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Democracy, the magical Mideast foreign policy panacea

08/09/2004

I don't know how to react, exactly, to this morning's op-ed by Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute in the New York Times. Is it really as aggravating as it seems, or is it just sad?

Pletka judges the foreign policy philosophy of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and finds it wanting:

Mr. Kerry has not been specific about many of his goals, but one thing he's gone out of his way to advertise is his distaste for pushing reform at the expense of "stability" in the Middle East. Sure, he's in favor of democracy in principle, but not as the centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda. "Realism," in the fashion of Metternich and Kissinger, is his guiding light, Mr. Kerry told The New Yorker.

In this respect, Mr. Kerry echoes President George H. W. Bush and even his own father, Richard Kerry, a diplomat who once criticized the Reagan administration's "fatal error of seeing U.S. security as dependent on illusions of propagating democracy" in the Soviet bloc.

Such "realism," of course, was anything but. It failed to appreciate the real forces and opportunities at work in the world. The same is true today. The initial reviews of the current President Bush's push for reform in the Middle East may have been harsh, especially from the region's entrenched powers. Yet in the last few months, the debate, once confined to emigre papers published in London or Paris, has suddenly bubbled up onto the pages of the state-controlled press in the Arab world. ...

It's not 1989 in the Middle East, and a series of velvet revolutions aren't on tap for the immediate future. But the intellectual firepower that underlies any such revolution is growing; the region is in the throes of genuine pro-democratic ferment. And governments have taken note, admittedly in their own half-hearted fashion. The Arab League has embraced a series of self-serving reforms; the Saudis have announced plans for municipal elections starting in November; and the Bahrainis and Qataris are making real changes to their political systems.

Ferment is not change, but Mr. Kerry and his advisers may be kidding themselves that an incipient upheaval can be turned off just by Washington whistling another tune. More likely, without change, the United States will face one collapsing dictatorship after another and an instability much greater and more threatening than any that would come from an aggressive American push for democracy. Mr. Kerry would be wiser to try to see the world as it is - and realize that hoping the United States can impose an unchanging "stability" on the Arab world may be the greatest unrealism of all.

Somebody please tell me that we did not go to war for this garbage. Tell me it was all about payback for George W. Bush's daddy. Tell me that it was to get our airplanes out of Saudi Arabia. Anything but this.

Somebody please tell me that this story -- Middle Eastern regimes are about to collapse! -- is nothing more than the usual regime nonsense repurposed as AEI nonsense. Somebody persuade me that it does not in fact mirror what's thought and said within the higher reaches of the administration. Because unchanging stability is exactly what Middle Eastern regimes have enjoyed since the last serious attempt at reform, which led to the fall of the Shah, giving reform something of a bad name in local palaces.

And then, of course, there is Iraq, where another sort of reform entirely seems to be generating just a touch of turmoil. Just a touch, mind you. But I'm sure our unfortunate misunderstanding with Mr. Sadr shortly will be sorted out, the Sunni Triangle will simmer down, and the local car-bomb artists will cut the provisional government some slack in time for elections, to be marked with a rousing national chorus of "kumbaya."

Metternich, Kissinger, and Kerry, oh my! Can't anyone call up the local Catholic archdiocese and just ask them to send a guy out to exorcise the ghost of detente?

Coincidentally, just yesterday, that very ghost put on an appearance in the pages of the Times, in the form of an article by Fred Kaplan about the virtues of the Kissingerian thought of yore.

In his 1994 book, "Diplomacy," Mr. Kissinger derided, as a touching but naive American fantasy, this "image of a universal man living by universal maxims, regardless of the past, of geography, or of other immutable circumstances."
His saurian, coldly amoral image is so little beloved that these days even Henry Kissinger wants nothing to do with this Kissinger guy. (Groucho Marx would be delighted to hear the news.) So it's left to me to defend his point of view, not because I like it but because it has been vindicated.

At the risk of endlessly repeating myself, I'll now repeat myself. Here's what I said about the democracy-is-the-answer point of view back in June. In hindsight, it is too kind.

