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The Impossible Imperative? Conjuring Arab Democracy

The Impossible Imperative? Conjuring Arab Democracy

Mini Teaser: Arab democracy is no oxymoron, but expecting it in time to remedy our 9/11 problem is unrealistic.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

Say what you will about Lyndon Johnson's imperfections, the man had a keen sense of the American character. "Our American people", he said during a November 1967 press conference, "when we get into a contest of any kind-whether it is a war, an election, a football game or whatever it is-we want it decided quickly; get in or get out." President Johnson's appreciation for Americans' lack of tolerance for ambiguities, particularly in matters of national security, bears on how we think about and deal with the problem of mass-casualty terrorism. Having to live with vulnerabilities of apocalyptic scale for an indefinite future is, for most Americans, simply inconceivable. It follows that there must be a way to end such vulnerabilities.

For some that way is to kill or capture terrorists everywhere they may be found, and to either overturn or intimidate into good behavior all regimes that aid them. That seemed the essential message of the original Bush Doctrine (since refined into a strategy of conjoint military and political pre-emption-of which more below). For others, the solution is a Middle East Marshall Plan, the premise being that poverty causes terrorism. But nearly everyone sees that a broad and hyperactive military approach, even a technologically stunning one, is unlikely by itself to succeed (and could incite more trouble in future than it can solve in the here and now). The poverty alleviation solution is so impractically suited to the size and urgency of the problem that few responsible people take it seriously. So a political solution, poised between military and materialist ones, has now gained pride of place: fostering Arab democracy.

Since last autumn we have come to suspect that the political culture of the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular operates on premises mostly antithetical to our own. Not that many Muslims or Arabs think and would act like Al-Qaeda members, but the extent of anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism in the Middle East is great, and it stems not only from particular U.S. policies but from incommensurate attitudes, long in the making, about the ideals and nature of public life. This may or may not translate into a clash of civilizations, but it certainly indicates more than a mere failure to communicate.

Soon after September 11, 2001, therefore, the key question emerged: Can we change Middle Eastern political culture? Some joined Thomas Friedman in defining the aim of the war on terrorism as "it's democracy, stupid." "Those who argue that we needn't press for democracy in Arab-Muslim states, and can rely on repressive regimes" he wrote in his November 20 New York Times column, "have it all wrong." Others thought such ambitions a reach too far. Michael Kelly, for example, conceded in his Washington Post essay the very next day that democracy is necessary for the ultimate establishment of free, tolerant and neighborly states, but "three questions remain: Are we generally capable of overthrowing undemocratic Islamic regimes (and there are a lot of them) and replacing them with free and moderate democracies? What would happen if we tried? If we succeeded?" His answers were sober ones: "By and large we are not capable of overthrowing such regimes. . . . If we tried, we would probably get jihad for real. If we succeeded, we would get a world of unintended consequences", including perhaps a Talibanish regime in Saudi Arabia.

The op-ed page exchanges over this issue reflected a deep and longstanding debate among experts, most outside and a few within the Bush Administration. The question roiled its internal deliberations for months, but by June 1 it seemed resolved in favor of the more ambitious and optimistic view. President Bush said at West Point:

When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations. The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The people of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation. . . . Mothers and fathers and children across the Islamic world, and all the world, share the same fears and aspirations. In poverty, they struggle. In tyranny, they suffer. And as we saw in Afghanistan, in liberation they celebrate.

To all appearances, then, the administration sees the creation of Arab democracy as a strategic imperative, and as a logical political accompaniment to the policy of military pre-emption. In other words, in addition to pre-empting missiles and madmen, we will in due course pre-empt motives as well.

Political pre-emption takes three forms. First, the United States will increase significantly its foreign assistance and public diplomacy efforts, the assumption being not that poverty and disinformation cause terrorism, but that they provide terrorism with literal and psychological support structures. Second, the United States will engage in nation-building (more accurately, state-building) in cases where potential failed states are strategically situated. And third, the United States will promote democracy both for its own sake and because poverty alleviation, the nurturing of free and responsible media, and nation-building are believed ultimately futile without it. Hence, in specific terms, the administration's acceptance that nation-building in Afghanistan is unavoidable, the linkage of Palestinian-Israeli peace to the democratic reform of the Palestinian Authority, and the conclusion that the overthrow of the Ba'ath regime in Iraq requires that a democracy be installed in its place.

The project of exporting democracy to the Muslim and Arab worlds has become suddenly very popular. For one thing, it is a delight to speechwriters and White House political operatives, for it elevates a political vocabulary that leaves critics open to easy counterpunching. For another, it accords closely with Americans' sense of their own global mission: "Tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection", as Reinhold Niebuhr once described it. Whenever Americans face a problem in the world for which there is no obvious remedy, democracy promotion-which comes down to making "them" look more like "us"-is the default solution; and it comes, almost invariably, with a condescending high-mindedness to one hand and a cache of technological doodads to the other. (America as liberal imperium is not, however, exceptional in this; similar impulses used to be called "the white man's burden" or "la mission civilatrice", which helps explain the renewed fascination, even in Washington, with Rudyard Kipling.)

Even normally circumspect commentators have rallied behind the project of exporting democracy to the Arabs. Jim Hoagland criticized the meekness of President Bush's June 24 speech on reforming the Palestinian Authority: "The speech that Bush should have given on Monday would have addressed much more fully the ways in which the Arab world as a whole must adapt to modern political and economic democracy-and what the United States will do to help." Urging the United States not to think small, Hoagland foresees "a greatly expanded and intrusive U.S. military presence . . . to help develop and shield new and democratic leaderships in Iraq and in a Palestinian state." That military presence, specifically in Iraq, "will serve as a lynchpin for democratic transformation of a major Arab country that can be a model for the region." Implementing that model, however, will require a new cast of characters: "The administration cannot rely on local leaders who show no commitment to democratic change to be the instruments of that change. . . . These leaders must be challenged rather than comforted or coddled." Michael Kelly, reversing his earlier caution, has predicted a democratic Iraq and Palestine in "only a few years", developments that will "revolutionize the power dynamic in the Middle East, powerfully adding to the effects of the liberation of Afghanistan to force Arab and Islamic regimes to increasingly allow democratic reforms. A majority of Arabs", he argues, "will come to see America as the essential ally in progress toward liberty in their own lands" because the President now rejects "the entire philosophy of Middle Eastern diplomacy" wherein we have traded forbearance of Arab political misanthropies for stability and oil. Concludes Kelly, "This is radical, and it will produce radical results." William Kristol capped the beatification of the new approach with a paean to democratic peace theory applied to the Middle East. The President's "vision of a democratic and peaceful swath of the Middle East, from Israel through Palestine, Jordan and Iraq", he has written, "has now become the governing objective of the Bush Administration-and ambitious though it is, it is really the only realistic path to peace in the Middle East and to victory in the war on terror."

Essay Types: Essay