Thomas Friedman on Oil and Democracy

Thomas Friedman describes why the US-led efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East are having unintended consequences. Excerpts below.

Source: New York Times, Addicted to Oil, by Thomas L. Friedman, February 1, 2006

So far the democracy wave the Bush team has helped to unleash in the Arab-Muslim world since Sept. 11 has brought to power hard-line Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq, Palestine and Iran, and paved the way for a record showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The Bush team’s fault was believing that it could change that — that it could break the Middle East’s addiction to authoritarianism without also breaking America’s addiction to oil. That’s the illusion here. In the Arab world, oil and authoritarianism are inextricably linked.

You cannot go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through Khomeini — without going through a phase of mosque-led politics.

Why? Because once you sweep away the dictator or king at the top of any Middle East state, you go into free fall until you hit the mosque — as the U.S. discovered in Iraq.

The mosque became an alternative power center because it was the only place the government’s iron fist could not fully penetrate. As such, it became a place where people were able to associate freely, incubate local leaders and generate a shared opposition ideology.

That is why the minute any of these Arab countries hold free and fair elections, the Islamists burst ahead.

Why are there not more independent, secular, progressive opposition parties running in these places? Because the Arab leaders won’t allow them to sprout.

It is not this way everywhere. In East Asia, when the military regimes in countries like Taiwan and South Korea broke up, these countries quickly moved toward civilian democracies. Why? Because they had vibrant free markets, with independent economic centers of power, and no oil.

In the Arab-Muslim world, however, the mullah dictators in Iran and the secular dictators elsewhere have been able to sustain themselves in power much longer, without ever empowering their people, without ever allowing progressive parties to emerge, because they had oil or its equivalent — massive foreign aid. Only when oil is back down to $20 a barrel will the transition from Saddam to Jefferson not get stuck in "Khomeini Land."

If you just remove the dictators, and don’t also bring down the price of oil, you end up with Iran — with mullah dictators replacing military dictators and using the same oil wealth to keep their people quiet and themselves in power.

In the Middle East, oil and democracy do not mix. It’s not an accident that the Arab world’s first and only true democracy — Lebanon — never had a drop of oil.