuous reputation in Britain, perhaps because it is hard to think of a man who used to be a London ophthalmologist as a callous dictator – Gardner sets the reader straight on that one).

The consequence of our failure to stand by our values, this loss of our "democratic nerve", says Gardner, has been the rise of the Islamic extremism we feared all along. "Damming up [the] political mainstream" has given "violent force to the Islamist tributaries". The last chance of the book's title is for the West to stop indulging in "shallow realism" or ignorant meddling (as in Iraq). Instead, we must pursue a just and clear-headed solution to Israel-Palestine, embrace Iran in a workable bargain, and do everything we can to open paths to democracy throughout the region.

The first two, many would agree with. Gardner, an associate editor and former Middle East editor at the Financial Times, is blunt about Israel's choice: land or peace. He points out that the long, violent stalemate since the creation of that state has suited many Arab leaders, who could justify their despotism by holding up the threat of aggression from the "Zionist entity". An Iran given status and security, Gardner thinks, could be freed from the "faux nationalist blackmail of the mullahs", and cease to be a hostage of a history that includes both the Anglo-American coup against the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the Tehran embassy hostage crisis of 1979-81, and the bombing of the American barracks in Beirut that killed 241 US servicemen in 1982.

The third, however, is a somewhat trickier proposition. Gardner himself admits that letting go of despotic nurse could lead to something much, much worse. "Those who argue for democracy," he says, "often do so in the mistaken belief that it will bring stability to the region. It may not." It could also "open a long period of illiberal politics". Democratic elections have already elevated Hamas to government in Gaza and Hezbollah to a coalition in Lebanon, and there can be no doubt that most, if not all, administrations in the Middle East would have a strongly Islamist complexion if democratically elected. Gardner's hope is that such governments would eventually come to resemble Turkey's AKP, the Justice and Development Party of the Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. The AKP is Islamist, but presents itself as moderate, and has won power twice now in a state that is constitutionally secular. This best case scenario would see governments of a socially and religiously conservative, but also dynamic and entrepreneurial stripe, take the reins. It remains a hope, though, not a prediction to which can be ascribed any great accuracy. It is just as likely that theocratic regimes would be elected whose first act was to raise the democratic drawbridge behind them. Gardner quotes former president Khatami of Iran approvingly: "If religion comes into conflict with freedom, then it will be religion that suffers." But what happened when he was in office was quite the opposite; much of his legislation was blocked by the religious Council of Guardians, and 2,000 fellow reformist candidates were banned from standing for election.

Either way, there will be precious little room for the liberal, secular values that are implicit when the West uses that totemic word, "democracy". Gardner correctly identifies this problem: "Liberals tend to be coteries who like whisky and the West but the masses incline towards men in beards." Freedom and liberty are often used as synonyms, but that is a dangerous elision in this context. The freedom Gardner advocates we encourage in the Middle East may bring Islamists into the political mainstream and consign to the margins extremists who prefer the bomb to the ballot box. We should not, however, expect that freedom to bring any advancement of liberty for women, for free thinkers or non-Muslims, for homosexuals, whisky drinkers and all those of "degenerate" tendencies whose freedom of expression is an integral part of the West's concept of liberal democracy.

Gardner is clear-eyed about the damage that "Arab exceptionalist" support for despotism has done in the region, and has managed to cover an impressive swathe of history, with concise overviews of Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel-Palestine in particular. He castigates the West for viewing the Middle East and its interminable, seemingly intractable disputes with "a curious mix of bleakness and complacency". But, although anyone who reads his book is certain to have any complacency dispelled, I fear the conclusion to be drawn from his arguments is far bleaker than he allows. The chances of democracy producing Middle Eastern states in which that liberty we so treasure thrives are slim. This particular "last chance" saloon serves a bitter, unpalatable brew that we are going to have to learn to swallow, like it or not.

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