THE domino theory boasts a special place in anti-American demonology. It is regarded as the dangerous neo-conservative assumption that, if Saddam Hussein were to be deposed, other dictatorships would tumble and democracy would take their place.
In the last few weeks, it has not looked so naive. Lebanon has seen a popular uprising against the Syrian occupation, Saudi Arabia held its first-ever ballot and Palestinians chose their president in a free and fair election.
This has led to much elation and a sense of vindication among those who supported the Iraq war. We are witnessing a Middle Eastern version of the 1989 revolutions, it is argued: dominoes have started to fall.
Since protests in Ukraine won back its stolen election, the momentum has been formidable. There has been an undoubted ripple effect, as Al-Jazeera television brought the Arab world the incredible pictures of Iraqis defying death to vote.
To supporters of the Iraq war (this columnist included) it marks a much-welcome break from relentlessly bleak news of insurgency and bloodshed. But scratch beneath the surface of this Arab glasnost, and the picture is much more complicated.
The Arab world is littered with autocracies that various European countries (mostly Britain) put in place. Such regimes owe their defence policy to working out how to buy off the West, as they oppress their people and act like occupying armies.
The West has for too long been happy to do deals with dictatorships, especially if they are rich. Saudi Arabia for years got along by selling discounted oil to countries such as America and Britain, who pledged military protection in return.
But the terrorist attacks of 11 September finally showed the West that such policies will reap what they sow: if you support fanatical regimes - such as that overseen by the House of Saud - the poison they spew out will eventually reach your shores.
So the democratisation project was a direct response to the war on terror. There would be no more appeasement of dictators in fanatical regimes: only political freedom guarantees world peace.
This turned the world of Arab dictators upside down. If Americans won’t take cheap oil, then what do they want? Europeans are easy to bribe (just witness their unseemly rush to sell arms to China): but these neo-conservatives seem a little ... well, fundamentalist. How to react?
Arab rulers are now testing the water, altering their behaviour. Out of nowhere, Colonel Gaddafi offered over weapons of mass destruction which no one knew he had, and asked for diplomatic ties to be restored.
Britain has bitten his hand off, agreed to give him the military assistance he coveted and has assigned a permanent military adviser to Tripoli. Italy and Germany have been over, keen to secure a slice of his Libyan reconstruction deals.
What is missing is any sign that Libya wants to democratise. Until a few years ago, Gaddafi had a weak dictatorship, crippled by trade sanctions. Once British and Eurozone money starts flowing into Libya again, he may end up with a stronger one.
The Libyan domino looked at first as though it might topple. Now it looks more like being bolted to the ground. Tripoli’s untapped oil wealth is speaking louder than its calls for rapprochement: and this is a worrying sign.
Saudi Arabia is arguably the most fundamentalist regime in the world now that the Taleban has fallen from Afghanistan. It has been trumpeting a "reform" message and its rulers have been popping up on the sofa on Breakfast With Frost. To please the West, it held its first-ever local elections two months ago. But this returned fundamentalist Islamic candidates, and the election will, if anything, serve to shore up the grip of the clerical establishment on the country.
In Egypt, where 15,000 political prisoners languish in jail, the ageing President Mubarak last week decided to hold the first contested presidential election in its modern history. Amid the events in Lebanon, it was hardly noticed.
Mubarak has, since 1981, ruled Egypt as a one-party state. A man on the record as equating democracy with "chaos", he is now calling for "more freedom". Secular and fundamentalist Sunni Muslims could, in theory, wage democratic battle.
Much to celebrate - in theory. But the same Mubarak last weekend banned the publication of the newspaper of his main opponent (who, incidentally, was thrown in jail two months ago on concocted charges). His election may be a con.
This certainly was the case in Tunisia, which last year won stunned applause in the West by promising to hold free elections. In the event, Zein al-Abidine bin Ali - its president - simply appointed a few nominal opponents. When the votes were taken last October, bin Ali secured 94.5 per cent - instead of his usual 99 per cent. The contested election was entirely to give the appearance of democratic reform when none was taken.
THE Palestinian elections in January were remarkably orderly, and Mahood Abbas - its new ruler - has called for an end to terrorism, but his call for a greater jihad against the "Zionist enemy" suggests an ongoing struggle.
The fact remains that Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all know that the pro-war camp in the West is desperate for some good news - and will take any it can get at face value. Indeed, several newspaper columnists have spent the last fortnight dancing a jig.
The Arab leaders have worked out how a democratic gift-horse is never looked in the mouth. So many in the West are easily hoodwinked by just the semblance of democracy, as long as it helps them win arguments with opponents back home.
In short, we are being sold a pup. This is no Arab glasnost. The autocrats are simply switching tactics. Once it was enough to side with one superpower or another. Then, it was enough to make friends with a member of the United Nations Security Council. Now, Arab autocrats believe the recipe for being left alone to their agenda of repression is to pay lip-service to democratic reform. It’s amazing how far a little democratic symbolism can get you.
Democracy in the Middle East is in its infancy. The "purple revolution" in Iraq, which produced such elating scenes of voters holding up an ink-stained finger, was only the first step to a peaceful settlement. Voting was not an end in itself.
Only a couple of generations ago, Italy and Germany produced fascism out of democracy: Mussolini and Hitler swept to power on popular votes, before they banned their rivals. The same potential exists with Iraq’s Shiite aspiring demagogues.
The winner of Iraq’s elections was Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a pro-Iranian Islamist. Lebanon’s power vacuum may be filled by Hezbollah. And Egypt’s main opposition is Islamic fundamentalism: if it had free elections, this would likely flourish.
Economic development, human freedom, full property rights and a pluralistic political culture are the conditions for democracy. They can grow, but, without them, any democracy project will fall. So we are still at stage one in the Middle East.
And any chances of proceeding to stage two mean keeping up the pressure - and not being fooled by decoys thrown up by Arab despots.
Spreading democracy is the only way to win the war on terror. We are, alas, still a long way from this victory.