Don't be fooled: Middle East democracy has only the most tenuous link with war in Iraq

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A question that was once only whispered is growing into a mighty roar. Could it be that George Bush - the inexperienced, born-again, messianic chancer, as he was widely depicted - was right all along? Right about Iraq, right about toppling Saddam Hussein, right about the universal appeal of democracy, right in his apparent belief that by willpower and force of US arms he could reshape the Middle East in America's image - and perhaps the rest of the undemocratic world as well?

A question that was once only whispered is growing into a mighty roar. Could it be that George Bush - the inexperienced, born-again, messianic chancer, as he was widely depicted - was right all along? Right about Iraq, right about toppling Saddam Hussein, right about the universal appeal of democracy, right in his apparent belief that by willpower and force of US arms he could reshape the Middle East in America's image - and perhaps the rest of the undemocratic world as well?

On the other side of the Atlantic, many sense that the tide has already turned in President Bush's favour. In Europe, too, those who argued in favour of a highly unpopular war have seized on the multiplying signs of change to justify their case anew. Whatever the setbacks of the past two years, the misjudgements, the losses and the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, the investment stands to be vindicated many times over as the dominoes of the Middle East tip each other, one by one, into democracy.

Iraq, they insist, was the necessary beginning. Without the removal of Saddam Hussein, they contend, we would not be witnessing the extended franchise for local elections in Saudi Arabia, President Mubarak's unheralded announcement that Egypt would hold direct and contested elections for the presidency and the demonstrations in Beirut that have brought Syria's undertaking to withdraw all its troops within one month. Nor would we have seen the Palestinian elections that breathed new life into the moribund peace process.

For supporters of the war, every one of these developments can be interpreted, directly or indirectly, as vindication of President Bush's foresight - and their own wisdom in aligning themselves with his judgement. Like him, they were right all along. They just wobbled a little when the aftermath of the Iraq invasion became so messy and began to cost so many lives. Seen in the great sweep of history, the horrors of Iraq will shrink to mere bumps on the otherwise smooth highway to democracy.

Such an interpretation may be seductive - but it is self-serving, dangerous and, above all, wrong. The connection between the invasion of Iraq and the faltering steps towards democracy in parts of the region is tenuous at best. Yes, it was heart-warming to see Iraqis voting in free elections and, yes, these elections could probably not have happened without the removal of Saddam. Great tribute must also be paid to the courage of those who risked their lives to vote. But providing conditions for elections was the very least that the occupying powers owed Iraqis. If something akin to democracy eventually transpires in Iraq, it will be thanks to the determination of Iraqis themselves - which is the only way democracy can come about anywhere, and endure.

Where Mr Bush has been vindicated is in his conviction that democracy's appeal is broad and that the Arab world, for instance, need be no exception. The most striking moves towards democracy in the region, however, have been unrelated to Iraq. They either originated in local and unforeseen events - the death of Yasser Arafat, the assassination of Rafik Hariri - or reflected earlier trends - the very partial extension of the franchise in Saudi Arabia; Libya's retreat from nuclear weapons. It is possible that the mayhem in Iraq served as a warning to other Arab countries, such as Egypt, of the home-grown perils that await those who refuse to mend their undemocratic ways. More probably, it is a sign of the times.

The wind of change sensed by Harold Macmillan over Africa more than 40 years ago has begun to blow through the Middle East. Travel, cross-cultural currents, communications, the internet, education and demography all play their part, as do televised images of popular revolt elsewhere. And so does George Bush: not because he decided, recklessly, to remove Saddam Hussein, but because since the attacks of 11 September, 2001, he has taken a more critical stance towards those who do not pay at least lip-service to democracy. The Middle East's many unelected leaders now sleep a little less easily in their beds.

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