Some observers believe that the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 because the Soviet system was weak; because the war in Afghanistan had sapped its strength; and because East Germans, Czechs, and Poles were eager to break out from behind the Iron Curtain and embrace their cousins in the West. These factors were specific to a historical moment. We should be proud of how American policy contributed to them, but should not exaggerate its role by claiming that it determined the outcome.

The priesthood and disciples of the cult of Reagan tell it differently. According to their teachings, the Berlin Wall fell because of Ronald Reagan's almost Nietzschean act of will. All men and women everywhere long for freedom, but some lack a champion. That being the case, tyranny can be smashed and liberty established just as easily in one time and place as in any others, if only Americans, led by a visionary American president, have the will to make it so.

Having decided to enact its will upon Iraq and the Middle East, America is now embroiled in a losing struggle there. To hear it from President George W. Bush, Iraqis love liberty just like anyone else, and any suggestions to the contrary are tainted with racism.

Still, the course of events suggests that some differences remain between Baghdad and Berlin. Iraqis do not inhabit an alienated and unredeemed section of the West. Apparently, they do not identify strongly with us or greatly aspire to join our circle of liberal-democratic nation-states. Their fractious politics revolve around extended kin groups, and their primary loyalties remain subnational. For all his viciousness and fraudulence, Saddam Hussein was a native son of Tikrit. For all our authentic goodwill and good intentions, Americans are foreigners everywhere in Iraq.

The same applies in the Muslim Middle East as a whole.

God bless the reformers and liberals of the Arab world. Chances are, the more help they get from America, the more they're going to need divine intercession.

Analyst

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000289.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

by Analyst @ 10:47 PM CST [Link]

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Replies: 4 comments

Dear Analyst,
There are many aspects to this question, and in this space I will take up only some of them. I won't get into the morality of imperialism for example, or the question of whether or not (and to what extent) public policy must be ethical.

Your analysis may make sense from the point of view of American policy and interests, though I am not sure that is the case.

At least in the short term, it is better to go with a despot that you know than to risk a revolution that you don't know.

But the real policy is not to favor "stability" over reform, but rather to favor those who are willing to further narrow US interests regardless of any other considerations. "Stability" did not come into consideration when the CIA overthrew Mossadeq and backed the revolution of the Shah in Iran. "Stability" was also thrown by the wayside in Iraq, where the CIA backed Saddam's coup and helped him stay in power despite the unsavory nature of his regime. So "stability" doesn't mean stability usually, it just means "supporting someone who likes us."

In the long run, the US paid a very high price for this "stability." Once the situation blows up, as it so often does, nobody knows what to do. In both Iraq and Iran, Western, and particularly US, diplomacy made the wrong move at almost every turn, down to and including the Iraq war perhaps.

Politically, Kissingerism (or "our SOBism") is usually a winner, because the price for it is usually paid only by future generations. Nobody will unelect Nixon now because the CIA put Saddam in power, and Eisenhower isn't going to suffer over the fall of Mossadeq. Ike planted the Iranian bomb, but it blew up in Carter's face. Nixon probably planted the Iraqi bomb, and it blew up on the Bush family. It is like industrial pollution - someone else will worry about the consequences.

In a few cases, "going with the flow" and realpolitik had really bad immediate consequences. The most infamous instance of course was the appeasement of Hitler, but there were others.

In the case of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, the case is more complicated. It is not at all clear that the current regime, in the wider sense, is good for the USA, whatever the sympathies of the royal family. Actually, it was Kerry himself who pointed out his aversion to the Saudis and criticized the Bush family on this score, so it is not clear what he meant by the current remarks. Presumably, he will want changes in policy visavis Saudi and encouragement of reform in that particular country.

From the most cynical standpoint, I would say that Kerry made the blunder of an amateur. Whatever he believes about foreign policy, he will not get any votes in the USA by saying he is not in favor of Freedom. It just isn't done. It is not the first mistake Kerry made regarding foreign policy in this campaign. But the American elections are not really my business.

