December 30, 2004

Here Comes Democracy

Over at Brookings, Tamara Cofman Wittes' has a lot to say in her latest, long-ish essay about joint Euro-American efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East. Here are some of the best points:

1) The various Middle East Initiatives now underway do a lot of good, but one thing they don't do is provide security guarantees to various Arab states, like the Helsinki accords did. So Arab leaders are understandably a bit cagey about the whole thing.

2) Western governments need to make economic aid conditional on political reform somehow. They haven't really figured this out yet. Arab leaders, hence, can get away with "controlled liberalization" and not much reform. This will continue on indefinitely until the U.S. and Europe get their shit figured out.

3) "The West" is not all of one mind on Arab reform. Europeans, for instance, worry mostly about poor and uneducated Arabs migrating to Europe and stirring up trouble. The U.S. worries mostly about terrorism. But those two concerns aren't at all the same. Economic development alone can help stem the former, but the latter problem really requires the spread of actual democracy and better human rights.

4) In fact, economic reform alone might actually produce more international terrorism in the short term, by creating "economic dislocation and exaggerated income disparity." That seems about right. I'd add that one of the most striking features of both the 9/11 terrorists and the bulk of Palestinians who joined the two intifadas was that they weren't poor, or uneducated, or backwards in any relevant social sense. Most of them, though, shared a sense of relative poverty—the sense that their talents were under-appreciated or under-deployed. In many ways, it's the white-collar victims of outsourcing who start blowing stuff up. Not a great analogy, but still.

5) Here's a Catch-22. Arab despots tend to restrict all forums for political organization but one: mosques. So naturally, Islamists are the best-developed political groups in the Arab world. Those same Arab despots then use this fact to argue against free elections, lest the Islamists take power. Sneaky bastards.

6) There are really two types of Arab liberals. First, those who protest and clamor for attention and swell the hearts of bloggers everywhere and usually get thrown in prison. These are a minority in the Arab world, though still a potential catalyst for change. Second, there are those pragmatic professionals—doctors, businessmen, lawyers—who try to effect change within civil society itself. Wittes argues that the challenge here is for the West to "support those liberals who are working for change within their existing systems, but in a way that doesn't end up legitimizing the system itself." Conversely, the West will want to support liberal activists, but not to the point where they simply oppose the regime and end up in jail. It's delicate.

7) Both the United States and Europe could use its own assimilated Muslim immigrants as a voice for moderation. But obviously that means not pissing off those constituencies at home.
-- Brad Plumer 2:21 PM || ||