Washington's challenge is simply too radical, too sweeping, and too unsettling for the region.
Taking it seriously
by Ammar Abdulhamid
Those who think that the difficulties the Americans are having in Iraq are going to make them rethink their commitment to effecting serious change in the Middle East and adopt some kind of a neutral hands-off stance vis-à-vis regional developments are, simply put, deluding themselves. In fact, the invasion of Iraq promises to be merely the beginning of a long period of direct American interventionism in the region. Whatever difficulties the Americans are bound to encounter along the way, whatever changes should take place at the helm, substituting Democrats for Republicans, conservatives for liberals, doves for hawks, or vice versa, could affect the choice of the particular interventionist strategy to be deployed, but it will have no impact on the interventionist policy itself. The United States has no option but to intervene.
This is so partly on account of the many vital interests that the US has in the region--and yes, oil and the special relationship that exists between the US and Israel need to figure prominently here. But for the most part this has to do with the region's imperviousness to change, whether as a result of soft international pressures or mounting internal demands.
The inability of this region to reinvent itself in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War at a time when much of the world, including many developing countries with much less potential and fewer resources than those of the Middle East, was experiencing rapid change has put the entire region in a rather precarious position--it is simply too vital and volatile to be left alone and unchanged.
The Barcelona Process that the Europeans launched in 1995 was designed to help the region, or at least parts thereof, to adapt to the new geopolitical and economic realities that the world was witnessing and deal more effectively with its various developmental challenges. But that approach, based as it was on soft diplomacy and a huge dose of pragmatism, has obviously failed to produce any of the desired results. The various Middle East regimes involved were simply too short-sighted and manipulative to commit themselves seriously to the more deep reforms and changes demanded of them.
As such, almost a decade has elapsed now since the launch of this process but only cosmetic reforms have been implemented. This is so not simply on the political level, but even on the economic level where countries that claim to have adopted more market-oriented policies have in practice only widened the scope of corruption of the ruling oligarchies.
In the meantime, the Americans have been watching and attempting to develop their own approach to the region, one based in no small part on the assumption that a successful conclusion to the Arab-Israeli struggle was bound to open up the region for investments and change. The disheartening collapse of the peace process in 2023 caught the Americans by surprise, and they had no clear alternative strategies to fall back on. The unwillingness of the current Bush administration to engage in the Arab-Israel struggle in the months following George W. Bush's election seems to be more related to this lack of vision than to a lack of interest in the region or understanding of its importance.
September 11 changed all that. As a result, the Americans are now actively trying to come up with a new vision for change in the Middle East, one that is not centered on the Arab-Israeli struggle and that avoids the pitfalls and indecisiveness of the Barcelona Process.
The Greater Middle East Initiative will most likely prove only a first tentative attempt at constructing such a vision. Taking part in shaping it at this early malleable phase will help the peoples of the region take back some control over their lives and future. Ignoring it or wishing it away in the hope that the Americans will be disheartened is bound to backfire and will further radicalize the American approach to the region. In this, the inhabitants of the region, peoples and ruling elites alike, have much more to lose than the Americans. It is, therefore, in their interest to take the Americans and their initiatives seriously and to actively engage them whenever they show willingness to talk rather than bomb their way into our lives.
If the existing regimes in the Middle East appear too recalcitrant or bankrupt to show a more proactive attitude towards American initiatives, the region's civil society activists and networks, as weak as they are, have no choice but to attempt to compensate. There is something on the table that can affect all our lives. We are invited to sit and take part in shaping it--how can we turn our backs on that? -Published 15/4/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org
Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident and democracy activist, currently exiled in the United States. He is the founder and director of the Tharwa Foundation, a non-governmental organization dedicated to facilitating democratic processes and improving inter-communal relations across the broader Middle East and North Africa region.
The Arab world & movement towards reform
by Waheed Hashem
A colossal intellectual war has been going on in the Arab and Islamic world since the events of September 11, 2023--that fateful date that altered all the features of the old world and subjected it to meticulous security and political scrutiny, after which the world was reconstituted.
The events of September 11 reset the principles and values of international policies of the major world powers and paved the way for the establishment of a new political and religious doctrinal framework in all fields of international relations, not only between countries, but also between governmental and non-governmental organizations, public and private.
But the most significant developments showed themselves at the beginning of this new "war of ideas" so that they, in turn, developed within the context of this ideological war, and whose presence cannot now be disregarded in the international community. If beliefs or ideologies were settled and solidified in a certain manner at the time of September 11, it was inevitable that they begin to "move" again in one way or another, whether due to acts of terrorism or the intellectual revolutions that those events generated.
