May 24, 2005

Who's Afraid of the Islamists?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM, in a must-read NYT op-ed of a couple days back:

IN last month's Saudi Arabian municipal elections, the nation's first experiment in real democracy, many were worried because Islamic activists dominated their secular rivals. Indeed, we have seen a similar trend in Turkey, Morocco and Iraq in the last few years; and we can expect it in the coming Lebanese, Palestinian and Egyptian elections. Yet, while this Islamic trend can no longer be ignored, neither should it be a source of panic to Western policy makers and pundits.

Based on my 30 years of empirical investigation into these parties - including my observations of fellow inmates during the 14 months I spent in an Egyptian prison - I can testify to a significant evolution on the part of political Islam. In fact, I believe we may be witnessing the emergence of Muslim parties that are truly democratic, akin to the Christian Democrats in Western Europe after World War II...

...Repression has had high costs. Where Islamist groups are denied access to political space, their cause takes on an aura of mythical martyrdom, and their abstract calls for a return to Islamic principles of governance are not put to the test. A phrase like "the meek are the inheritors of the earth" resonates with the masses, though it is empty of any practical content. As long as these groups don't have to deal with the complicated business of forging actual political policies, their popularity remains untested. The challenge, therefore, is to find a formula that includes them in the system, but that prevents a "one man, one vote, one time" situation.

One fairly successful attempt at such a formula was coordinated by King Hussein of Jordan, after widespread riots in 1989 over food shortages in his traditional stronghold in the south. Needing to engage the people more directly in the tough economic decisions that had to be made, he opted for a new constitutional monarchy. He brought all the political forces in the country together in a national congress, in which the rules of the democratic game were enshrined in a national charter. The Islamists signed on.

Since then, there have been several elections to this body in which Jordan's Islamists have participated, but in only the first did they gain a plurality. Once in power, their sloganeering was put to the test, and voters were not terribly impressed. In the four ministries they held, the Islamists imposed heavy-handed restrictions on female staff members, setting off protests that eventually forced the cabinet members to resign.

Shortly after the Jordanian experiment, King Hassan II of Morocco followed suit with a similar revision of his nation's Constitution, and despite recent terrorist attacks the country seems set on an increasingly democratic path. In 2002, the Turkish Justice and Development Party won the parliamentary elections and formed a government and - to the surprise of many - it wasn't the end of the world. In fact, the Islamists emerged as more pragmatic than their secular predecessors in tackling some of Turkey's chronic problems: they softened restrictions on the Kurds, looked to make compromises over Cyprus and began a successful campaign to make Turkey eligible for eventual membership in the European Union.

And consider what has happened in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, has been the savior of President Bush's policy in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Without his unwavering backing of the January elections, the Arab world would not have seen the stirring images of millions of men and women braving their way out to vote despite threats and suicide bombers. [emphasis added]

One could easily argue that Ibrahim is being too sanguine about the impact of greater Islamist influence in various governments. Sistani, of course, had reasons to cooperate with the U.S. with regard to the elections and it is a bit rich and overly breezy to call him the "savior of President Bush's policy in Iraq." Shi'a moderation may have been feigned merely so as to gain a resounding victory in the ballot-box and could prove to be short-lived (though I think Shi'a moderates will prevail in Iraq, not conservative Iranian style theocrats). And Turkey's Islamists have typically been more Europeanized (ie, social welfarish), shall we say, than those in Saudi, for instance. Meantime, Jordan and Morocco have enjoyed relatively stable political currents, in the main, under the reign of moderate constitutional monarchs. It may not be suprising, therefore, that Islamists have proven relatively moderate (or of limited influence) in places like Jordan. Still, I think Ibrahim has the overall narrative pretty much correct. And he is likely right when he writes: "For me, however, something about events of the past few months feels new and irreversible. Too many people in too many places - Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere - are defying their oppressors and taking risks for freedom. Across the region the shouts of "Kifiya!" - "Enough!" - have become a rallying cry against dictators." Yes, I think and hope the Ibrahims and Ajamis may well be right that a new era beckons in the Middle East.

