Saturday, May 08, 2004

The Middle East: Democracy or Liberalization?

I supported the war in Iraq, despite some reservations. I saw Iraq as a threat to our national security re: weapons of mass destruction (and I'm still not convinced that they didn't exist...check out this way underreported story re: an aborted chemical weapons attack on Jordan and yet no media investigation to see if it can be traced back to Iraq). I ain't sad one bit to see Saddam Hussein gone. I don't understand why so many liberals haven't cheered his exit from the world stage, if solely due to his rampant human rights violations. Then again, it would put liberals on the same side as "big bad" America so instead they yawn.

However, I take issue with the Bush Administration's often shoddy post-war planning. One of President Bush's 2000 campaign promises was to get us out of the nation-building business, yet we're in it even more! Now he will soon roll out a Greater Middle East Initiative. He even implicitly calls all nation-building critics "racist." Some folks like George Will and National Review's John Derbyshire have responded to this critique.

Even though I want Bush to succeed, I'm very skeptical about this democracy enterprise. Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. Coerced liberty ain't liberty! We can't want democracy in the Middle East more than Arabs or Muslims themselves. They must want democracy and liberty so much that they will put their bodies on the line for it, take initiative to make it happen. Looking at our history (American Revolution, civil rights movement, etc.) reflects this fact. Histories of other folks of various races, from Eastern Europe to South Africa, amplifies this fact. Nation-building takes away initiative, self-sufficiency, and the responsibility of societies to fix themselves.

Too often, the "neo-conservative" camp in Bush's administration also make democracy synonymous with liberalization. I mean liberalization in the classical sense: rule of law with independent courts, human rights, developing the civil society with press and dissent freedoms, etc. To sustain democracy, you must first have some institutions and cultural beliefs as a foundation. You'd think these democratic realists (the neo-cons' guiding foreign policy philosophy, as outlined by journalist Charles Krauthammer) would realize that it's often in the U.S.' interest not to promote democracy. As horrid as the Saudi royal family is, democracy in Saudi Arabia would much likelier usher in someone who makes Osama bin Ladin look like Abraham Lincoln rather than the Saudi Martin Luther King. Be careful for what you wish!

I'm on Bush's side when he takes issue with folks who believe that Arabs and Muslims have a "genetic" predisposition against democracy. It drums up Bell Curve imagery for me, so my nosehairs rise. However, there are cultural barriers here which Bush refuses to publicly acknowledge. Until there is an Islamic Reformation and Middle East Arabs (particularly Arab Muslims) come to terms with modernity, democracy as we know it just ain't gonna transform the region. It is culture, not politics, that will fuel this change. This is not racism (even though some nation-building critics operate from racist impulses), but true realism.

It will also take time, as it did in the U.S., Western Europe, and other parts of the world. One of our key goals in the Middle East should be to privately fund any homegrown efforts toward liberalization that allies with our values, and to press Arab "allies" like the Saudi government to liberalize their societies. I oppose the $40 million in government funds that the National Endowment for Democracy receives, even though I support its overall purpose. Return this money back to the American people where it belongs instead of it being a slush fund for foreign policy elites, and we citizens will fund who we wish to fund (as long as it's not groups who wish to harm our national security).


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