How can one argue otherwise when all current international and regional conditions are being subjected to the logic of change, whether self-induced or generated by external pressures? These dangerous developments are happening at the same time that the world is embroiled in fierce battles against the forces of evil and terrorism, which are trying to strike at the entire world's security and stability. The forces of good are struggling with the forces of evil and chaos, between the reactionaries and the progressives, the extremists and the liberals, the reformists and the conservatives and between the moderates and the radicals. These battles are nothing but fierce ideological battles for the sake of continuity and survival or for the sake of substitution where ideas precede behavior.
Recently, the United States once again sent up regional test balloons, simultaneously working to generate political and media heat in order to assess the results. Political statements indicated that the Bush administration is determined to spread democracy in the Middle East as it once did in Eastern Europe. Subsequently, European statements and calls for initiatives--French and German in particular--were made to fill in the American gaps or to offer an alternative, in case the Arab world expressed rejection.
One cannot dismiss the fact, however, that there has always been strong agreement and a direct correlation between the American and European view on changing the Middle East. The goals and interests are Western and the results and intentions are united. The differences between these Western initiatives are only in the method-- change in the Arab world is going to happen, whether by the violent and uncompromising cowboy style or via a gentle Cinderella transformation.
Today, it seems that the Arab region is between a rock and a hard place, one no less dangerous than the other. It is only a matter of time before western countries force change on the Arab world in accordance with what is "cooking in the western political kitchen" and according to the laws of politics. The question of the security and political costs of this expected change in the Arab world is only a matter of cutting losses, making the most of wins and focusing on the need for the most sound method to enforce change at the lowest cost.
An objective comparison of the difference between the American and European initiatives and their two recipes for change sees the American initiative as frank and direct. In that, I believe it is characterized by a certain offensiveness--not to mention that it does not lack sentiments of cultural superiority and arrogance, both of which dominate the American political and cultural identity.
By comparison, some believe that the German and even the French initiatives are more eloquent and flexible in their presentation. Some see them as more democratic, given that they call for incorporating active Arab participation. One can expect a unified European initiative to be woven from the German and French ideas, one characterized by soft, honey-coated words enveloped in a merciless iron fist. Too, it will be characterized by the notorious European deception, the sparks that fly from the eyes of the sly colonialist fox.
The American and European initiatives compliment each other in mutual interests and are influenced by the historic strategic American-European partnership. The analogy of the attacker and defender is the soundest. While the American initiative cracks its whip in order to impose change, the European initiative plays on subtlety, flexibility and temptation to reassure hearts and minds, win over emotions, and influence Arab ideas to accept change with open arms.
Nevertheless, some countries will meet the American declarations with hostility, rejection or even criticism. Some fear this American policy because they believe that if the future is drawn with an American brush, it will carry painful if not devastating losses.
Others believe that these American ideas are an attempt to exploit the current defeatist and paralyzed Arab condition in order to implant foreign ideas. Yet another perspective is that American statements or leaks about plans for change in the region are only a bluff to twist the arm of the Arabs in order to extract as many concessions as possible and achieve even more Arab submission.
None of this discourse incorporates the American and Western European scientific and political truth that understands democracy as a political system whose bases, rules, systems and institutions differ between any two countries, even between those that lie in close geographic proximity (Britain and France, or the US and Canada, for example).
Why is there such a phobia of the word "democracy" and such fear of change, as long as the political system of any one Arab country remains a legitimate and national system accepted by the people and representing the national legitimacy of all its sectors and religious and social backgrounds? And why is there fear of a political system that may or may not be more efficient in performance and effectiveness than some Arab regimes, especially in terms of citizens' rights, safety, stability and prosperity?
In my opinion, this fear is in name, rather than reality. It is a weakness resulting from an inferiority complex in the mental, political and cultural background of Arabs, which cannot be cured except through a psychological transformation that permanently obliterates the ego of the individual and replaces it with the collective ego. This is less dangerous to the overall interests of the Arab and Islamic nation because it is in the least more representative.-Published 15/4/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Waheed Hashem is a political scientist and media advisor in Saudi Arabia.
An American mission
by Joshua Muravchik
Promoting democracy in the Middle East is at the heart of President Bush's strategy for winning the war against terrorism. He also aims to destroy terrorist groups like al Qaeda and to stop governments from supporting terrorists. He recognizes, however, that a long-term solution must address the underlying causes of terrorism.
