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

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.


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