More on why another night, but tonight allow me a brief digression. For me, this evocation of "Kifiya" brings to mind the haunting final scene in the masterful movie Battle of Algiers. As anti-French riots break out in downtown Algiers, one hears French military personnel holler: “What do you want?". And from the assembled crowd one hears a cacophany of responses: “Independence!” “Liberty!” “Long live Algeria!”. Meantime, the camera slowly pans towards a solitary woman waving an Algerian flag. She shrieks almost hysterically, seemingly ecstatic to be confronting the foreign interloper. Yet while her movements are fever-pitched, there is an almost ethereal (if simultaneously haunting) realism in the beautifully shot imagery that all but hypnotizes the viewer. It has become a bit of a cliche to say so, and movies perhaps rank relatively low on the hierarchy of great art all told, but the best films do approach great literature in their complexity and artistic value. In 400 Blows, for instance, Truffaut's masterful final scene (scroll to bottom of link for the footage) well encapsulates an entire existentialist zeitgeist better than many novelists have been able to accomplish (a young adolescent from a troubled family flees a center for 'difficult' youth by running to a nearby beach, where he scampers care-free amidst the surf for a fleeting moment or two--before reality sets in and his face, suddenly so wise for his age, grasps that some Foucault-like penentiary alas looms again too soon). Gillo Pontecorvo's impressive final scene in Battle of Algiers similarly showcases an overarching zeitgeist--here the pride and jubilance stemming from the great era of decolonization that unfolded through the 50's, 60's and 70s. It is the jubilance of being unshackled. Of being made free. In the shouts of "Kifiya" we hear this hope again, only in a new manifestation. Skeptics ask: Is History not simply repeating itself, another blundering power colonizing locals who stifle and brew resentment under the boot of foreign occupation? Optimists retort: did not the glorious sight of eight million flocking to polling places reassure many (not least, the Iraqis themselves) that the American intervention was something other than yet another blundering, brutish neo-colonialist adventure; but rather a complex exercise in democratizing an Arab state subdued by decades of Baathist excess and thuggery?

My money is on the latter, and I still think we will slog through and make Iraq a success in the coming years. I believe the Middle East may have passed a tipping point with peoples increasingly demanding political breathing space. We are seeing it in Kuwait, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq, in Iran, in Bahrain. Just about everywhere, really. It is the dominant narrative at this juncture. What responsible actors in the U.S. must do is figure out how best to maximize the chances of these trends taking root over the long-term and in a manner beneficial to the U.S. national interest. We should not recoil in fear, for instance, whenever we hear the word Islamists. If moderate Islamists were to take control in certain countries (though I think their popularity is often overstated) and guide stable polities, this will prove better than secular butchers like Saddam. We must be careful, however, to ensure that foreign influence is wielded in a manner calibrated to not lead to nationalist backlashes or radical Islamist reaction.

This is why B.D. is so sensitive to tales of torture, of denigration of Islamic tenets in detainee treatment, and so on. This is not born of squeamishness; but of realism. An important element in securing a long term victory in this struggle against extremist terror is denying the enemy propaganda tools. Where are our fluent Arabic speakers on al-Arabiya explaining what legal reasons compelled us after 9/11 to have a detention center in Guantanamo for fanatical al-Qaeda detainees? Where are our spokesmen apologizing for the death of detainees in Bagram and Abu Ghraib who perished under U.S. custody? Loudly, repeatedly, in Arabic? Where are our spokesmen in spelling out the disciplinary measures that have been taken, the corrective measures that are being instituted, the red-lines that have been communicated to grunts in the field as to what is and isn't acceptable when it comes to treatment of POWs? Where are our spokesmen in explaining that it was the United States that led efforts in tsunami relief (inclusive of in kind contributions) that struck and killed so many thousands of Muslims (whilst showcasing the embarassingly paltry Saudi contributions)? That it was the United States that pressed intervention (if belatedly) to save ravaged Muslim Sarajevans and, later, Muslim Kosovars? Where are our spokesmen in explaining that we understand the hopes of those who aspire to Palestinian freedom as much as we understand the hopes of those who hope for a secure Israel? Is it just me, or are we behind in getting these messages out? If so, why?

Posted by Gregory at May 24, 2005 03:10 AM | TrackBack (15)

Greg -- I am overall more pessimistic. I think Arab and Muslim societies will have to on their own see the total failure of rejecting the heart of the modern world in favor of outward trappings. Only then can they truly move to freedom. Bush made an important first step in demonstrating the true impotence of even the hardest of the hard men, Saddam, but it's only a start. Much of it will have to be done by Arabs and Muslims themselves (some Arab Lebanese are of course Christian).

