Thursday, December 16, 2004

# Posted 1:26 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THINK AGAIN: This long-running feature in FP is almost always the most entertaining part of the magazine and often the most educational as well. Moreover, OxBlog favorite Tom Carothers (writing along with Marina Ottaway) is never one to disappoint. And even though Patrick has already linked to this article, I think it merits further comment. So let's start here:

“Democracy in the Middle East Is Impossible Until the Arab-Israeli Conflict Is Resolved”

Wrong. Arab governments curb political participation, manipulate elections, and limit freedom of expression because they do not want their power challenged, not because tension with Israel requires draconian social controls...Fear of competition, not of a Zionist plot, leads the Egyptian ruling party to oppose competitive presidential elections. When it comes to democratic reform, the Zionist threat is merely a convenient excuse.

Yet failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict prevents the United States from gaining credibility as an advocate of democracy in the Middle East. Liberal Arabs perceive claims by the United States that it wants democracy in the Middle East as hypocritical, pointing to what they see as American indifference to the rights of the Palestinians and unconditional support for Israel.
So how about proposing the most radical solution of all to the Arab-Israeli conflict: a democratic Palestinian state. Perhaps because George W. Bush doesn't have sufficient credibility, no one praises him for suggesting that the Palestinians should have the same freedom as the Israelis. With any luck, the Palestinian people will take the first step toward liberating themselves by participating enthusiastically in the upcoming election -- and demanding that their elected officials behave democratically once they are in office.

Regardless, concerned Arabs will always have some example of American hypocrisy to point to if they so desire. If not the Palestinians, then Abu Ghraib. If not Abu Ghraib, then Mubarak. If not Mubarak, then Musharraf. Chances are that the United States will have close relations with some dictator or oil sheikh right up until the whole Middle East is democratic.

Thus, the real key to enhancing our credibility is to demonstrate that when we set out to promote democracy that we get the job done. The idea of a rapid-fire reverse-domino effect may be, as Carothers says, an example of "magical realism". Yet if Iraq and Afghanistan have elected, moderately liberal governments five or ten years down the road, Arabs will take notice.

Now here's my favorite point from Tom's article:

“Islamists Are the Main Obstacle to Arab Democracy”

Think again. The standard fear is the “one person, one vote, one time” scenario: Islamists would only participate in elections to win power and put an end to democracy immediately. Hence, the argument goes, they should not be allowed to participate.

True, the commitment to democracy of even moderate Islamists is uncertain and hedged by the caveat that democratic governments must accept Islamic law. However, the chances of an overwhelming electoral victory that would allow Islamists to abrogate all freedoms at once is remote in the Arab world. During the last decade, Islamist parties and candidates have participated in elections in eight Arab countries (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen), always with modest results. (These elections suffered from various degrees of government interference, but there is no indication that the Islamists would have won in a more open environment.) And Turkey, a country where an Islamist party took power with a large majority, is becoming an encouraging example of democratic success.
I won't comment any further on that one, so let's move on to the most controversial point in Tom's article, at least from a liberal perspective:

“Promoting Women’s Rights Is Crucial for Democratic Change”

False. This myth, a favorite of women’s organizations and Western governments, reflects the combination of correct observation and false logic. No country can be considered fully democratic if a part of its population (in some cases, the majority) is discriminated against and denied equal rights. But efforts to change the status quo by promoting women’s rights are premature. The main problem at present is that Arab presidents and kings have too much power, which they refuse to share with citizens and outside institutions. This stranglehold on power must be broken to make progress toward democracy. Greater equality for women does nothing to diminish the power of overly strong, authoritarian governments.
It's sad but true. The United States managed to build and consolidate a (profoundly flawed) democratic order that brutalized African-Americans and made women into second-class citizens. Fifty years from now, the Arab world may be a sort of women's Jim Crow.

Last but not least, we come to the point in Tom's article that threatens everything that OxBlog stands for:
“Middle East Democracy Is the Cure for Islamist Terrorism”

No. This view is rooted in a simplistic assumption: Stagnant, repressive Arab regimes create positive conditions for the growth of radical Islamist groups, which turn their sights on the United States because it embodies the liberal sociopolitical values that radical Islamists oppose. More democracy, therefore, equals less extremism.

History tells a different story. Modern militant Islam developed with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1920s, during the most democratic period in that country’s history...It is a complex phenomenon with diverse roots, which include U.S. sponsorship of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s (which only empowered Islamist militants); the Saudi government’s promotion of radical Islamic educational programs worldwide; and anger at various U.S. policies, such as the country’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the basing of military forces in the region.

Moreover, democracy is not a cure-all for terrorism. Like it or not, the most successful efforts to control radical Islamist political groups have been antidemocratic, repressive campaigns, such as those waged in Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria in the 1990s. The notion that Arab governments would necessarily be more effective in fighting extremists is wishful thinking, no matter how valuable democratization might be for other reasons.
This last point will no doubt cheer Matt Yglesias, who is fond of pointing out that the first truly independent government in Iraq will crush the insurgents by resorting to the exactly the sort of horrifically brutal methods that provoke international outrage if the United States used them.

However, there are also numerous examples of unrestrained violence triggering an even more massive revolt. Both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists tried to exterminate Mao's communists, only to have Mao & Co. prevail in the end. For those whose political memories extend back to the 1980s (or happen to write dissertations on the subject), Nicaragua and El Salvador provide examples of right-wing dictatorships whose brutality destroyed them.

But this point is secondary. The real issue is whether democratic reform can resolve a problem whose origins clearly include factors other than the lack of democracy. In theory, the emergence of pristine liberal democracies in the Middle East probably would be enough to put an end to terrorism regardless of its cause. The real issue is whether flawed democracies that won't measure up to Western standards for at least a generation can make a difference in the War on Terror.

Disputing that notion, Carothers points to active terroist organizations in Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Nepal. What I'd be interested to know is whether there is an observable relationship between democratic progress in those three nations and efforts to fight terrorism. Also, is it just an accident that terrorists in all those nations target their own government rather the United States or Europe? Does democracy lead terrorists to recognize that the answer to their problem lies at home, not in Washington or New York?

UPDATE: MY has some thoughts about the Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
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