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16.05.2006. Before the War

It is unpopular now in most of Europe, including Russia, to cite with approval anything the American president says. In his recent national security strategy, though, he put forward an idea that many of us had thought about but very few of us had dared to pronounce openly.

After including all the proper words of respect toward the civilization of Islam, George W. Bush stated: «The struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century and finds the great powers all on the same side —- opposing the terrorists.»

From now on, it will be harder to pretend that the clash of civilizations is not happening and could not get worse.

Russia finds itself in an especially awkward position. Physically, historically and geographically, it sits simultaneously over at least two divides —- between the Christian and the Muslim  civilizations, and between the affluent world and the poor world.

In addition, we were the first country to take up arms in the struggle against the spread of militant Islamism. We achieved a victory in Chechnya at a horrible cost. It was a victory in a battle but not in the war.

We have a lot of experience to offer. But before making some recommendations, let me start with a few widely acknowledged facts and presumptions.

It is relatively obvious that most of the countries of the traditional «larger Middle East» are living through a period of economic and social degradation. The reason is a mixture of cultural, economic and social factors. This degradation has been slowed by the surge in oil prices, but it is there.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that most of the countries of the region feel vulnerable, threatened or suspicious of their neighbors and of the outside world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is cited as the main source of these feelings, but there are many. The mistaken U.S. invasion of Iraq only made the suspicions worse.

Indeed, something like a Weimar syndrome is being formed in the larger Middle East. As a former Soviet citizen, I can understand this better than others, as we were also defeated in a competition between civilizations, though of a different kind. We are only now, after a period of conservative and economic consolidation, leaving that dangerous state of mind behind.

Communism was a combination of a religion and a way of life. It should not be compared with the great Islamic civilization, which has been successful in many centuries and in many countries. Yet there is something to be learned from the containment of communism. This time, the struggle is for the success of the Islamic world, not for its demise.

To avoid the looming «war of civilizations,» we need to adopt a common strategy aimed at weakening the roots of radical Islam and terrorism, preventing a nuclear arms race in the region and helping countries in the larger Middle East to modernize and prosper.

Washington is proposing a single method: democratization. This adherence to lofty principles should be admired, but when such a recipe is followed on the ground it is likely to bring disaster. I am saying this not because I come from a country that is suffering a backlash against the chaos of a half-baked democracy.

We also remember European history. One of the worst dictators of all time —- Adolph Hitler —- was brought to power by a democratic vote. Experience has made us wary of attempts to bring democracy to the larger Middle East. The day American and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, having proclaimed it democratic, the situation in the country will deteriorate into the chaos of the past, if not worse. The same will happen if U.S. and allied troops withdraw from Iraq.

The first-ever municipal elections in Saudi Arabia were swept by Islamic radicals last year. The terrorist organization Hamas came to power legitimately through free elections. The «Tulip Revolution» in Kyrgyzstan has brought mostly chaos and cleared the way for narcobarons and Islamic radicals. Do we want other countries of the region to follow the same path?

Instead, all influential and responsible countries of the world should unite behind a common strategy to help the larger Middle East. It could include:

Only through such a common and comprehensive approach can we create the preconditions for the eventual democratization and modernization of the larger Middle East. This is a policy worthy of consideration by the larger Group of Eight (or G10 or G11), instead of the many secondary issues now on the agenda. Though at this juncture, I am not very optimistic they will find the will to unite.

// The Moscow Times