|Iraq has been marked by sectarian violence since Saddam Hussein was overthrown [EPA]
The questioner's tone was notably hostile. How, he wanted to know, could the US justify an invasion which had resulted in the deaths of so many Iraqis?
The clear implication of his query was that if the US incursion and occupation had set in motion a chain of events which resulted in so many Mesopotamian deaths, then it was the US which must be held directly responsible for all the carnage we had seen in Iraq. An uncomfortable hush settled over the audience. My inquisitor was clearly speaking for many in the room. I could feel the sting of a thousand pair of accusing eyes.
It hardly seemed the moment to attempt a defense of the US campaign to overthrow Saddam. Given all the post-invasion errors made by the Americans under even the most charitable view, where would one start? And so I began by acknowledging the obvious: Yes, the US had made many errors in Iraq. One could quibble over what to include in the list, but it was undeniable that the US had contributed substantially to the disaster that had befallen that country.
But if, I went on, one's analysis were to begin and end there, what would that imply? However long the indictment against the Americans, it had to be acknowledged that the vast majority of the Iraqis killed and maimed after the US invasion of 2003 were not the victims of Americans, but of other Iraqis.
"[Do the Iraqis need] to be kept under the heel of a dictatorial boot to ... prevent them from lunging at one another's throats?"
The mass-casualty car bombs, the bloody work of sectarian militias, the confessionally-based "ethnic cleansing", even the brutal suicide bombings of al-Qaeda in Iraq, all came largely at the hands of Iraqis.
Did the questioner mean to suggest that Iraqis themselves were completely unaccountable for their actions?
Leaving aside the circumstances of Saddam's departure, was his removal the real crime? For if so, wouldn't that be just another way of saying that Iraqis could not be trusted to rule themselves, that they needed to be kept under the heel of a dictatorial boot to maintain any semblance of social order, or to prevent them from lunging at one another's throats?
I never did get a satisfactory answer to my questions. But I was put in mind of this exchange by the news from Cairo concerning the recent clashes between the Egyptian Army and Christian Copts. Many of the casualties, which numbered some 26 deaths and 200 injured, came at the hands of civilian thugs whose intervention was apparently solicited by the Army.
The Coptic demonstrations which triggered the Army's brutality appear in turn to have been set off by Salafi extremists, for some of whom post-Mubarak instability poses a welcome opportunity for sectarian score-settling.
Meanwhile, secularists, some of whom are associated with the former regime, are trying to marshal electoral forces against the Muslim Brothers, who have the support of the anti-Mubarak youth to at least temporarily ban former regime-affiliated parliamentarians from the process. Would-be democrats of highly divergent stripes thus advocate anti-democratic means to safeguard a nascent democracy.
After a dictator is deposed ...
The growing threat of violence weighs heavily over these wary proceedings, providing a potential justification for the Army to postpone elections, nominally in deference to social stability. Across the region, democrats are quickly learning that deposing the dictator is but the first step. They are learning that the pent-up forces of latent social anarchy manifest themselves quickly, once the dead hand of repression is lifted, forcing people to revert to old sources of identity, be it ethnicity, creed or tribe, as their only means of protection.
In Syria, once moribund sectarian divisions are becoming distinctly sharper as opposition to the Assad regime spreads, threatening violent social splits and potentially undermining the uprising itself. As brilliantly documented in these spaces by Nir Rosen, the most cynical regime of the Middle East has created a trap for the Alawites, robbing them of the religious basis of their identity and cleaving them instead to the ruling clique, preparing them for the choice they now face: Support the government or face the fire.
The true cynic assumes the worst motives in others. In this, the Assads are not being disappointed.
Likewise, across the Mediterranean, as the Gaddafi regime enters its final, spasmodic death throes, the regional and tribal pillars of a purportedly post-tribal regime once again manifest themselves, threatening to undermine the social cohesion necessary to create democratic institutions.
"The coming transitions will be marked by violence, as a new social equilibrium is established."
Anti-democratic forces, both within and outside the region, will point to these developments and cite them as excuses for maintenance of the old, repressive order. The Gulf monarchies, already obsessed with the notion that their Shiite communities are mere pawns of Tehran, will find reinforcement for their most paranoid - and ultimately self-destructive - political instincts.
Russia and China - no friends of genuine democracy - needed little excuse to veto the recent UN Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime. But even if we take the Russians at their word, citing as they do the threat of civil war and the consequent need for dialogue between the Syrian regime and its opponents, one must concede that the practical effect of the Russian policy line would be to sacrifice democratic freedoms on the altar of social stability, precisely the Faustian bargain they have made at home.
Different arguments to similar effect will again be heard in Israel and the West. We have heard them before, perhaps most notably in 2006, when the purported champions of liberal values sought justification for strangling an inconvenient Palestinian democracy in its cradle.
Democracy, we were told, was not merely a matter of elections, but of supporting institutions, of civil society, of education, of habits of mind. All of this may be true. Scratch the surface of these arguments, however, and a darker, uglier attitude emerges: The belief that Arab Muslim societies in our day are incapable of democracy.
Do not believe it.
The fruits of democracy must and will come to the Middle East, but they will not come easily or cheaply. Outsiders can do what is possible to encourage social comity. We can hope that societies, newly free of authoritarian shackles, will follow the better angels of their nature. But such hope is neither a strategy nor a choice. In many cases, the coming transitions will be marked by violence, as a new social equilibrium is established.
The present generation will, in many cases, pay the price for the sins of their fathers, in whose time social differences were forcibly repressed, rather than reconciled.
In time, societies of the Middle East will have to learn for themselves the necessity of tolerance in the social and political order they hope to build. These lessons can be learned relatively easily or with unspeakable difficulty, as in Iraq.
But inevitably, the freedoms of future generations will be bought and paid for through the struggle and suffering of the present. The price will be high, but it will be necessary.
Robert Grenier is a retired, 27 year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004-2006.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.