Muslim society in the Middle East has been in Amber since Averroes lost to al-Ghazali; and rationalism was kicked out of the Muslim world in favor of traditionalism, in the 1100's. Now they are reaping that bitter harvest, most societies would be uninterested or unimpressed of any apology or recitation of anything we've done. It wouldn't matter if your dog was clever or dull, he'd still be a dog.

And that's precisely what America (and the rest of the West) is to Muslim society. A Dog. It galls and burns that they, the ones who once arguably held God's favor and ruled from the Pyrnees to Indonesia, and the Sahel to Poland, now live lower than the hated Kafir. Anything we say to them is just the yapping of dogs. They do not only believe that they are superior to us in every way, they know it as part of God's final perfect revealed message.

The only way things will change and the US, China, India, Russia, Western Europe, Thailand, and sub-saharan Africa will live in peace instead of constant war with Islam is if Muslims themselves decide they will change for themselves God's final perfect revealed message to reflect the basic tenets of modernity. They will sadly only do this when they have like Ataturk their own Meggido moment demonstrating how conclusively modernity works and Islam of al-Ghazali just doesn't.

Look at Algeria. They kicked the French out (no great achievement, they were French) but what then? Socialism didn't work out, Pan-Arabism didn't work out, Islamism didn't work out, they still live miserably while even the Italians and French live decently. It's time for them to join the 19th Century. Which would be an improvement from the 12th.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at May 24, 2005 10:48 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If so, why?

first off, it essential to realize that there is no point in talking about all the "good things" the US does, because the issue is not whether we do "good things", the issue is our motivation. Character is the real issue, and when someone assumes that your essential character is bad, "good things" are seen at best as mitigation --- but are generally seen as irrelevant. (It doesn't matter how much money a mobster gives to charity, he's still a mobster.)

Within that context, two factors stand out...

1) History. Throughout most of the Cold war period, the US promoted "democracy" only when it served its own purposes, participated in the overthrow of democratically elected leaders that it has opposed, andsupported some of the worst despots in the world if those despots supported US policy.

2) Credibility. Overcoming the suspicions and doubts that accompany decades of history about US motives is a long-term process. The US was making great strides in that direction, especially in the post-Cold War era. Bush has completely squandered US credibility throughout the world, and as a result it doesn't much matter what Bush supporters have to say.

You are to be applauded for recognizing that "fundamentalist Islam" is not completely incompatible with democratic values (although you should have noted how the once completely religious government of Iran had been evolving into a democracy prior to Bush's sabre rattling.)

But I think that understanding the challenges that the US faces in convincing the world that its character is positive could best be achieved by reading the comments in your "Can't We All Just Get Along" thread. How much effort would it take you to convince the huge number of right-wingers in that thread that fundamentalist Islam per se is not a threat to the US? Changing the minds of people in the Middle East will be even harder, because of the differences in culture.

(And, unfortunately, the Bush regime is pretty much fated to shoot itself in the foot on these issues because of its character. Bush et al talk a good game of "democracy" and "freedom", but it defines those words in terms of capitalism and free enterprise, and one need only look at the Bush regime's relentless efforts to undermine the democratically elected government of Venezuela to understand why those in the Middle East would doubt America's sincerity when it talks about promoting "democracy." )

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 24, 2005 11:34 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Iran was evolving into a democracy prior to Bush's sabre rattling???? That would be news to the Iranians I know.

Posted by: Andrew Paterson at May 24, 2005 12:54 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Iran was evolving into a democracy prior to Bush's sabre rattling???? That would be news to the Iranians I know.

that's nice. Now read this....including all of the linked articles, and then feel free to rejoin the discussion from an informed perspective.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 24, 2005 01:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Another useful idiot slavering over the BBC.

On the other hand, if I were willing to give totalitarian governments every benefit of the doubt, hey, I might be persuaded too.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at May 24, 2005 01:54 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


The essence of Bush's statements on Democracy promotion is that we are not pushing Democracy in the Middle East for the heck of it. We are doing it because our own safety demands it. In other words, Bush is claiming that Democracy promotion is now in our self-interest -- we are not safe as long as Mideast dictatorships continue to enrage their peoples, who divert their rage into terrorism.

