The Wrong Way to Sell Democracy to the Arab World

Posted in Broader Middle East | 11-Mar-04 | Author: Zbigniew Brzezinski| Source: The New York Times

Dateline Jerusalem - Does the Arab/Israeli conflict block demcracy?
The Bush administration deserves credit for its long-term commitment to democracy in the Middle East. But even a good idea can be spoiled by clumsy execution. Worse still, the idea can backfire -- particularly if people come to suspect that ulterior motives are at work.

This is precisely what is happening with President Bush's "Greater Middle East initiative," which outlines steps the United States and its partners in the Group of 8 industrialized nations can take to promote political freedom, equality for women, access to education and greater openness in the Middle East. Elements of the proposal include the creation of free trade zones in the region, new financing for small businesses and help overseeing elections.

After a draft of the initiative was published last month in Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, Arab leaders responded swiftly -- and unhappily -- at what they perceived to be American efforts to impose change. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt went so far as to call the proposal "delusional."

Fortunately, there is still time for the administration to set things right and rescue this potentially worthwhile project. But it must move quickly, particularly if it wants the G-8 to sign on to the plan at its summit meeting in June.

There is no question that the administration has its work cut out for it. For starters, the democracy initiative was unveiled by the president in a patronizing way: before an enthusiastic audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington policy institution enamored of the war in Iraq and not particularly sympathetic toward the Arab world.

The notion that America, with Europe's support and Israel's endorsement, will teach the Arab world how to become modern and democratic elicits, at the very least, ambivalent reactions. (This, after all, is a region where memory of French and British control is still fresh.) Though the program is meant to be voluntary, some fear that compulsion is not far behind.

There are other reasons to be wary of the administration's plan. Democracy, impatiently imposed, can lead to unintended consequences. If the Palestinians were able to choose a leader in truly free elections, might they not opt for the head of Hamas? If free elections were soon held in Saudi Arabia, would Crown Prince Abdullah, a reformer, prevail over Osama bin Laden or another militant Islamic leader? If not genuinely accepted and reinforced by traditions of constitutionalism, democracy can degenerate into plebiscites that only add legitimacy to extremism and authoritarianism.

Compounding the problem is the suspicion -- not only among the Arabs but also among the Europeans whose support the United States is seeking -- that the sudden focus on democracy has been promoted by administration officials who wish to delay any serious American effort to push the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a genuine peace settlement.

That suspicion was fueled by Vice President Dick Cheney's recent remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The spread of democracy, Mr.Cheney said, was "the precondition for peace and prosperity in Western Europe" after World War II. He went on to assert that democratic reform "is also essential to a peaceful resolution of the longstanding Arab-Israeli dispute."

Mr. Cheney's argument that democracy is the precondition for peace appeared to many to be a rationalization for postponing any effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, it ignored the historical reality that democracy can flourish only in an atmosphere of political dignity. As long as the Palestinians live under Israeli control and are humiliated daily, they won't be attracted by the virtues of democracy. The same is largely true of the Iraqis under the American occupation.

For the Bush administration's initiative to succeed, it must be more in sync with regional realities. To that end, the administration should take the following steps:

First, the program must be devised with Arab countries and not just presented to them. Egyptians and Saudis will not embrace democracy if they feel that their religious and cultural traditions are being slighted. The Europeans should also be fully engaged, and they should likewise pursue a dialogue of their own with the nations of the region regarding the definition and the goals of the planned undertaking. Any differences in approach could then be reconciled at the G-8 summit meeting.

Second, the initiative must recognize that without political dignity derived from self-determination there can be no democracy. The Germans regained their political dignity in a relatively short time after the end of World War II, and that in turn helped them to revive the democratic traditions of the pre-Nazi era. The program for Arab democracy will be more successful, and find wider acceptance, if it is matched by efforts to grant sovereignty to the Iraqis and Palestinians. Otherwise, democracy will seem to many in the Arab world to be window dressing for continued external domination.

Finally, the United States must define the substance of a peace settlement in the Middle East and then work energetically to put that agreement in place. Doing so will give greater credibility to the constructive motives behind the democracy initiative; it will also show the countries of the Middle East that there is a shared basis for a genuine partnership with the democratic West.

The transformation of the Middle East will be a more complex undertaking than the restoration of postwar Europe. After all, social restoration is inherently easier than social transformation. Islamic traditions, religious convictions and cultural habits must be treated with patient respect. Only then will the time be ripe for democracy in the Middle East.