On this point, Bush differs from those who say that the roots of terrorism are to be found in poverty. Several empirical studies show that the socio-economic status of terrorists tends to be above the average of their societies and that poor countries are not more likely to breed terrorists than rich countries. The theory behind the Bush strategy is that the root cause of terrorism is to be found not in economics but in politics, specifically in tyranny.
A political culture in which power flows, as Mao Zedong put it, "from the barrel of a gun," is one that will breed people who think that violence is an acceptable way to pursue political goals. In contrast, in societies is which people are accustomed to resolving political differences by means of discussing and voting, they will be more likely to carry out their disputes with outsiders by peaceful methods. Democracies are less likely to start wars than are dictators, and for the same reasons they are less likely to hatch terrorists.
Is it any wonder that most of the terrorism that plagues the world arises in the Middle East? Today, out of 22 Arab countries not one has a government elected by its people. Of the world's other 170 governments, 120 (70 percent) were chosen in bona fide elections.
The rise of democracy in the Middle East will benefit not only the US. Middle Easterners, just like people in every other region, crave the dignity of selecting their own rulers and being free to voice their opinions. We have seen evidence of this in the Arab Human Development Reports, the declaration of the recent conference at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and other recent statements by Arab thinkers. We have seen it too, in the reactions of untold numbers of Iraqis to being liberated from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein--even most of those who resent the American presence in their country. If America succeeds in implanting democracy in the region it will benefit the Arabs even more than the Americans.
What right has America to say how other nations should govern themselves? What if others don't want democracy? The answer is that there is no way to know what a people "wants" except by a democratic process in which they can express it themselves.
This is not to say that America would be justified in spreading democracy across the region by the sword. Iraq--with Saddam's record of aggression and using chemical weapons and his defiance of his disarmament obligations--was a special case. For the most part, America's hopes of promoting democracy rely on peaceful methods: aid, diplomatic pressure, propaganda, education, commercial incentives, and the like.
Is America sincere? Why should the Arabs believe Bush's honeyed words about democracy? Such skepticism is easy to understand because the US has not pushed democracy in this region in the past the way it has done in Eastern Europe or South America. But 9/11 convinced Americans that our traditional approach to the region was a failure. Bush himself said last year that his approach amounted to a repudiation of "60 years of western" policy of "excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East." These 60 years included the administration of Bush's father. This is not something he would say lightly. Nor, if he were insincere, would he go out of his way, as he has done, to say that our goal of democratization applies not only to states that have been hostile to us but also to close US allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
However earnest the American effort, are the Arabs ready for democracy? Perhaps the absence of democracy in the region reflects some profound cultural incompatibility with democracy. Similar speculation was once voiced about the prospects of democracy in Asia. During World War II, it was the official wisdom of the US State Department that we could not democratize Japan because history had taught us that democracy could never work there. Such doubts were expressed about democracy's prospects not only in Asia but also Latin America, Catholic Europe, and even the American south. Time and again, democracy has proven to be compatible with more variegated cultures than many experts had expected.
Even so, can democracy be stimulated from the outside? Doesn't every nation need to establish democracy for itself? Ultimately, the endurance of democracy depends on the roots it can sink in the values and expectations of the populace, but we have many examples in which democracy was first implanted by outsiders. Moreover, outsiders can give a helping hand to indigenous democrats who are working or struggling for democracy. Although US popularity may stand at an all-time low in the Arab world, nonetheless there are many signs that America's demand for democratization has already had an impact, evidenced for example by the recent cancellation of the Arab League summit caused at least in part by divisions over how to respond to this issue.
How much success the US will reap in its democracy campaign will depend to a great extent on its success in making Iraq some kind of model or at least leaving Iraq a more open and livable society than it was under Ba'th rule. And it depends, too, on Washington's determination to pursue this goal consistently and for many years.-Published 15/4/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org
Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of "The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East".
Turkey and the Greater Middle East initiative
by Duygu Bazoglu Sezer
A little over two months ago United States President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union message, dropped a political and psychological bombshell across the so-called "greater Middle East" (GME) when he announced that the democratic transformation of this vast region was now targeted as a priority objective of American foreign policy.
The American administration has not as yet elaborated how it plans to bring about such transformation. What it seems to want is, essentially, regime change throughout the region from authoritarian to democratic government. Advocated most strongly by the American neo-conservatives, the proposal is driven by the belief that the region would cease to serve as the breeding ground of deep instability, insecurity, and anti-western terrorism only if and when regimes turn democratic. Washington has succeeded not only to generate an intense public debate across the region but, more importantly perhaps, to set the immediate and medium-term political agenda before national leaderships.