If you are a Middle Easterner listening to this, you'd not have to believe our good intentions. You can continue to think us the most decadent of republics. But, if you believe Democracy is a good idea for your country, you can believe that those paranoid/imperialist Americans will help you, because they perceive this help to be in their own self-interest. And, oddly enough, Bush's rep might actually help us here. America's rep, for years, has been a nation that won't commit to its goals, that will abandon ship at the sign of the first body bag. Whatever you think of Bush (and when it comes to military planning, I don't think much), his reputation is somebody who sticks to his perceptions, even when prudence would dictate otherwise.

So, as someone in the Middle East, I either am (i) willing to use America to help Democracy along, because that will further my own goals (ii) am more convinced Democracy is an American trick, which comes with Hollywood and its immorality that will wreck my society. But, much as I hate to say it, I don't think what we do in Venezuala or the grosser aspects of the Patriot's Act alters the calculation. Nor, probably, does the publicized aspects of torture really alter things (except, to the extent, it pushes people from category (i) into category (ii).

What does alter the calculation is whether the Middle East sees our Democracy promotion as yoked to our perception of our self-interest. The minute they think it is just a philosophic bent, they'll stop believing we'll keep pushing it. Instead, they'll figure we'll just act like the Europeans. -- talk much about freedom -- but never, ever, sacrifice lives (let alone our SUVs) for it.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at May 24, 2005 02:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'd say Iran's crisis point was 1999, when Khatami did nothing to help the rioting students.

Posted by: praktike at May 24, 2005 02:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Wow p.lukasiak, you really got me with that BBC article... chortle. Perhaps you can remind us what happened to the reformists? My memory's a little hazy but I recall their power being negated by the position of the clerics and the oh-so democratic Supreme Leader Ayatollah. I also recall hundreds of moderate candidates being barred from running for election to parliament in 2004 and dozens again in 2005 for the Presidential election.

I've no doubt the Iranians want democracy but you need to move beyond your Bush induced myopia. The problem (you may be shocked to hear) isn't Bush, if anything many Iranians see him as part of the solution. The problem is an entrenched organisation of unelected clerics, with executive powers who have no interest in losing their power. The American approach to Iran isn't as cohesive as it should be but it's a damn site more preferrable to the pandering attitude of the EU.

I know a few Iranian exiles and I'd recommend checking up on the Iranian pov. Here's a blog for example:

Posted by: Andrew Paterson at May 24, 2005 02:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Here's another website of interest:

Prior to the democratic revolution in Iran what will matter is how much concrete assistance the US and others offer to those who are willing to put their lives on the line to put an end to the theocratic control of their country. The 'PR' of America's campaign towards democracy in the Middle East is entirely irrelevent when approaching the 11th hour. Abu Ghraib, American Cold War pro-democracy blunders etc etc have no impact on the Iranian people's disastisfaction with their current situation. The sooner that the widespread urge for national and individual self determination amongst the young, well educated Iranian population is recognised, the better. "

Posted by: Andrew Paterson at May 24, 2005 02:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


"Bush has completely squandered US credibility throughout the world"

When you state that, any credibility you have left is gone. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Credibility means being able to trust something/somebody to do what they say they will. And that is the case with the United States more now than at any time in recent history. What you are pretending is a lack of credibility is actually a lack of other nations/entities being able to get away with what they used to be able to get away with. And naturally, like a spoiled child who is finally getting some limits set, they are reacting very petulantly. Unfortunately for us, that comes at the cost of American lives.

Posted by: exhelodrvr at May 24, 2005 03:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

1. The article Greg quoted from included muslims from all parts of the Islamic religious spectrum. I think this creates considerable confusion. Of course Sistani is not implicated in the radicalism of the Wahabists - there are few things farther apart ideologically than traditional, quietist Shia Islam (not the Qom variety) and Wahabism. Sistani doesnt really belong in this discussion, expect that a lot of dumb people on right and left continue to conflate him with the Wahabists.
2. The real question is "Are there Wahabist-Ikwani groups that can evolve into moderate forces. islamic democrats as it were" This is less clear - it would take, among other things, a more in depth analysis of the Wahabist influence on the Turkish Islamists, whats happened in Jordan, etc. Too little info to judge I fear. While I agree that supporting dictatorships to keep the Islamists out is probably self-defeating, i retain considerable pessimism about the democratic potentials of Wahabism.

