Esposito’s predictions, right and wrong

At Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH), John L. Esposito has revisited a prediction he made over five years ago, in the lead-up to the Iraq war. “Five years after a U.S. war with Iraq,” he wrote in November 2002, “it is likely that the Arab world will be less democratic than more and that anti-Americanism will be stronger rather than weaker.” (Read his 2002 prediction here, and his new MESH post here.) Below I reproduce a comment I offered on his post:

John Esposito was prescient to predict that the Iraq war would damage America’s standing in the eyes of Muslims. There are different measures of the damage, and the Gallup World Poll is just one of them. But it’s indisputably the case that the Iraq war represented a blow to U.S. prestige in Muslim public opinion.

Contrast this with the ideological view of Jimmy Carter: “Even among the populations of our former close friends in the region, Egypt and Jordan, less than 5 percent look favorably on the United States today. That’s not because we invaded Iraq; they hated Saddam. It is because we don’t do anything about the Palestinian plight.” Perhaps Esposito should send a copy of his new book to the sage from Plains, Georgia, inured though he may be to all evidence. Even the leading Palestinian intellectual in America, Rashid Khalidi, would concede Esposito’s point. “Iraq has changed everything,” he has written. “In Washington, a city obsessed with the present, it was easy to forget that as recently as a few years ago, the United States was not particularly disliked in the Middle East and that al-Qaeda was a tiny underground organization with almost no popular support.” In other words, the Iraq invasion did much more damage to U.S. standing than decades of U.S. support for Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territories. It’s an important point to remember, as people search for ways to restore U.S. prestige.

But on Esposito’s other key prediction, he missed the mark. It isn’t so that the Arab world is “less democratic” than it was on the eve of the Iraq war. According to Freedom House, one Arab country, Lebanon, made a full-category upward move in this period, from “not free” to “partly free.” There were significant improvements in the scores of Iraq (and, looking next door to the Arabs, Turkey), and mild improvements in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Yemen. Egypt, bucking the trend, went down a notch in civil liberties. Overall, the Arab Middle East looks more democratic today than it was before the Iraq war—to some extent, because of it.

Esposito was at least partly wrong on another score. In 2002, he wrote that the United States “will want compliant allies and governments in the Arab world—and will fear open elections that might bring Islamist enemies to power. As a result, the United States will be forced, at the end of the day, to support strong, authoritarian governments that will rely on their security forces, political repression, and American aid.” In fact, in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, the United States promoted elections that empowered Islamist parties. True, the Bush administration has pulled back after witnessing the main consequence of its folly: the electoral legitimation of Hamas. But on balance, this administration has done more to empower Islamists than any of its predecessors.

Esposito deserves some credit there. As I once noted in a speech at Georgetown, many of the ideas that he championed in the 1990s made their way into administration thinking. These include the diversity of Islamism and its openness to moderation through inclusion in the political process. Both of these notions, I believe, are flawed, and my own criticism of Bush administration policy has focused precisely on their adoption as core policy assumptions. But John has had more of an influence on this administration than I have, so he really should give himself a pat on the back. He contributed his small share to the emergence of the string of Islamist principalities that now dot the Middle East—and that bedevil U.S. policy.