Leaving aside the question of its being presented, against the background of America's ongoing occupation of Iraq, almost as an "ultimatum" by the United States--this being the most frequently-voiced public criticism against the Bush initiative--Washington's challenge is simply too radical, too sweeping, and too unsettling for a region whose experience in western-style democratic government has been limited if not non-existent for many. Indeed, an appropriate response would probably mean, perhaps in a very short time span, removal from power of today's regimes and associated vested interests in most countries in the GME.
This fundamental dilemma is one reason why agreement on a unified position or response among regional countries has been elusive. While some positive responses have indeed been heard among some members of Arab political classes and in Arab public opinion, the majority of the voices have been critical. A second source of confusion results from the urgency and priority that most Arabs attribute to the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The last minute cancellation of the Arab League summit scheduled to meet in Tunis at the end of March is perhaps the most glaring example of the bitter divisions that the initiative has engendered within the Arab world on the sources of regional instability and insecurity, as well as on what comes first, the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or democracy.
The GMD is generally understood to include such non-Arab countries as Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The initiative has aroused intense political debate in these countries as well. I shall try to explain how Turks evaluate it.
Despite its many shortcomings--such as the role of the military as the guardian of secularism--Turkey has enjoyed a democratic form of government since 1950. Secularism and democracy, seen as mutually reinforcing principles, are enshrined in the constitution. As a matter of principle, therefore, the spread of democracy to its neighborhood could only be viewed as a positive development by Turkey.
On the other hand, modern Turkey has traditionally tried to adhere to a general principle of non-involvement in the region on regime questions as well as on intra-Arab conflicts. The question of Iraq since 1990 has seriously strained this posture. The Bush initiative on the GME is yet another challenge to the traditional hands-off approach. Nevertheless, the current Turkish government has chosen to extend warm support to the Bush initiative--but with some serious caveats concerning its implementation and Turkey's potential role. Signals from Washington suggest that Turkey is viewed in a special light as a democratic Muslim country--in line with Washington's new fondness for "moderate Islam"--potentially capable of making an important contribution to the process. But Turkey also supports the mainstream Arab view concerning the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The government was a proponent of change and reform in the Muslim world even before the GME appeared in the State of the Union address. In a speech on January 30, 2023 at Harvard University, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said, "the question is not whether democratization [in the Middle East] is possible, but instead how to meet the yearning of the masses in the Middle East for democracy."
The current Turkish government's diplomatic push for reform in the Muslim world and support for the GME initiative may seem highly paradoxical and contradictory, given Erdogan's and Foreign Minister Gul's well-documented association with and leadership in the leading anti-western and anti-Israeli Islamist circles for years until they founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2023. Erdogan and his associates have tried their best since coming to power in November 2023 to demonstrate that they indeed have broken with the past, shedding their political Islamist worldview. Party leaders and ideologues have repeatedly used the designation "conservative democratic" and "centrist" to define the political philosophy of the party, and the AKP government has pushed through radical and controversial legislation to greatly improve the quality of Turkish democracy and its record on human rights.
Two forces were strongly instrumental in bringing about this evolution. First, the Turkish constitutional and criminal codes do not tolerate political Islam if its practice seems to violate democracy and secularism. The second influence was the European Union.
On the other hand, Turkish support does not seem to be unconditional. Turkish officials seem to favor voluntary domestic initiatives for political change mobilized and led by domestic forces within the countries concerned. This implies that Turkey would be unhappy with suggestions for imposed solutions. Worse still would be possible scenarios contemplating military solutions. Post-war Iraq is a stark reminder of the enormous risks and difficulties involved in employing a military solution for regime change. Besides, Turks remember the adverse Arab reaction to such initiatives as the Baghdad Pact and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), of which Turkey was a founding member in the 1950s.
Public opinion is less certain and more divided on the virtues of the American initiative. While liberal circles in the main support the project basically on ideological grounds, Islamist circles decry it most vociferously as another American ploy to implant puppet regimes in the world of Islam to serve America's long-term geopolitical interests, including enfettered access to oil reserves. The public debate may gain new intensity with the visit of President Bush to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Istanbul in June.-Published 15/4/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org
Duygu Bazoglu Sezer is professor of international relations at Bilkent University, Ankara, and is founder and director of the International Dialogue and Cooperation Studies Center (IDCS). She has written extensively on Turkish foreign policy, Russian foreign policy, and European security and arms control.