Where Credit Is Due

Where Credit Is Due

Mini Teaser: Is change in the Middle East the result of Ameican action or serendipity?

by Author(s): Rachel Bronson

A sudden burst of political activity has jolted the Middle East. Iraq's historic January 30 elections transpired with considerably less violence than predicted. Two weeks later, male citizens in Saudi Arabia went to the polls to vote in the Riyadh province's first ever municipal elections, followed by similar elections elsewhere in the country. In Lebanon, the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri galvanized massive protests against the Syrian occupation. In Palestine, citizens not only freely elected a new leader, but the Palestinian Authority rejected Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei's crony cabinet, forcing him to incorporate younger, less-beholden politicians. Soon thereafter, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak suddenly announced that the Egyptian political system would be opened to more than just one candidate. In May, Kuwaiti women won the right to vote and run in parliamentary elections. Winds of change are blowing through the Middle East.

Why this cascade of political developments, and why now? President Bush and his supporters credit the breathtaking pace of recent events to the transformational aspect of the president's foreign policy. His critics, on the other hand, point to circumstances that have created a perfect storm for reform. Over the last decade, local activists from Morocco to Bahrain have taken strides toward political reform. Jordan has been experimenting with different election rules and various forms of representation. The participation of women in Yemen's electoral process increased from 500,000 to 1.5 million between the 1993 and 1997. Yasir Arafat's death catapulted into positions of prominence a new generation of Palestinian leaders, many of whom have been working against corruption, political stagnation and diplomatic intransigence for over a decade. For this school of thought, today's calls for reform are the outgrowth of yesterday's hard-fought battles.

Both the president's supporters and critics point to real factors pushing toward change. But while critics too easily downplay the underlying force behind today's events, the White House seems dangerously cavalier about the direction that change will take. Although critics are loathe to admit it, removing Saddam Hussein did unleash forces for change in the region, which local activists are capitalizing on today. What the Bush Administration misses, however, is that reform has been slow to take root in the region not because of a naive belief around the world that Middle Easterners are somehow incapable of building democracies, but because the civic institutions needed for such a project were systematically undermined in the Middle East throughout the Cold War. Unless such institutions are painstakingly cultivated, elections in Palestine and Iraq will not have the "demonstration effect" that the Bush Administration desires.

What the Iraq War did was shatter the final vestiges of mid-20th-century politics lingering on in the Middle East. For 15 years, the end of the Cold War, which launched a third wave of democratization in some places and a descent into chaos in others, was delayed in the Middle East. In 2005, the early lights of 1989 are dawning in the region. Whether the region will follow the path of eastern Europe or the more disheartening one of Central Asia will depend on the abilities of the reform movements that grew up in the 1990s and sustained international--but especially American--involvement.

No Peace Dividend

For most of the world, the end of the Cold War ushered in a moment of political opportunity. Across the globe, reduced foreign aid and military assistance, coupled with external pressures to democratize and fertile political foundations, allowed local activists a greater space to agitate for reform. It provided an opportunity for bottom-up change that in some places, like eastern Europe, where nascent democratic and other civic institutions existed, resulted in movement toward democracy. In other places, where such institutions were weak or non-existent, popular dissent resulted in the replacement of one authoritarian leader with another or, worse, outright chaos.

Middle Easterners, however, experienced something very different, because the region did not change as dramatically as the rest of the world. Middle Eastern states did not follow the trend toward economic decentralization and integration. Highly centralized states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia were unable or unwilling to diversify and privatize key sectors of their economies. While the Washington Consensus pressed economic liberalization elsewhere, in the Middle East security concerns prevailed.

Bucking international trends and continuing its Cold War policies, the Middle East remained the world's largest non-OECD arms market during the 1990s. The region's total annual defense expenditure in 1998 was around $60 billion, compared with $9.7 billion for sub-Saharan Africa, $21 billion for Central and South Asia, and $37 billion for Central and South America. At 7 percent of GDP, Middle Eastern defense expenditure was the highest for any region of the world.