3. P Lukasiak is clearly very upset that the US didnt choose to fight the Cold War with one hand tied behind its back. While this is a keen issue for Western Leftists, with their concerns for Saint Allende, and the many other Latin American leftist saints, I doubt very much that many in the middle east know or care about this. Probably the only cold war coup that matters to them is Iran, Mossadegh, and that is mainly of issue to the small number of secular leftists, not to the muslim masses. Lets be clear - our public diplomacy campaign is designed to win over the listenership of Al Jazeera, NOT the readership of the Guardian, and these constituencies may not have the same concerns.

Posted by: liberalhawk at May 24, 2005 03:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Of note, the coup against Allende (saint or sinner) took place on 9/11. Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri chose the date for historical significance.

Also, in response to Jim Rockford above, I think that is too limited a view. It is a familiar argument: that the mass of opinion is as immutably anti-American as it is monolithic. But therein lies the problem. Opinion in the Muslim world is far from monolithic or unchangeable, and there are Muslims we could reach with a better crafted message - what the liberalhawk called the viewership of Al Jazeera. Sure, there are many that would never give ground on their rejection of the West and its poster boy, America, but that doesn't mean that none are beyond reach and that ground could not be made up.

In a related sense to your thesis, by improving relations and communications with the Muslim world, we will make it easier for the reformers you deem integral to the process to assert themselves. If they are tainted by their association with America because America has grown so poisonous, then their position is weaker. If America were not so abhorrent for those in the middle, then reformers might be able to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds.

In response to Greg, where is Karen Hughes these days? Maybe starting out her tenure with a 6 month vacation wasn't the most strategically deft decision.

Posted by: Eric Martin at May 24, 2005 03:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg - the reason that there are no spokesmen on Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya or Al-Manar decrying/apologising for the murders, torture and abuses that have been a result of the "Guantanamo" process, is that the Bush administration does not recognise that it has done anything wrong, refuses to take responsibility for the unrecognised wrongs that have been done, and resists holding those responsible for setting the conditions that enabled these wrongs-that-are-not-wrongs to be committed to account.

The reality is that the Bush administration is largely indifferent to public opinion in the Arab and wider Muslim world; and it does not seek to engage in any debate with it other than handing down decrees, giving out prescriptions and rhapsodizing about freedom in content-free rhetoric. Any protestations to the contrary are just lip-service exercises.

As long as the bogus democratic manouevres in Saudi Arabia and Egypt result in a vote for the status quo there's no problem. Unfortunately, the point of democratic processes is to enable people to vote for change; the purpose of the current initiatives is to cloak political inertia.

Hamas and Hizbullah electoral successes, like Chavez's, will be loudly decried, thereby reminding everyone of how insincere the Bush pro-democracy agenda is. The test of the rhetoric is how you respond when they don't vote for your candidate.

The Iraqi elections are a case in point. Iraqis didn't vote for Allawi and the US pulled out as many stops as it could to prevent the Teheran-tilting winners from taking centre-stage; it was still being mooted at least 6 weeks after the results were announced that Allawi could remain as PM. And the result of all this is that the insurgency has returned from it's non-desperate period of R'n'R, whilst the US was impotently trying to cobble together a coalition for its preferred candidate.

Posted by: dan at May 24, 2005 04:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The essence of Bush's statements on Democracy promotion is that we are not pushing Democracy in the Middle East for the heck of it. We are doing it because our own safety demands it. In other words, Bush is claiming that Democracy promotion is now in our self-interest -- we are not safe as long as Mideast dictatorships continue to enrage their peoples, who divert their rage into terrorism.

I'm not hearing that message from Bush. I don't recall hearing Bush acknowledge, for instance, that Osama bin Laden's primary motivation was his anger and resentment of what he perceived as the Saudi regime's religious apostasy which was symbolized by the House of Saud allowing US troops to "defile holy lands" in that nation. Instead, what I heard was "they hate us because of our freedoms."

And unfortunately, the Bush regime sent the unambiguous message very early on that it was far less interested in the will of the Iraqi people than it was in imposing a corporate-friendly government in that nation. The Shiites had been urging that national elections be held as soon as possible, using the food rationing cards. The US resisted those elections as long as possible --- until al Sistani finally got fed up and showed Bush that he could put millions of people in the street at a moments notice.

