Arab Spring

A barren tree, once full of life
Stands leafless, brown ice in gloom
A barren tree, once full of strife
Stands not a spark, not a flower in bloom
A barren tree, once full of promise
Stands in sorrow, a promise but for tomorrow
As for today, not a leaf dares there stay

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Israel Lobby

The Arab-Israeli conflict does seem like an intractable conflict. A country is established as a Jewish majority nation in the Middle of Palestine, an existing country with an Arab majority consisting of Christians and Muslims.

Today as it stands, 5.5 million Jews and 5.7 million Arabs live in historic Palestine, between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean. There are only two possible solutions that are viable alternatives to the current situation of occupation and apartheid, as named by many observers, Jews and gentiles, including former President Jimmy Carter who, himself, gave Israel its most prized posession, peace with Egypt.

The first solution is a one state solution with Christian and Muslim Arabs living with Jews in one state that combines Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza into one large nation that is home to both Palestinians and Jews. The one state solution is supported by the majority of Arabs and Palestinians, but is a no deal to Israelis and World Jewry for the reason that the new state would be majority Arab.

The second solution is a two state solution where the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem form the Palestinian state. This would result in two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, one Jewish, one Palestinian with large minorities of Arabs and Jews respectively.

The reasons that induce one to conclude that the Pro-Israel lobby is too powerful in the United States are evident. For the last fourty years, the Arabs of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, which now total 4.3 million people, have the been the only people on earth with no citizenship to any country. They have no rights, nor representation, nor self-determination or any freedom that is associated with a soverign people nor are they given these rights as full citizens of Israel.

The United States has supported this state of affairs despite its obvious moral shortcomings and illegal trappings, precisely because of a strong pro-Israel domestic lobby. Furthermore, American interests would no more explain the American policy in the Middle East than morality does.

US interest would lie at the very least in a peaceful Middle East, composed of a secured Israel and a free Palestine. However, even through the Oslo years, and definitely before and since, settlement building and settler colonization of the West Bank has been going strong. The number of settlers between 1967 and 1990 is 90 thousand settlers. During the Oslo years, between 1991 and 2000, the number of settlers increased to 250,000. Since the settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have reached up to 450,000. This number approaches ten percent of Israel's Jewish population. One can no longer claim that settlers are a fringe group. The United States has never weighed heavily against Israel for its settlement policy and the two presidents that tried, Jimmy Carter and George HP Bush did not get re-elected.

The answer is not to do away with lobbies or to outlaw the Pro-Israel lobby but to awaken average Americans to the real costs incurred in their financial and military support of the state of Israel against Palestinians and the entire Middle East.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Democracy or Terror

Now that we have been riding this democracy wave for sometime the least we can do is to acknowledge it when it stares us right in the face. This democracy wave comes ashore, not in the form of our good friend Musharraf, but in the flow of journalists, judges, lawyers and human rights advocates getting clubbed by his stooges in the streets of Islamabad, Karachi and Rawalpindi.

It is the moment of truth and we must put our money where our collective mouth is, which has been decisively in democracy and for good reason. Beside the obviously expedient use of democracy to advance our interests like this administration’s justification of the Iraq war, we really do believe in the moderating effect of democracy and its unstoppable tide through history.

Unstoppable because empowered people everywhere will wish to control their own destiny rather than have it be decided by a general who, needless to say, has his own interests at heart. It is imperative that when a country finally reaches this state of self-determination, we are standing with it and not holding the millstones that were once tied tightly around its neck. It is for this reason that our support in the tune of billions of dollars to Despot Musharraf is at once morally bankrupt and strategically reckless.

However, even if our fast-paced nation cannot fathom such longterm politicking, we can rest assured that is also dangerous in the very near future. The Musharraf basket is a tattered one indeed and our whole alliance with such a strategic country should not rest on the fortune and fate of one widely unpopular man. Supporting the strong civil society in Pakistan, on the other hand, will ensure us a place at the table with the inevitably approaching new Pakistani government.

Today’s Pakistan provides important insight into many other Muslim countries, which is where democracy’s moderating effect comes into view. Musharraf’s Pakistan has been an incubator of extremism and radicalization, mostly from the northwest region of the country. Musharraf’s army cannot defeat half the country but a consensus government in Islamabad can surely coerce them into order and peace. Musharraf’s Achilles’ heel is his illegitimacy; he cannot ask for law and order and jail the lawyers and judges.

As in Turkey, democracy will act as a moderating force in Pakistan, which is good for us and for our NATO allies in Afghanistan. The Turkish Islamists succeeded in winning the elections but they quickly learned to talk less about religion and more about economics and so they won the elections again and Turkey is better for it. In their reign, Turkey has become less xenophobic, less nationalist, less militaristic and more tolerant. In Iran, on the other hand, the Islamists have alienated their constituents by talking too much religion and too little food on the table.