The Middle East largely continued its Cold War policies because on August 2, 1990, a mere nine months after the Berlin Wall crumbled, 100,000 Iraqi troops marched into Kuwait. In response, the United States led one of the most wide-ranging and dominant coalitions ever assembled. Iraq's continuing regional threat, and the arms deals it necessitated, perpetuated spending. The massive build-up in military force, accompanied by continued international economic support for local leaders, shut the window on political opposition and continued a hegemon-backed status quo.

The post-1991 Iraqi threat created an imperative to rely on local authoritarian leaders who were all too willing to comply. In the 1990s, Washington's priorities in the Middle East were first and foremost the containment of Iraq, followed by the Arab-Israeli peace process. Accordingly, local leaders, no matter how authoritarian, continued to receive outside support for maintaining the status quo. Rather than reducing aid and pushing for reform, as occurred in the rest of the world, the United States increased assistance to steadfast Middle Eastern allies. In a dramatic gesture, President Bush successfully urged a wary Congress in 1990 to cancel $7 billion in Egypt's military debt and expected other countries to follow suit. Later, when Jordan was welcomed back into the international fold in the mid-1990s after siding with Iraq during the war, the United States increased assistance from $7.2 million to $200 million, making Jordan one of the world's half-dozen largest recipients of funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Although the aid package included an important economic reform component, its primary objective was to reward Jordanian dissociation from Iraq and involvement in the peace process. During the sudden flurry around the 1993 Oslo Accords, aid was used as an inducement for states to come to the bargaining table, not to carry out political reforms.

Inhospitable Soil for Democracy?

These policies stymied the region's political development. Between 1990 and 2000, Freedom House recorded an increase of "free" and "partly free" states from 105 to 145 countries, while "not free" dropped from 62 to 47. But in the Middle East, as the authors of the UN's 2003 Arab Human Development Report noted, "while the general trend [between 1990 and 2000] saw freedom rise worldwide, in most Arab countries it fell, with an apparent decline during the early 1990s."

There was little incentive for local leaders to pursue reform. But even the pressures percolating from the bottom have not been pushing leaders in a more liberal direction. This, too, is a legacy of the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union supported revolutionary Arab nationalists in order to undercut America's more conservative partners like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt (after 1973). In response, the United States tacitly supported the politicization of Islam and those states and domestic groups that rejected "godless communism", even though they did not--and were never expected to--embrace liberal democracy. Religion became a useful tool to combat Soviet expansion.

Saudi Arabia, whose leaders wielded considerable international religious influence because of their ability to speak for Mecca and Medina, was particularly useful to the United States in this regard and was recognized as such going back to President Eisenhower. The country became all the more important as oil wealth provided resources to fund international operations. From Africa to South Asia, the Saudis devoted considerable resources to beat back Soviet influence by both funding local armies and promoting their own view of Islam, one that inoculated future generations from the lure of international communism.

The confluence of U.S.-Saudi anti-communist interests manifested itself most obviously in Afghanistan, where the United States and Saudi Arabia spent no less then $3 billion each, channeling assistance to armed anti-American Islamic fundamentalists. But the shared anti-communism embedded in the U.S.-Saudi partnership, and the proselytizing it spawned, was not limited to Afghanistan; it stretched from Somalia, Sudan and Chad to Pakistan and beyond. Countries where the U.S.-Saudi partnership was strongest are areas where today the Islamist threat is particularly vexing. After September 11, both Somalia and Sudan were considered likely targets in any American operation to eliminate terrorism.

Other American allies, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Israel, supported indigenous Islamic movements in order to counter local nationalist opponents, many of whom were Soviet backed. In turn, the same leaders who underwrote local Islamist groups in the 1970s and 1980s later used their very presence to justify a resistance toward democratization.

Essay Types: Essay