I'm pro war.

Well, pro war against al Qaeda. Every morning throughout November and December 2001, I stood in my room and cheered as I watched Mazar-e-Sharif, then Kabul, then Konduz, then Kandahar, and finally Tora Bora fall on TV. (My favorite moment, actually, was reading the New York Times' account of the Taliban's defeat in the northeastern city of Taliqan. Never mind the enthusiastic descriptions of restaurants blaring previously forbidden music, women walking the streets without the formerly required male guardian, men tossing turbans in the gutters, and families digging up long-hidden TV sets and tape players. It was the anecdote about Amon's Barbershop, where men lined up around the block to shave their beards, that brought a lump to my throat during those post-9/11 days.)

I do not support a war in Iraq, however. Toppling Baghdad is far off point in the important effort against the likes of the Taliban and al Qaeda and their brand of reactionary religious utopianism. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban were pseudo-revolutionaries and pseudo-populists of the worst order: i.e., fascists borrowing a script that's been used by every self-righteous religious frat boy from Pat Buchanan to David Duke to Jerry Falwell to Father Coughlin. Bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar espouse the worst kind of clampdown intolerance (dressed up as downtrodden-folk-speak) imaginable.

However, like all demagogues, bin Laden exploits real situations on the ground to fuel despotism. That's why the war against bin Laden's brand of right-wing/pseudo-left-wing bullshit (by the way, being anti Israel doesn't automatically grant you "People's Revolutionary" status, Osama) needs to be waged in a way that delegitimizes al Qaeda. Certainly, for example, freeing up the streets of Kabul (and Taliqan) and getting women back into schools delegitimized bin Laden and the Phi Zeta Delta Taliban boys club.

Deposing Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, would be nice in its own right, but as an avenue toward debasing the spooky spread of fascism and terrorism, it's misguided. Hussein has no sway or following in the Middle East. Dropping bombs and sending troops to knock off an isolated dictator is a misuse of American will. Until we've got proof that Hussein is aiming nukes our way, there's no reason to waste our efforts on Iraq.

There's a much more logical and honest (and urgent) way to proceed against terrorism. Let's promote democratic reforms in the real linchpins of the region: Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. And I'm not talking about Radio Free Europe broadcasts--an imprecise, hit or miss Cold War tactic waged against our enemies. I'm talking about a direct American campaign for democracy (and women's rights!) in the Middle East aimed at our suspect allies. In short, we have more than radio waves to influence the likes of Cairo and Riyadh. We've got dollars, business investments, and political relationships. Let's get tough, and demand changes from our friends; demands backed with the threat of pulling our support.

Real democratic change in the Middle East will rip the rug from under the randy demagogues with guns and websites who prey on the disenfranchised populations in undemocratic countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Fittingly, these countries are also central to the growth of bin Laden's movement in a way that Iraq is not. (The majority of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia; and al Qaeda's leap from motley crew to sophisticated force was made possible by its alliance with longtime Egyptian radicals such as mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri and his huge Egyptian underground movement.)

Securing sweeping democratic reforms in Egypt and the rest of the aforementioned list of Middle Eastern nations will produce the overdue death knell of bin Ladenism, something attacking Iraq surely won't achieve.

The first order of business in an American campaign for Middle Eastern democracy is to serve up some democracy for Palestinians. Indeed, we should start our mission by creating a Palestinian state. Righting the bloody standoff (i.e., war) between Israel and the Palestinians will quell the number one organizing principle among radicalized Muslims (there's a reason bin Laden, whether he means it or not, slips Israel into his rhetoric), and creating a Palestinian state will also give the U.S. credibility to demand democratic reforms from Arab states like Egypt.

The U.S. has the leverage to force Israel's hand in the long-lost peace process. Not only is the U.S. a huge financial supporter of Israel ($3.3 billion a year!), but we are typically the lone voice lending support to Israel as that country pursues military wreckage on the Palestinians. By severely cutting aid to Israel and joining the world chorus against Israel's belligerence and settlement policy, we can bring Israel back to the negotiating table. This is not rocket science: President Jimmy Carter got Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the table in 1978, getting Israel to sign a miraculous land-for-peace treaty with Egypt after 30 years of toe-to-toe hostility, including four raging wars between the two hostile neighbors; and President Bill Clinton got Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the table in 1993 after six years of a bloody intifada. Let's put the pressure on Ariel Sharon.

We've got serious leverage with the Palestinians, too. Witness: Immediately after President Bush started critiquing Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's undemocratic rule in June, the Palestinian Authority--which gets about $75 to $100 million in U.S. support, by the way--made a clean sweep of Arafat's ruling cabinet by threatening a vote of no confidence this past September. The Palestinian Legislative Council scheduled new elections for January 20. The bottom line is this: The Palestinians want desperately to be allies with the U.S. We should ally ourselves with the popular and democratic-minded reformers within the P.A. right now, like the much-touted Mohammed Dahlan or Marwan Barghouti, and make it clear to Israel that we're in cahoots with that faction. Once we're allied with the ascendant power brokers in the P.A., we can also flex some muscle to demand an end to Hamas suicide bombings. With a peace plan in sight, while the suicide bombings won't immediately halt, that murderous faction will be seriously marginalized. Case in point: Anti-Israeli violence was minimal during the Oslo accord era between '93 and '97.

Working in good faith to back Palestinian aspirations will prepare the U.S. for step two: demanding widespread change in the Arab world. Egypt is up first. Ever since the days of Gamal Nasser--the charismatic pan-Arabist leader of Egypt in the '50s and socialist '60s--Egypt has defined the zeitgeist in the Middle East. It's the most populated nation in the region at over 70 million people.

