Reflecting on the Past "Mistakes" of Yalta and the Future Mistakes of U.S. Foreign Policy

Posted in United States | 20-May-05 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at Yalta

President George W. Bush’s May 7, 2005, speech in Latvia has initiated, in the United States, a rehash of the post-World War II history of Europe. While reevaluating a major historical "mistake" of the past, he might very well be thinking about avoiding similar mistakes during his tenure in the Middle East, for it is here that the United States is as intensely involved today as it was in the post-World War years in Europe. During the course of the Bush presidency-especially since the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the United States-Islam has emerged as the chief rival of America. The intent here is not to argue that the U.S. is fighting a war with Islam. Rather, it is to argue that, if the current purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to "restructure" the Muslim Middle East by implanting Western secular democracy, the battle is already on between the Islamic form of government (that is indigenous to the Middle East) and Western democracy (that remains an alien idea for that region). As the Yalta agreement was followed by the Cold War-which was essentially a major clash between the democratic and communist forms of governments-the post-9/11 era is also characterized by a battle of ideas about which form of government is ideally suited for the Muslim Middle East, where Islam also presents an Islamic form of government, an idea that is not acceptable to America.

American conservatives describe the Yalta agreement-which effectively recognized Soviet hegemony in 1945-as nothing less than a "sellout [of] Eastern Europe to Soviet control for the next 50 years." Liberals, on the other hand, portray it as a pragmatic recognition on the part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the ground realities that then prevailed, "because the Soviet Army controlled the territory [Eastern Europe] anyway…" Siding with the conservatives, President Bush described the Yalta agreement as "one of the greatest wrongs of history," and added, "Yalta did not ratify a natural divide, it divided a living civilization."

Given that all major statesmen learn from what they describe as "mistakes" of their illustrious predecessors in major world events, how would Bush avoid making similar mistakes during his presidency? If mistakes of the Yalta agreement weigh heavily on Bush’s mind-and considering the fact that the Yalta agreement is regarded as a "sellout" to Soviet hegemonism by American conservatives-Bush is not likely to yield any ground in handling one of the chief challenges of our era.

According to Bush’s way of thinking, there is a virtual enduring linkage between the autocratic form of governments of the Middle East and the growth of transnational terrorism. Conventional wisdom inside Washington is that transnational terrorism currently prevalent in that region is inextricably linked to an incessant attitude of the extant autocratic regimes to brutally and systematically suppress all legitimate protests and forces for change. Consequently, the Bush administration has decided that the surest way of defeating terrorism in that region (and in the world of Islam at large) is through the implantation of Western-style democracy.

Two points should be made about that conventional wisdom. First, any conclusion regarding the establishment of Western-style democracy in the Muslim Middle East may turn out to be as wrong as any assumption that Roosevelt and Churchill had made when they signed the Yalta agreement in 1945. Second, any suggestion that the Muslim masses of the Middle East deserve to live under Western-style democracy sends a message, quite unwittingly, that that particular form of government is superior to the notion of an Islamic government that has been around in the world of Islam for the past fourteen hundred years.

So, here we are in the midst of the making of a new clash of ideas, which, for most Muslims, is much more than merely a battle of ideas. For them, it is related to the relevance of their religion in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized (read increasingly interconnected and highly interdependent) with the passage of time.

Thus, globalization, itself, has emerged as positive as well as negative phenomena for the U.S., as well as for those who believe that the Islamic form of government is both relevant and legitimate an option for Muslim countries. The greatest promise of globalization for the United States is that, despite the Bush administration’s highly contentious occupation of Iraq, America is perceived in the world of Islam as a great democracy and a positive force for change. In that sense, American democracy will continue to be viewed as a model that should be studied in order to incorporate some of its aspects, which are relevant for the world of Islam. So, Muslims at large are not likely to categorically reject the relevance of the United States as a democratic force. What they vehemently object to is the Bush administration’s unilateral decision to impose American-style democracy on them.

The greatest promise of globalization related to Islam is that it has emerged as a global force for change, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Whether Islam would become a successful force or not is the challenge Muslims are currently facing. They know that the notion of an Islamic government would become a globalized phenomenon only when a Muslim country emerges as a world-class economic and military power after adopting it. Until then, it would remain a lightning rod for controversy. In the meantime, at least from the perspectives of Muslims, the failure of an Islamic government in one country would not be blamed on any ostensible inadequacies of Islam. Rather, the blame for failure would be placed squarely on the shoulders of those who incorrectly implemented it. From the viewpoint of the believers, the notion of an Islamic government will not fail, because it revolves around the primacy of God’s religion.

From the preceding emerges the outlines of an epic battle that is brewing at the present time between the United States-the sole superpower par excellence-who is bent on democratizing the Muslim Middle East, and Islam, the final religion whose survival and success is promised by God in his holy book. The current American politicians are as certain about the correctness of their contemporary policies toward the Middle East as Roosevelt and Churchill were about theirs during the Yalta negotiations. However, there are two very important differences between then and now.

First, unlike in the post World War II era, the U.S. is the sole superpower of this era. As such, it is more certain about its "hard" power-related capabilities in all regions of the world, especially in the Middle East, than it was in the days immediately following World War II. Second, in the current evolving battle of ideas, America is facing a religion that is 1400 years old. As such, Islam is not facing the options between undergoing change in order to conform to the whims, fancies, and preferences of the United States, or being defeated, as was the Soviet Union or global communism. This very reality generates a whole slew of uncertainties related to the clash of ideas between the United States and the world of Islam.

Placing this debate in a purely worldly context, one sees a major challenge for the United States in its attempts to secularize and democratize the Muslim Middle East. As long as Muslims fail to develop very broad outlines of a general agreement over the modalities of Islamic government, battles of ideas between them and the United States are going to be inconclusive. At the same time, those battles also are likely to make the Middle East a highly unstable place.

As Bush contemplates the mistakes of his predecessor related to the Yalta agreement or other major events of America’s foreign policy, one wonders whether he reflects about the final outcome of the clash of ideas between his country and the world of Islam. If he does, there is little doubt that he is convinced that victory in this clash already belongs to the United States. What he does not know is that Muslims-in their depressed shacks, in their miserable autocratic political environments, and even in their existence as residents of nations that currently belong to the lowest hierarchy of nations-are equally convinced that the ultimate victory belongs to Islam. Undeniably, our era is much different than the preceding ones.