Pakistan now has a chance to be another Turkey in the Middle East. Its vibrant media and strong judiciary have shown themselves capable of confronting a dictator and they will be the standard bearers of Pakistan’s democracy and its protectors against corruption and militarism. Moderate Islamists and secularists are our best bets against extremists from Morocco and Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Our choices are clear: either we support democracy and its moderates or stand with the dictators, helping them tend to their incubators of radicalization and terror.

Where Wilsonian Idealism and Realpolitik Meet

The United States faces formidable challenges to its national interests in the Middle East today and in the decades to come. If the United States is to continue playing its powerful role in global politics, it must consolidate its influence in this strategic and central region. It is safe to say that the United States has alienated the Middle East’s citizens with its recent policies and that even the friendly regimes cannot work with us without compromising their already threadbare legitimacy. Monumental tasks such as fighting terrorism, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and securing energy resources would be unachievable without reliable regional allies. While Israel is a strong ally, its use in driving US foreign policy in the region is limited as was evident in the two Iraq wars and now in the tense standoff with Iran.

Historically, the United States like its colonial predecessors has bought the needed support in the Middle East or coerced it out of the ruling elites. While this strategy of supporting pliant dictators and monarchs has worked for the United States and its interests in the region, it has also delivered astonishing setbacks, the epitome of which is the September 11 attacks on US soil. The realist calculus propelling our foreign policy in the Arab world has led to the aid of friendly regimes and the containment of hostile or even independent ones, unconditional support for Israel, and the intermittent strikes against regimes which were thought to harbor terrorists such as Libya, Sudan and Iraq. This Realpolitik was recklessly abandoned by the second Bush administration precisely because of the September 11 attacks, which made it abundantly clear that terrorism has become a global phenomenon with dire ramifications. To address the terror predicament, the root causes of terror must be addressed.

The root causes of terror are evident, Palestine and a dearth of democracy. Any opinion poll in the region before September 11, 2001 or since will show strong opposition to US policy vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine and its support of Arab dictators. And despite his initial rhetoric of the “they hate us because we’re free” variety, President Bush was clear about what he thought in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003: the democratization strategy “is to help change the conditions that give rise to extremism and terror, especially in the broader Middle East.” Changing the map of the Middle East through democracy was conjured up by many analysts and administration officials as a persuasive justification for the Iraq war, mostly after the invasion showed there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam and Al-Qaeda would have been unlikely bedfellows anyway. And thus the invasion of Iraq was justified, after the fact, by a strong push of democratization that was strongly resisted by the ruling elites in the Middle East.

The United States’ pressure on the regional dictators worked. Egypt held parliamentary elections, and Mubarak even amended the constitution to allow, incredibly, a multi-candidate presidential campaign in May 2005. Elections were held in the Palestinian territories, for the Egyptian parliament and throughout the region, even Saudi Arabia allowed local councils to be elected for the first time. This democratization effort ground to a halt, however, as the results of these elections came out. Hamas wins in Palestine. The Muslim Brotherhood quintuples its seats in the Egyptian Parliament. The Bush administration weakened by the Republican Party’s defeat at the Congressional elections, worried about an assertive Iran, disoriented by an Iraq mired in conflict, and chastised by the Realpolitik paleoconservatives retreated from its ideological machinations to the relief of the Arab dictators and the chagrin of Arab civil society.

As it were, the neoconservatives were right about one thing: democracy in the Middle East is an important American goal per se. More importantly, however, is that it is a realistic and effective approach in fighting terror and gaining credibility with the citizens of the region. The problem was the execution. Bringing democracy to Iraq by an American invasion was destined to fail. Even the most homogenous and pro-American country would have not democratized easily in those conditions, let alone a country with many religions and ethnicities and whose population is very distrustful of American intentions. Democratization of many other Arab countries would have been far easier and much less fraught with danger. Pressure on Egypt, Jordan and Morocco would have yielded much better dividends as these regimes are largely dependent on the United States for support. The wave of democratization efforts in the Middle East after the invasion of Iraq would have been much more effective were it not for the invasion of Iraq, which empowered Iran, destabilized Iraq and sapped American credibility throughout the Arab world. Ironically, the neoconservatives thwarted their own agenda. The invasion of Iraq made it much harder for the US to support democratization efforts in the region.

The United States must develop a strategy to maintain its influence in the Middle East without expending an exorbitant price in blood and treasure. Its goals of defeating terrorism, neutralizing Iran, and securing the energy resources of the region are achievable but need long-term engagement for an enduring solution not quick, cosmetic fixes. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promoting Arab democracy will go a long way to accomplishing these goals. Standing on the right side of history with democracy, the United States will earn valuable dividends from Arab civil society and future democratic governments indebted to the United States. Hamas’ and Hizbullah’s raison d’etre will vanish with the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict and so will Iran’s influence in Palestine and Lebanon. Here, at this moment in history, Realpolitik and Wilsonian idealism intersect. It is both in the United States’ interest and its moral obligation to support democracy in the Middle East and end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a rising China and a resurgent Russia eye the Middle East for an opportunity to step in, the United States must actualize economical and expedient avenues to maintain its prominence in the region.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Idealism Not Delusion