Now we come to the other side of the question. From the point of view of the Middle East and the peoples in it, it is quite a different story. For the salami it is not the same as for the fellow running the salami factory. It is all very well for you to say that there should not be US intervention and intercession, but there already is. The US has numerous client states in the Middle East, and most of these governments would not exist without US support and intercession. For example, the US supports the Mubarak government - actually the army of the Mubarak government (is there a big difference?) - to the tune of $2 billion a year. Don't you think it would be good if a fraction of that sum were used to encourage democratic reform? Or would it be better to invest the money in building pyramids for the modern Pharaohs?

It is not always helpful to speak in terms of generalities and euphemisms about "stability." You have to consider what you are supporting or not supporting in fact and in detail. The US was supporting Mr. Saddam Hussein when he was gassing Kurds in Halabja and dissolving his opponents in acid vats. I don't want to think about who supplied the gas and neither do you. This was either good old free enterprise at work or "Your Tax Dollars at Work"

The US has spent fabulous sums keeping its fleet in the Gulf, and supporting the regimes of the Arab peninsula, which do very little for their own defense other than buy expensive and prestigious hardware and complain about infidels in holy places. None of these regimes would probably exist without US support. So it is a myth that the US doesn't intervene at all.

It is not clear whether President Bush's call for advancing democracy was really sincere. However, it was welcomed by a great many people in the Middle East, who are looking to the US for their salvation.

It is surprising and refreshing that a bastion of conservatism like AEI is finally admitting, however indirectly, that "our SOBism" doesn't cut the ice. I won't want to find myself on the wrong side of that question even if, as ironically seems to be the case, the whole liberal establishment has now moved to the wrong side.

Ami Isseroff

Posted by Moderator @ 08/10/2004 03:00 PM CST

Ami Isseroff makes a series of good points and observations. I don't pretend to have all the answers to these questions.

What disturbs me greatly, though, is Pletka's idea that the U.S. must promote revolutionary ferment in the Middle East in order to forestall revolutionary ferment. She transparently makes excuses for the failure of the Iraq mission, clutching at straws in the form of a few brave writers who, realistically speaking, have no base of support or broad appeal.

Democracy is great in theory, but it doesn't emerge overnight. Against her mindless assertion of the fall of the Berlin Wall as a universal paradigm in human history, I would invoke the cautionary tale of the 1994 Algerian elections. Which analogy do you think is better fitted to our adventure in Iraq?

In its own way, the Iran coup is also a reasonable point of comparison. The UK government, disturbed by Iran's nationalization of its oil fields and refineries, persuaded the U.S. that a Communist coup was in the offing. So the U.S. launched a real coup in order to prevent an imagined one.

It is of course too late to avoid invading Iraq. America can't un-invade. But it is never too late to learn from our mistakes, something Pletka seems ruthlessly determined not to do.

Posted by Analyst @ 08/11/2004 07:18 AM CST

Analyst's comment makes sense, but that is not the same as buying into Realpolitik.

I do not see that Pletka was justifying the invasion of Iraq as an attempt to "promote" gradual democratic ferment. She may think so, but she didn't say that in the article. Pletka was writing about Bush's initiative for demcracy in the Middle East, which is hopefully not about invading countries and occupying them in order to give them "freedom."

While each country is different, I do not think that voices supporting reform in Iran, for example, are by any means marginal. If we take Kerry literally, he seems to be saying the US should ignore Iranian reformers and make a deal.

Likewise, in Saudi Arabia, the "realpolitik" thing to do is let the Saudis continue at their own page, which would guarantee free elections in the year 2300.

The fall of the Shah was not radical reform initiated by altruistic Americans. It was the ultimate payoff of realpolitik. It was the result of the US NOT insisting on reform. The same is true to a greater or lesser extent of every miserable regime that exists today in the Middle East.

Ami Isseroff

Posted by Moderator @ 08/11/2004 10:01 AM CST

In my view at the heart of the debate waged, lie the following questions:

* How much instability can the world sustain, at any given time, before it reaches a state of total anarchy?

* Can democracy and freedom be imported or forced upon, or only fought for?

* Can a country's self interests (and its national security or its affairs of State ) be always managed from a moral pulpit alone?

They are all good questions to ask and answer, besides there are ample examples to vindicate one point of view versus another, because of the time worn clich? of history repeating itself, in support of one position or another.

