April 06, 2005

"As Good As It Gets" in the Middle East?

Via praktike, Marina Ottaway has a few things to say about the UN's new Arab Human Development Report:
Despite its hostility to U.S. policy, the report admits that pressure from the outside, particularly from Washington, may help the cause of political change in the Middle East. The authors do not believe that the United States shares the Arab goal of a true political, cultural and economic renaissance leading to human development in its fullest meaning -- epanouissement is the curious term used in the report. They believe that the Bush administration has narrow goals: getting rid of particularly offensive and hostile regimes and cajoling old authoritarian allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to introduce some reforms to make themselves more presentable. But even such limited goals, the authors grudgingly admit, could help the process of change in the Middle East

It is important that the Bush administration recognize this reluctant admission that something good could come from U.S. policy as a real change on the part of Arab reformers, and that it not jeopardize chances for cooperation by attacking the report and punishing the U.N. Development Program for allowing its publication. The United States has been able to get rid of Saddam Hussein on its own, and it may be able to intimidate Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. But to build democracy, it must work with Arab reformers, even if they remain hostile and suspicious. Political reform pushed by Washington is second best for these Arab reformers; working with Arab reformers who criticize the United States as harshly as their own government is second best for the Bush administration. It is probably as good as it is going to get for both sides in the foreseeable future.
Hm, there's a lot to agree with here—the U.S. should hear Arab complaints, undoubtedly—but much to quibble over, especially that dour last sentence. My own view is that there's a lot the United States can do, and should be doing, to push for reform in the Middle East.

As Ottaway says, though, it's obvious that American credibility is a major problem. The correct way to resolve this, I think, is to push actively and visibly for democratic reform especially when it works against our other interests in the region. For instance, it's ludicrous to me that any U.S. policymaker would privilege Arab peace treaties with Israel over Arab democratic reform. Nevertheless, that's the reality, and we might as well acknowledge it. But given that it's the reality, there's still a lot of leeway here. Egypt's Husni Mubarak, for example, has his own reasons for pursuing peace between Israel and Palestine; and it defies belief that he would scuttle these plans merely to tweak us for, say, pushing for open and fair presidential elections later this year. So we really ought to do that, forcefully. There's a real perception in the region that we're soft on Mubarak because he's our ally on Israel, and the U.S. ought to run against that type at every turn, especially where and when it can.

The important thing to note here—and I'm hardly the first one to point this out—is that establishing our credibility on this front really has nothing to do with better public diplomacy, or winning "hearts and minds," or any of that gooey PR stuff we're trying to roll out in full blast. (And, according to the GAO today, having a hell of a time coordinating, but I digress.) The two ought to be thought of as separate things. "Sister Souljah" is a fun game in American politics (especially when you get to execute the weak and powerless!), but building credibility in the Arab world is a far, far more serious matter.

Meanwhile, yes, it's very hard for the U.S. to work with liberal reformers in the Middle East because of the specter of being an "American stooge." But that's okay. Most American assistance to liberal reformers will come indirectly, in the form of pressure on friendly Arab governments to undertake certain reforms that, in the long term, strengthen moderates at the expense of, say, radical Islamists—the short list here includes legalization of political parties, expansion of civic education, fewer restrictions on the media, etc.

But on the other hand, the U.S. has a fairly free hand to work directly with Islamist groups, like certain branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, since they can much less plausibly be called American stooges. Right now many Islamist groups in the region, rightly or wrongly, believe they've been shunned by Washington, but there's no reason why Condoleeza Rice can't just promise loud and clear to establish contacts with those Islamic groups that commit to certain democratic principles (the rule of law, elections, independent judiciary, etc. etc. etc.). That's not too high a bar to set, I think, and the upside is that it could fence in those Islamist groups down the road if they ever do come to power. Perhaps it wouldn't work. But perhaps it would. The White House should try. And if they don't, or refuse to, then the party of Pelosi and Reid ought to push for this stuff every single day.
-- Brad Plumer 3:03 AM || ||