(The real problem here may be Bush's inability to acknowledge he made a massive mistake in invading Iraq. Until that happens, I don't think that anyone is going to believe that he is sincere about anything.)

I also have to assert the importance of Venezuelas experience. Keep in mind that Venezuela is a member of OPEC --- and has been actively engaged in foreign policy initiatives directed at "making friends" throughout the world. Because of the massive inequalities in the distribution of oil wealth in the Middle East, the most viable secular political alternative to islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world are the democratic socialists --- and Venezuelas experience says to that group that the US may talk a good game of democracy, but will do everything it can to prevent socialism from taking root in the Middle East.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 24, 2005 04:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm sure Karen has more important things to attend to than trying to repair our image in the Muslim world. Like... um, I'm not sure. Sounds like a sweetheart deal of a job though, at least until she shows up...

Posted by: TG at May 24, 2005 06:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


With respect, you aren't listening to this President (or you stopped listening on September 20, 2001)

Bush from 2003:

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export."

From the 2nd Inaugural:

"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

I think Bush came somewhat late to the Democracy promotion game. (He did not invade Iraq to impose Democracy. He really thought those weapons were there.) But, he's serious and sincere about it.

Now, as for Iraq, the CPA was following the advice of the UN, if I recall. Should the election have been held earlier? Hindsight says yes. But no political sci guru was saying yes back in mid-2003. (Challenge to p -- prove me wrong.)

As for your last point -- which is an interesting one -- are you aware of mideast figures who are pointing to Venezuela as an example. Does Chavez get a lot of airtime on AlJazeera or the other arab satellite stations?

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at May 24, 2005 06:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

With respect, you aren't listening to this President (or you stopped listening on September 20, 2001)

actually, I personally stopped listening to Bush in November 2000 :) (after his campaign screamed bloody murder about "selective recounts", Gore offered a statewide recount, and Bush turned him down flat. It was at that point that I realized that Bush had no principles, and would SAY anything that he felt would advance his cause. )

And I think that is the core of Bush's credibility problem --- the perception that what he says is not really connected to he thinks. (The Downing Street Memo is a perfect example of this --- Bush had obviously decided to invade Iraq by the spring of 2002, but was telling the world, and the American people, that he didn't want to go to war, and that it could be avoided. )

In other words, I think there is a perception that Bush is using "democracy promotion" rhetoric to achieve goals that are irrelevant to freedom and democracy -- and that if/when those goals are achieved, democracy promotion will be left in the dust.

Now, as for Iraq, the CPA was following the advice of the UN, if I recall.

its a LOT more complicated than that. The international community (without the UN taking an official position) initially wanted elections as soon as possible --- the US resisted. The US kept delaying elections, saying they were impossible etc. until Sistani got fed up. He asked the UN to come to Iraq to determine if elections could be held at an early date --- the US rejected that solution.... then a couple of months later asked the UN to come to Iraq to determine if elections could be held on that same early date. At that point, it was too late to hold early elections --- and the UN said so, and the decision to hold elections in January 2005 was made.

As for your last point -- which is an interesting one -- are you aware of mideast figures who are pointing to Venezuela as an example. Does Chavez get a lot of airtime on AlJazeera or the other arab satellite stations?

I don't know about the Arabic language stations, but the English version of Al Jazeera provides quite a bit ov coverage of Venezuela. For a sampling, Google

" al Jazeera, venezuela"

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 24, 2005 07:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Why, indeed. The United States does not have an ambassador to Iraq. The United States does not have an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. The United States has people who make policy, and people who speak Arabic, and very, very few people who can do both.

There are problems that could be fixed in short order, given the required dedication to fixing them, and problems that we won't be able to fix except over time. There are also problems with the message, some of which have to do with the fact that "freedom" is not self-evidently the answer to many of the questions that most vex Arabs, whether these have to do with the boundaries of a Palestinian state or corruption in their own governments. Or, frankly, Islamism. It is Arab governments and non-Sunni Muslim minorities that are most afraid of Islamists coming to power in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, not "Western policy makers and pundits." It may be all very well for regimes retaining a monopoly on force to admit Islamists into government. The Moroccan and Jordanian monarchies and the Turkish military were all secure enough in their positions to feel that if their local Islamists got out of hand they could be put back in the bottle. Do governments facing uncertain transitions have adequate reason to feel the same way?