I once started to argue against supporting the statement suggesting that "we lived in a world of 'mostly' steady state", only to have to eat my words in mid argument. No better example can be given than by looking at advances in technology; the Computing and Telecommunication paradigms have not changes from the days of Von Neuman and Alexander Graham Bell, they only got better (faster, clearer), miniaturized, more reliable and cheaper. Technological revolutions, much as societal revolutions cannot produce sustained progress and growth if the paradigm shifts occurring are too fast or too many, at any given time. One cannot begin to fathom, the effects on the working class, the capital markets, and society as a whole, if the Industrial revolution occurred coincidentally with the Computing and the Telecommunication revolutions.

Much the same is true with society and its quest for stability. The point being made here is, wholesale democratic revolutions in the Middle East can have their own disastrous and calamitous consequences, and especially without the ground work for such revolutions having been in progress for some time prior to their final flash points.

To address the second question, I'll lead with an opinion and spend some time analyzing it, using my own spin on past events related the Soviet Union and its satellite nations. I do not believe that democracy or freedom are concepts a nation can import or accept its imposition on its system of governance; they are to be fought for, such principles are never handed down. Not only that, the price paid is eternal vigilance, because what's gained can easily be lost (Germany before and after Nazism). Voltaire said it earlier, or something similar, in the context of what are the causes of revolutions.

The disintegration of communism, was a work in progress simmering for a long time waiting for the first weakness before it finally happened. The first flash point, that no one acknowledges anymore was Lech Walesa, a communist and a unionist that not only ceased to accept the communist rhetoric of a better life for the working class, he also wanted to live it. When he climbed over the proverbial wall in Gdansk he signaled to the rest of the satellite nations that it was doable (that freedom was achievable); next the Wall came down followed by the mighty Soviet Union.

As part of the historical perspective, one should not ignore Reagan, or before him Carter. It was Carter, who insisting on introducing 'human rights' from his presidential pulpit much as Reagan did with his folksy 'Evil Empire' speeches. Each president during their term(s) of office has the pulpit from which to openly challenge the status quo when by doing so they advance the moral standing of the international community. I still remember laughing at Carter's na?vet? and at Reagan's bromides, and I like to take the chance and openly applaud their individual stands, after all, my excuse being that I was a Realpolitik (balance of power believer), a Gissingerite at heart. Not inconsistent with the world stability philosophy, the status quo needs to be challenged in peaceful ways to improve on the human condition and to motivate the future velvet revolutions, and towards a better future in general. The modality of one system or concept should never be an agent of stagnation or of supporting the lack of experimentation.

Do I believe that GW Bush went in Iraq to democratize it? Was that a good reason to go to war? No, to both; while I personally and unequivocally accepted GH Bush incursion Iraq in 1991, it took GW's assertion of a gathering storm an imminent threat to our National security to grudgingly accept this war. We have no business exporting democracy and freedom, the Iraqis should have had to fight their own way (with our and the rest of civilized world's help) to acquire democracy & freedom. For a president that denied 'nation building' in his platform four years ago, he certainly had religion when he started a shooting war with no plan to win the peace.

Finally, the third question; this is by far the most difficult question to answer of the three to answer. How can anyone argue against motherhood and apple pie? Any "yes, but", in this argument will signal moral ambivalence. We as Americans supported Sadam Hussein rise to power, shook hands with him and armed him when he fought Iran; why did we expect different when he invaded Kuwait? We not only appeased him, we played along until the Kuwaiti affair. Yet, here comes the 'ambivalence' now, when it comes to the affairs of State (and national security) I choose to think of the emergency room triage, a doctor cutting off a leg to save its owner's life; or who do we look to help first, in a multiple accident scenario. So the ethical line becomes grayer and the balance that is needed and achieved is always fraught and flawed by human errors.

A powerful nation that doles out two billion dollars a year to align another nation's as a client state, should still have the leverage to prod and expect the client state to improve its peoples' condition, and to move further up the axis of more not less democracy, and of more not less freedom for its people. In a sense serve as the motivator of change not its imposer. A lesser than perfect solution for a lesser than perfect world, and where survival is a national imperative.

Posted by Israel Bonan @ 08/11/2004 03:40 PM CST


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