Supporting democracy in the Middle East should be a priority for the United States as it is, not only a moral obligation, but strategically astute. The conservative backlash against the Bush administration’s short-lived freedom agenda is now in full force. The paleoconservatives joined with the now powerful moderates, liberals and libertarians to give the neoconservatives a thrashing. As a knowledgeable scholar on the Middle East put it to me, “The United States’ interest in the region lies in stopping terrorism and protecting the energy sources from the unstable Persian Gulf, exporting democracy is not our business.” The Iraq war was an experiment of dishing out democracy to a country by fiat and democracy was the point, at least according to its proponents. Given the sundry reasons touted before the war justifying its imminence, it is easy to be skeptical about the real motive of the catastrophic engagement. What is easy to see is that the Iraq war was not primarily about democracy in the Middle East and if it were, a case of an apology more damning than the crime, it demonstrates the level of ignorance of the perpetrators about all things Middle Eastern.

Why attack Iraq, a country over which we have very little leverage, when we pay the Egyptian dictatorship more than 3 billion dollars a year, the majority of which goes to fortifying the police state? Why not pressure Jordan, as it is the third highest recipient of military aid after Israel and Egypt? Why not pressure Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the highest terrorist exporting countries to liberalize politically and economically as to provide room for dissent and debate so their citizens don’t have to settle for the proverbial “Arab basement”? Why attack Iraq, a country who is a shadow of its previous self, already fragile and fragmented by no-fly zones, with a traumatized population, which has lived through two wars followed by 12 years of UN sanctions, unless, the invasion had nothing to do with democracy at all. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson writes in defense of neoconservative idealism and questions the attractiveness of traditional conservatism when “it begins to question the importance or existence of moral ideals in politics and foreign policy,” but he does not address why Iraq was the prime target of this “democracy agenda”. For neoconservatives and neoconservatism to be taken seriously, they must address this important question: was it ignorance and incompetence or duplicity that led us to Baghdad? But we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Exporting democracy may not be our business, but impeding its progress is immoral, dangerous and costly.

It is no accident that within the brief period following the Iraq war and ending abruptly at the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006 that Arab human rights groups, media, professional associations and political organizations mobilized citizens, taking advantage of the relative freedom provided by American pressure on the dictators and monarchs of the region. Within that two-year period a veritable spring of ideas and self-expression took place, especially in countries dependent on the United States for legitimacy, namely, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states. Egypt, where a third of the Arab World’s 300 million citizens live is a case in point. Its dictatorship is largely subsidized by the United States and it is highly sensitive to American pressure. In 2004, the secular movement, Kifaya, sprung up and mobilized Egyptians in mass demonstrations and joined forces with another secular party, AlGhad, both calling for free elections and an end to the emergency laws. In 2005, the Egyptian constitution was changed to allow contested elections rather than the usual referendum on Mubarak and in the same year, parliamentary elections were held, though deeply flawed and marred by government violence, the Muslim Brotherhood quintupled its seats in parliament. In all the aforementioned countries reliant on US support, whether financial or intelligence-based, similar democratic initiatives took place.

Ironically, the American “democracy agenda” for the Middle East came to an abrupt halt because of a disintegrating Iraq. As any seasoned analyst would have predicted, with Iraq in shambles and therefore a strengthened Iran extending its influence into the Levant, the United States needed to recollect its terribly de-legitimized regimes and prop them up more firmly. But it needs not end this way. The United States can gain credibility by upholding a moral stance of standing with forces of democracy instead of ignoring Egypt’s imprisonment of Ayman Nour, a secularist, pro-democracy, human rights activist and a former presidential candidate against Husni Mubarak. The Neoconservatives were right about calling for democracy in the Middle East, although they were wrong about exporting it, a discrepancy due to their ulterior motives. Standing firmly on the side of democracy, the United States will be walking on the side of history. It will also shore the dismal opinion of the United States in Muslim countries, which, contrary to the “clash-o-civilization” arguments, is a direct reaction to American foreign policy in the region. And although Hamas and Hizbullah may not feel differently about Israel until a peace deal, democratization in the Arab world will undoubtedly reduce the global current of terrorism and extremism. As Arabs have more legitimate forms of government, better avenues of expression and assured participation in the political process, terrorism will gain less credence.

Finally, democratization of the Middle East may be important for the United States in confronting Iran. Iran has a considerable following in the Arab World because it is viewed as a counterbalance to the United States in the region. The United States is viewed as cynical and hypocritical, championing democracy while financing despotism. A United States practicing what it preaches may be less opposed in the region. Of course, the Middle East will not know stability fully until the Israeli-Arab conflict is resolved but democracy and peace in Palestine need not be coupled. Resolution of that conflict will also deprive Iran of its emotive power. Ultimately, the neoconservatives were all buzz and no bite or as the late Ann Richards said of President Bush, “All hat and no cattle”. The next push for democracy in the Middle East has to be a concerted and stubborn effort, rooted in American idealism and future interests.