This is mostly an issue for them. What ought to be more of an issue for us is the question of priorities. The Arab world is not where the great questions of America's future will be decided. East Asia is more important to us; Latin America is more important, and so is Europe. We are talking about a "complex exercise" of democratizing one mid-sized Arab state lasting an indefinite number of years while at the same time paying for every dime of that exercise with borrowed money. While we are discussing American public diplomacy in the Arab world we might spare a thought for how to explain that our current level of commitment cannot continue for anything like the amount of time even some of its advocates say will be needed for it to be successful.

Posted by: JEB at May 24, 2005 08:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I know this will probably destroy your credibility on this site, but I agree with everything you just wrote! :)

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 24, 2005 10:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

So Chavez is a socialist democrat (or should that be democratic socialist?) now, eh?

Confusion palpable.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at May 25, 2005 07:09 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


As long as there is oil in the mideast and we need that oil, we will have interests there. As Democracies tend to be more stable and predictable, our oil flow would probably be more reliable if the governments there were European style Democracies. Also, from a political standpoint, we will be involved in the Middle East as long as the goal of many in the region is the elimination of Israel. As you note, the Bush Administration is engaged in its usual stunningly bad job of policy execution. (And its credit card financing makes me crazy). But, realistically, how would this administration be able to reshuffle its priorities in the manner you suggest, and achieve its goal of safety from terrorists? Or, do you believe that this goal of Bush's is mistaken and this country could learn to accept a manageble level of terrorsim?

Also given the fact we are in Iraq (unwisely, but there), how do we not concentrate on the region? If we leave, abruptly, and things are left worse, this will do us no end of damage with the areas that matter, in both your view and mine (the Far East, Latin America).

I'm not sure I would have picked the strategy we now have to get out of the problems we have now made for ourselves. But I cannot think of a better one. Given the global economy, the UN's inability to act, and the fact this is a now a very small world, we cannot do what we did in the good old days -- retreat to our hemisphere and hope nobody bothers us.

So, call me a reluctant convert to Democracy promotion. And hope China doesn't continue its foreign policy bungling while we try to extricate from the Middle East tar baby.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at May 25, 2005 03:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Where are our spokesmen in spelling out the disciplinary measures that have been taken, the corrective measures that are being instituted, the red-lines that have been communicated to grunts in the field as to what is and isn't acceptable when it comes to treatment of POWs?"

Trouble is, the other day the commander-in-chief at this primetime news conference as much as affirmed the necessity of torture. And he earlier promoted (with the complicity of the Senate) the nominal author of the most infamous memorandum justifying torture to the a circuit court, and the White House's chief proponent of ensuring room for torture to Attorney General. This administration, probably supported by a majority of the American public, insists that 9/11 means we have to reserve the right to torture suspects and perhaps others at our discretion.
When some general other than Karpinski is prosecuted, when some colonel is assigned more responsibility and punished more harshly than the corruptible sergeants and specialists thus far designated to serve as fall guys--when there's some serious recognition and punishment of past crimes, then and only then will public diplomacy have a prayer of success.

Posted by: Al Smith at May 25, 2005 05:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

AM, you will get no argument from me that Arab democracies would be desirable. That democracies in that part of the world would reduce incentives to resort to terrorism is something I believe, but not strongly; terrorism seems to me a product of a backward culture's collision with modernity, not of fatal flaws in political structures. That democracies in that part of the world are a realistic prospect in, say, the next ten years is something I doubt.

You put your finger on a key point when you say we will have interests in the Middle Eastern countries as long as we need oil. But in fact most of the Arab countries have little else of interest to us, and oil is not the only thing we need. Having decisively opted to confuse foreign policy with social work in Iraq, I agree we have little choice but to try to make the Iraq commitment a success of some kind. I sense from both the administration and its critics, however, a faith that the long-shot goal of Arab democratization will be achieved if only we get the policy execution right and, perhaps, if we wish for it hard and sincerely enough. I'd object to our so inviting disillusionment even if we had money to burn. We don't.

Posted by: JEB at May 25, 2005 08:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Four points.