Unfortunately, under the rule of Nasser, Anwar el-Sadat (who was assassinated by a nascent version of current bin Laden-style fascists in 1981), and President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has mercilessly crushed political dissent (outright banning adversarial political parties), not to mention arresting, trying, and torturing people for being gay, according to reports by Amnesty International. As a 2001 report issued by the U.S. State Department declared, Egypt "officially respects most freedoms, but too often tramples them in practice."

The U.S., a steadfast ally of Mubarak, should begin a diplomatic campaign, starting with a suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt (we kick in around $2.5 billion to Egypt annually), to push democratic and civil-rights reforms in that country. Sound overly dramatic? Well, yeah; but it's hardly as over-the-top as demanding regime change in sovereign Iraq. Asking Egypt to release the likes of Egyptian Organization for Human Rights dissident Hafez Abu Sa'ada and democratic activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and institute serious democratic reforms in the face of economic threats (a suspension of aid, a trade and tourist embargo) is hardly as radical as invading a country and dropping bombs.

We should take a similar tack in Saudi Arabia, forsaking their oil, until they meet clear public demands from our government for democratic reforms. Again, as with the Egyptians, we've got a serious footing for dialogue with the Saudis. (We currently buy 1.5 million barrels of oil a day from the Saudis. Our oil imports from Saudi Arabia make up a gargantuan 27 percent of the Saudis' overall oil business. The Saudi's oil biz accounts for up to 75 percent of Saudi revenues.)

The U.S. should take the bold and creative step of making demands on countries it supports--demands that are long overdue. We should demand that they honor human rights and women's rights and freedom of the press and freedom of speech, etc. The Saudis, for example, have come under serious fire from Amnesty International for having a secretive, abusive justice system that uses arbitrary arrests and detentions, nixes access to lawyers, uses clandestine trials, and issues excessive death sentences. (Heck, if the American Left is troubled by the incarceration of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, it oughta be outraged at the Saudis' abominable death row record.) Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department itself admits that Saudi Arabia's protection of religious minorities is "nonexistent."

And don't you dare accuse me of being a cultural imperialist. I bet we pissed off a shitload of Southerners for overrunning their slave economy during the Civil War--and even, gave birth to terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan in the process. But I bet blacks and liberal whites weren't handwringing about that experiment in exporting "Western" values. (And by the way, women can still wear burqas in democratic countries if they want to. Plenty of Islamic women wear the veil in America.)

Now, here's the centerpiece of the plan to stir democracy in the Middle East while simultaneously obliterating the lurch toward fascism: Get behind the Islamic democracy movement that's already attacking the Islamic fascists. I'm talking about the reformists who are transforming Iran, a country of 66 million people. (That's the second-largest country in the region. Iraq is only about a third that size.)

The first way to support this movement is a no-brainer: Remove Iran, the country with the coolest democratic reformer to come along since Mikhail Gorbachev, off our fricking "Axis of Evil" list. Iran's democratically elected leader, Mohammad Khatami (he won the 2001 election with 77 percent of the vote), and the democratically elected parliament that supports him are currently waging an intellectual and popular war of their own against members of the entrenched, military-backed Council of Guardians (read: Koran fascists) who, unfortunately, have the last word on governance. (The Council of Guardians is something like our Supreme Court, but without the checks and balances of our Congress and the president. They routinely abuse Iran's constitution to shut down newspapers, jail dissidents, kick out members of parliament, and nix legislation in the name of the Koran.)

But these religious fascists are on their heels. The facts on the ground favor Khatami's reformers. The clerics are gray-heads, and they are decidedly unpopular. An amazing one-third of Iran is between 16 and 30 years old. This generation has zero allegiance to the Council of Guardians, the heirs to the Islamic revolution of 1979, because rather than experiencing that revolution's rejection of the Shah's despotism, the new generation has only experienced the religious despotism of the council.

In June, the New York Times described the young generation this way: "They want a good job, more individual freedom, and more connections to the outside world--and they are increasingly angry that they don't have those things. They embrace Islam, but they don't want it to occupy every corner of their lives. 'They are not anti-religious, but they are anti-fundamentalism,' says Hamidreza Jalaeipour, an Iranian sociology professor."

Rather than pinning our hopes on Western aggression against Iraq, let's tap this preexisting Iranian (Islamic) movement that mirrors our own goal--toppling Islamic fascism. Let's meet with representatives of the Khatami government and get trade talks going. (We could certainly tap Iran's oil, in lieu of Saudi oil. Oil exports make up about 45 percent of Iran's budget at about $20 billion annually.)

Let's jump on board an already galvanized movement in the parliament and streets of Tehran. Khatami is currently threatening to hold a nationwide referendum to solve the power struggle between his popular government and the intransigent unelected Council of Guardians. Khatami's bold idea for a referendum has led to Yeltsinesque talk like this from his cabinet chief, Muhammad Ali Abtahi: If the referendum does not become law, "society will pitch its tent outside the constitution." Them's fighting words, and we should get behind this democratic revolution pronto by calling world attention to it and announcing that we will begin giving massive aid (along with the development of a large-scale trading relationship) to Iran if the referendum passes.

That is my anti-war message. I know it's decidedly different from the anti-war party line that reflexively flinches at meddling in Middle Eastern policy, but still--I'm against attacking Iraq. I think it's a moronic move if we truly want to revamp the Middle East into a democratic region. I WANT their fucking oil, but I don't want to be trading with despotic nations. The bonus is this: Democratic nations are the antidote to the retarded fascism preached by the likes of the Taliban and bin Laden.

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