Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Was Bush right about the Middle East?

I'm sorry it has taken me so long to blog about the developments in Lebanon & Egypt - I have been completely overwhelmed with both work & personal e-mail. A huge part of my work constitutes reading news & it can get really tiring. To top it all, I attended a sub-committee hearing this morning on UN accountability, and it was really depressing: the chairman was a dufus & I was amazed at how arrogant the Republican members were and how easily they brushed off the UN as a useless tool- several of them had absolutely no qualms about holding our dues to the UN as part of forcing reform in the UN (the US way!) They acted like there's nothing wrong with the accountability practices of the US government. The only positive highlights of my day were: I found a Pakistani restaurant that serves halal (Islamic equivalent of ksher) lamb, so that was exciting! I also went to my weekly step aerobics class in the gym, which raised my spirits too.

I personally find the cheerleading analysis of the newspapers in the US on the "democratization" of places like Egypt & Lebanon, very troubling. Not to say that I'm not happy for the Lebanese - it's a great moment for them, but to say that Bush was successful in reforming the Middle East due to the regime change in Iraq, is a dangerous argument & a very scary strategy.

I attended a great event at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Tuesday called "A Critical Arab Analysis of the U.S. Policy of Promoting Freedom." The guest speaker was
Rami Khouri, the Editor at large for The Daily Star - an English newspaper based in Lebanon (I had also heard him speak once while I was in Jordan). Some interesting points that he outlined:
  • The situation in Lebanon provides a rare (maybe even the first) window of opportunity for Arabs, the US & Europe to work together to affect changes in the region
  • Promoting democracy in the Middle East should not be done unilaterally by breaking international law: Iraq should be seen as an example of HOW not to do it
  • The US lacks credibility in the Arab World: Arabs question motive and just do not trust the US
  • Yes, the war in Iraq has shaken the leaders, and the elections in the country did impact other Arabs. BUT, he emphasized that democratic & civil institutions have already been in place in many of these countries & people have been working on reform in their respective governments for a long time.
  • People are realizing that it is time to get rid of their fear of their respective governments. He also said it was too early to tell what kind of impact the war in Iraq has had in the Arab World. He said it was small pockets of people, not a massive movement but nonetheless inspiring
  • He mentioned that the people in Egypt, Palestine & Lebanon were making interesting linguistic connections: the Palestinian uprising is popularly known as the Intifada, the people in Lebanon are calling it Intifada lil Istiqlal (Intifida for Liberation ) & the Egyptians are calling it "Kifaya" - "ENOUGH"
  • He said it was important for the world to engage the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon vis-a-vis Resolution 1559. Personal note: Then again, what about the numerous Resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian Occupied Territories?
  • He also pointed out that elections are not the only determinant of a democracy: he gave the example of Ghaddafi of Libya - once he gave up his weapons program & paid reparations for the plane bombing, the US & Europe has hailed him as a success story ignoring the human rights abuses in Libya and concentrating on oil contracts instead.

A great article from Newsweek by Fareed Zakaria talks about how just because a country has elections, it is not a democracy:

By the time you read this, you will know how the elections in Iraq have gone. No matter what the violence, the elections are an important step forward, for Iraq and for the Middle East. But it is also true, alas, that no matter how the voting turns out, the prospects for genuine democracy in Iraq are increasingly grim. Unless there is a major change in course, Iraq is on track to become another corrupt, oil-rich quasi-democracy, like Russia and Nigeria.

In April 2003, around the time Baghdad fell, I published a book that described the path to liberal democracy. In it, I pointed out that there had been elections in several countries around the world—most prominently Russia—that put governments in place that then abused their authority and undermined basic human rights. I called such regimes illiberal democracies. In NEWSWEEK that month, I outlined the three conditions Iraq had to fulfill to avoid this fate. It is currently doing badly at all three.

First, you need to avoid major ethnic or religious strife. In almost any "divided" society, elections can exacerbate group tensions unless there is a strong effort to make a deal between the groups, getting all to buy into the new order. "The one precondition for democracy to work is a consensus among major ethnic, regional, or religious groups," says Larry Diamond, one of the leading experts on democratization. This has not happened. Instead the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds are increasingly wary of one another and are thinking along purely sectarian lines. This "groupism" also overemphasizes the religious voices in these communities, and gives rise to a less secular, less liberal kind of politics.

Second, create a non-oil-based economy and government. When a government has easy access to money, it doesn't need to create a real economy. In fact, it doesn't need its citizens because it doesn't tax them. The result is a royal court, distant and detached from its society.

Iraq's oil revenues were supposed to be managed well, going into a specially earmarked development fund rather than used to finance general government activities. The Coalition Provisional Authority steered this process reasonably well, though its auditors gave it a less-than-glowing review. Since the transfer of power to the Iraqi provisional government, Iraq's oil revenues have been managed in an opaque manner, with scarce information. "There is little doubt that Iraq is now using its oil wealth for general revenues," says Isam al Khafaji, who worked for the CPA briefly and now runs Iraq Revenue Watch for the Open Society Institute. "Plus, the Iraqi government now has two sources of easy money. If the oil revenues aren't enough, there's Uncle Sam. The United States is spending its money extremely unwisely in Iraq."

This is a complaint one hears over and over again. America is spending billions of dollars in Iraq and getting very little for it in terms of improvements on the ground, let alone the good will of the people. "Most of the money is being spent for reasons of political patronage, not creating the basis for a real economy," says al Khafaji. Most of it is spent on Americans, no matter what the cost. The rest goes to favored Iraqis. "We have studied this and I can say with certainty that not a single Iraqi contractor has received his contract through a bidding process that was open and transparent."

The rule of law is the final, crucial condition. Without it, little else can work. Paul Bremer did an extremely good job building institutional safeguards for the new Iraq, creating a public-integrity commission, an election commission, a human-rights commission, inspectors general in each bureaucratic government department. Some of these have survived, but most have been shelved, corrupted, or marginalized. The courts are in better shape but could well follow the same sad fate of these other building blocks of liberal democracy. Iraq's police are routinely accused of torture and abuse of authority.

Much of the reason for this decline is, of course, the security situation. The United States has essentially stopped trying to build a democratic order in Iraq and is simply trying to fight the insurgency and gain some stability and legitimacy. In doing so, if that exacerbates group tensions, corruption, cronyism, and creates an overly centralized regime, so be it. Lawrence Kaplan, a neoconservative writer passionately in favor of the war, who coauthored "The War Over Iraq: Saddam's Tyranny and America's Mission" with William Kristol, has just returned from Iraq and written a deeply gloomy essay in the current The New Republic. His conclusion: "The war for a liberal Iraq is destroying the dream of a liberal Iraq."

Iraq will still be a country that is substantially better off than it was under Saddam Hussein. There is real pluralism and openness in the society‹more so than in most of the Middle East. Russia and Nigeria aren't terrible regimes. But it was not what many of us had hoped for. Perhaps some of these negative trends can be reversed. Perhaps the Shia majority will use their power wisely. But Iraqi democracy is now at the mercy of that majority, who we must hope will listen to their better angels. That is not a sign of success. "If men were angels," James Madison once wrote, "no government would be necessary."