First, Bush did sent the message that America is no longer with the despots, but with the supressed. That's the general principal, that's where he wants to go. And yes, there are many exception. But that's politics, in the real world. The Bush message has alread had an impact, take Lebanon or Ukraine. The administration is not always working openly, because this could damage the goals. But people who are working for freedom in their country know that there is somebody very powerful who is on their side.

Second, I think what we - the West - can do in the middle East is to offer an alternative, to a despotism that is based on the monopoly of exploitation of oil, and to the sharia-based republic of clerics. You can change the mind of people. You can attract them. It might be hard, it may take some time, and it's not easey.

Third, I think it's in the general interest that islamism is defeated. The aggressive potential it has demonstrated with 9/11 is great. You need to react. And not only to react. What the Bush administration did was to act - to get back the initiative. On 9/11, America has been a passive victim, not it's acting again, showing strength and a comission to it's values. That's impressive.

Finally, I would like Europe to engage more in a politics of transformation. May be with Angela Merkel as the new German chancellor in september, there will be much more cooperation from the European side. Europe must recognize that the pacification and demcratization is vital for it's own survival, as it has a large and growing muslim population.

Posted by: ulrich speck at May 25, 2005 09:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Taking this OpEd essay seriously would be a mistake. It would be akin to a Japanese person reading an article by Noam Chomsky to get a sense of the political mood of Americans.

I wish Greg would stop peddling this soft neo-con thinking and join the reality based community. Things are going to get worse in the Mideast and we should learn to take responsibility for some of it.

And a B- for the film criticism.

Posted by: john at May 25, 2005 10:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


You say that "Credibility means being able to trust something/somebody to do what they say they will." Actually that's only one half of the credibility equation; the other half of establishing credibility is having what you say be connected to apparent reality.

When pro-Bushies (not necessarily the same as pro-war sorts generally) insist that things are going great in Iraq, or repeat for the umpteenth time that "we've reached a turning point," only to be disproved weeks, days or hours later by what appears on television, the newspaper, and on blogs, then that squanders credibility just as surely when a leader says one thing, and then does another.

One might well label these two kinds of credibility "faith-based credibility" and "reality-based credibility." To be truly credible, you need both.

Posted by: Nils Gilman at May 25, 2005 11:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I sense from both the administration and its critics, however, a faith that the long-shot goal of Arab democratization will be achieved if only we get the policy execution right

What, in your estimation, needs to be changed in order to "get the policy execution right?"

To me, the first order of business would have to be a change in the Bush policy toward Syria and Iran. Bush's sabre-rattling toward those nations make it in their interest to keep US troops tied down dealing with an Iraqi insurgency.

That of course means more than just rhetoric, but getting rid of the whole PNAC/AIPAC crowd throughout the administration---which I don't see happening. But I'd really like to hear a "reality based" albeit conservative, view of what the US needs to do to "fix" Iraq.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 26, 2005 12:17 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

the other half of establishing credibility is having what you say be connected to apparent reality.

Right. Like when you repeat over and over that the whole place is going to sh*t, and then 8 million people come out to vote. "Reality-based" my foot.

Posted by: Al at May 26, 2005 03:16 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Another thing to consider is that even moderate Islamist representatives may not have ideological holdings that are compatible with our objectives of establishing a truly free nation. Take the treatment of women as a classic example.

Islamists may not be the earth-shattering threat that we imagine them to be, but that doesn't mean they don't threaten the overall goal of establishing a society that is free of oppression.

Posted by: Scott Nowers at May 26, 2005 04:39 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

P. l., to clarify: there are a number of things I would change with respect to the execution of policy. My point, however, is that in Iraq specifically and more generally with respect to democratizing the whole Middle East we could do everything right and still not achieve success. The goal is desirable; the execution might be improved; but when I describe the goal as a "long shot" I mean precisely what it looks like I mean. Long shot bets, by definition, usually lose.

Posted by: JEB at May 26, 2005 02:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
Reviews of Belgravia Dispatch
--New York Times
"Must-read list"
--Washington Times
"Pompous Ass"
--an anonymous blogospheric commenter
Recent Entries
English Language Media
Foreign Affairs Commentariat
Non-English Language Press
U.S. Blogs
Think Tanks
Law & Finance
The City
Western Europe
United Kingdom
Central and Eastern Europe
East Asia
South Korea
Middle East
B.D. In the Press
Syndicate this site:


Powered by