Friday, May 14, 2004

Broken Engagement
My man Wes writes of understanding what it takes to bring Democracy to the Middle East (Washington Monthly):
During 2002 and early 2003, Bush administration officials put forth a shifting series of arguments for why we needed to invade Iraq. Nearly every one of these has been belied by subsequent events. We have yet to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; assuming that they exist at all, they obviously never presented an imminent threat. Saddam's alleged connections to al Qaeda turned out to be tenuous at best and clearly had nothing to do with September 11. The terrorists now in Iraq have largely arrived because we are there, and Saddam's security forces aren't. And peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which prominent hawks argued could be achieved 'only through Baghdad,' seems further away than ever.

Advocates of the invasion are now down to their last argument: that transforming Iraq from brutal tyranny to stable democracy will spark a wave of democratic reform throughout the Middle East, thereby alleviating the conditions that give rise to terrorism. This argument is still standing because not enough time has elapsed to test it definitively--though events in the year since Baghdad's fall do not inspire confidence. For every report of a growing conversation in the Arab world about the importance of democracy, there's another report of moderate Arabs feeling their position undercut by the backlash against our invasion. For every example of progress (Libya giving up its WMD program), there's an instance of backsliding (the Iranian mullahs purging reformist parliamentarians).

Whether or not you agreed with the president's decision to invade Iraq--and I did not--there's no doubt that America has a right and a duty to take whatever actions are necessary, including military action, to protect ourselves from the clear security threats emanating from this deeply troubled part of the world. Authoritarian rule in these countries has clearly created fertile ground for terrorists, and so establishing democratic governance in the region must be seen as one of our most vital security goals. There is good reason, however, to question whether the president's strategy is advancing or hindering that goal.
President Bush's approach to Iraq and to the Middle East in general has been greatly influenced by a group of foreign-policy thinkers whose defining experience was as hawkish advisors to President Reagan and the first President Bush, and who in the last few years have made an explicit comparison between Middle Eastern regimes and the Soviet Union. These neoconservatives looked at the nest of problems caused by Middle East tyranny and argued that a morally unequivocal stance and tough military action could topple those regimes and transform the region as surely as they believed that Reagan's aggressive rhetoric and military posture brought down the Soviet Union. In a March 2002 interview on CNN, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, one of the main architects of the Iraq war, argued that the moral judgment that President Bush made "very clear, crystal clear in his State of the Union message" in which he laid out the Axis of Evil is "exactly the same kind of clarity, I think, that Ronald Reagan introduced in understanding the Soviet Union." In a speech last year, Defense Department advisor Richard Perle made the comparison even more explicit: "I have no doubt that [Bush] has the vision that Ronald Reagan had, and can envision, can contemplate change on a very large scale in Iraq and elsewhere across the region."

This dream of engineering events in the Middle East to follow those of the Soviet Union has led to an almost unprecedented geostrategic blunder. One crucial reason things went wrong, I believe, is that the neoconservatives misunderstood how and why the Soviet Union fell and what the West did to contribute to that fall. They radically overestimated the role of military assertiveness while underestimating the value of other, subtler measures. They then applied those theories to the Middle East, a region with very different political and cultural conditions. The truth is this: It took four decades of patient engagement to bring down the Iron Curtain, and 10 years of deft diplomacy to turn chaotic, post-Soviet states into stable, pro-Western democracies. To achieve the same in the Middle East will require similar engagement, patience, and luck.
"Moral clarity," President Bush said in his 2002 commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy, "was essential to our victory in the cold war. When leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan refused to gloss over the brutality of tyrants, they gave hope to prisoners and dissidents and exiles and rallied free nations to a great cause ... We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name. By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem." Never mind that the regime the administration was most intent on confronting was the one in the region that had perhaps the least to do with the events of September 11 or the immediate terrorist threat.

And the neoconservative goal was more ambitious than merely toppling dictators: By creating a democracy in Iraq, our success would, in the president's words, "send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran--that freedom can be the future of every nation," and Iraq's democracy would serve as a beacon that would ignite liberation movements and a "forward strategy of freedom" around the Middle East.

This rhetoric is undeniably inspiring. We should have pride in our history, confidence in our principles, and take security in the knowledge that we are at the epicenter of a 228-year revolution in the transformation of political systems. But recognizing the power of our values also means understanding their meaning. Freedom and dignity spring from within the human heart. They are not imposed. And inside the human heart is where the impetus for political change must be generated.

The neoconservative rhetoric glosses over this truth and much else. Even aside from the administration's obvious preference for confronting terrorism's alleged host states rather than the terrorists themselves, it was a huge leap to believe that establishing democracies by force of Western arms in old Soviet surrogate states like Syria and Iraq would really affect a terrorist movement drawing support from anti-Western sentiment in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Seeking to intervene and essentially impose a democracy on a country without real democratic traditions or the foundations of a pluralist society is not only risky, it is also inherently self-contradictory. All experience suggests that democracy doesn't grow like this. But we are where we are, and we must pull together to try to help this project succeed.
Any attempt to build democracy in the Islamic world must begin by taking into account Islam itself, the region's major source of culture, values, and law. There has been no "Protestant reformation" within the Muslim world. The teachings of the Koran tend to reflect an absolutism largely left behind in the West. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that he would not accept the emergence of a theocratic state within Iraq, he gave voice to a profound concern: that even in Iraq, one of the more secularized Arab states, the majority of people look to Islam for their values and beliefs. (Indeed, Saddam himself in his final years in power increasingly turned to religious rhetoric to shore up support among his impoverished people). Inevitably, any lasting constitution there must entail compromises that reflect popular values. Hopefully, a form of government can emerge that reflects Islamic notions of rights, responsibilities, and respect but that is also representative in nature, reflects popular sovereignty, and retains the capacity to make pragmatic decisions.
We must also recognize that to be successful, we're going to need our European allies. Europe is closer to the Middle East geographically and more enmeshed with it economically. It is home to millions of Middle Eastern immigrants, who are a natural bridge across the Mediterranean. It is not so strongly associated with Israel in the minds of Arabs as we are. And yet, its very proximity gives Europe at least as much incentive as we have to fight terrorism and work for a stable, democratic Middle East. This makes the Bush administration's belittling and alienating of Europe all the more perplexing.
We need to take the American face off this effort and work indirectly. But there are some American faces that can be enormously useful. Among our greatest assets during the Cold War were immigrants and refugees from the captive nations of the Soviet Union. Tapping their patriotism toward America and love of their homelands, we tasked them with communicating on our behalf with their repressed countrymen in ways both overt and covert, nursing hopes for freedom and helping to organize resistance. America's growing community of patriotic Muslim immigrants can play a similar role. They can help us establish broader, deeper relationships with Muslim countries through student and cultural exchange programs and organizational business development.

We can't know precisely how the desire for freedom among the peoples of the Middle East will grow and evolve into movements that result in stable democratic governments. Different countries may take different paths. Progress may come from a beneficent king, from enlightened mullahs, from a secular military, from a women's movement, from workers returning from years spent as immigrants in Western Europe, from privileged sons of oil barons raised on MTV, or from an increasingly educated urban intelligentsia, such as the nascent one in Iran. But if the events of the last year tell us anything, it is that democracy in the Middle East is unlikely to come at the point of our gun. And Ronald Reagan would have known better than to try. [Nitpicker emphasis]
I generally self-title my posts but I used the article's title on this one as, unfortunately, it works on two levels. That is, we won't be taking Wes Clark to the 'prom' will we? As with the man, there's much more to the article as well - so go read.


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