From Mr Richard J. Joseph.

Sir, David Gardner’s commentary “Iraq: a pitiless display of the decline of American power” (March 9) is right on point. Ten years ago, I made a similar argument in another FT commentary (“Where the American dream can lead to a nightmare,” January 22 2003).

In that commentary, I contended that democratic imperialism in Iraq was destined to fail, not because of the inherent virtues of political democracy, nor because of the good intentions of western policy makers, but rather (to paraphrase Mr Gardner) because “the invasion and occupation of Iraq [would unlock] forces with long-term consequences ... [in] a mosaic society [that could dissolve] into a Balkans-in-the-sands”. Today, we are witnessing how democracy works in such a society, where primary loyalties are to the sect, not the state; where an artificial “nation” has been created by imperialist powers; where, to the most extreme of political actors, “all men are created equal, so long as they belong to the same sect”.

Western foreign policy towards the Arab world will continue to fail so long as it misconstrues the true nature of the “problem”. That problem relates not just to democracy, but also to secularism, for the one presupposes the other. In that part of the world, democracy without secularism tends to grow dysfunctional and destabilising, as is manifest today not only in Iraq, but also in Tunisia and Egypt.

Richard J. Joseph, Somerville, MA, US

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