Tuesday, March 01, 2005

How About Another Carrot?, Part I

It's a good time to respond to Praktike's call to "rethink" the Left's approach to Islamic democracy - an approach that, like it or not, has been somewhat rudderless in the face of President Bush's various policy prescriptions. Because Bush has seized the initiative, the Left has assumed a defensive, reactive posture that results in some uninspired positions and incongruent alliances.

As I have mentioned before, however, the scope of the Bush administration's strategy has been somewhat limited in emphasis, with the military and rebuilding campaigns in Iraq absorbing the lion's share of attention, resources, and thought. In fairness, they did initiate new diplomatic endeavors, aid programs, and other "soft power" options to foster change, such as the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), but these measures have not received the funding or attention they require, and may be structurally and strategically flawed regardless.

Thus there is something of a vacuum that can be filled by thoughtful left-leaning democracy-philes that find themselves uncomfortable with the notion that militarily enforced regime change is an acceptable model for democratization, or that the invasion of Iraq itself was enough to undermine the region's despots and create an unstoppable trend toward democracy's adoption. The Iraq invasion is a moot point. So let's look at what we can do now, and going forward.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

In pursuit of the above mentioned goals,
Steven Cook's article, in the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs, offers an intriguing look into an area that could stand some improvement. Cook's thesis is that our current approaches to promoting democratic change, and other policy goals, in the Middle East have been based on prior experiences elsewhere that don't necessarily correlate all that well to the actual scenario in the region.

The United States had, in recent years, pursued three different approaches toward the Arab world: punishing its enemies with diplomatic isolation, sanctions, and invasion; bolstering civil society; and promoting economic development in friendly states. Assuming that these last two tactics would gently drive political liberalization, the United States funded good-governance programs in Egypt, promoted industrial zones in Jordan, and provided various forms of economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority and, more recently, Yemen.
He then offers a bold pronouncement on strategy that runs counter to accepted conventional wisdom, and must seem blasphemous to many earnest proponents of democratic change (myself included - at least initially).

If the United States hopes to craft a more successful pro-democracy strategy for the Middle East, U.S. officials will have to abandon two central tenets of their past and present approach: reliance on civil society and pressure for economic reform, both of which, it has long been thought, contribute to democratization in authoritarian states.
The author provides some useful background information and a concise definition of some of the terms:

"Civil society" is political science shorthand for private voluntary groups, including nongovernmental organizations dedicated to issues such as human rights and good governance. Within both the scholarly and policy communities, civil society is often seen these days as a leading force for democratization. As such groups proliferate, the argument runs, individuals become more assertive in demanding their political rights. Once these demands reach a certain pitch, authoritarian leaders are forced to make meaningful changes or risk being swept away. The policy implications of this theory are neat and tidy: to encourage liberalization in repressive states, simply encourage the growth of civil society.
The conventional wisdom regarding the efficacy of civil society as a cause of change was bolstered by the democratic transformations in formerly Communist Eastern Europe. In those regions, civil society was both a catalyst for change, and a popular mouthpiece of the people. The groups that fell under the umbrella of the term "civil society" were also more uniformly in favor of liberal democracy itself, and stood in direct opposition to the ruling regimes. This is not necessarily the case in the Middle East, where the regimes seem to have learned from those mistakes, and the civil organizations have failed to inspire the masses.

Civil society in Arab countries may provide critical social services, such as medical care, education, and legal representation, but many of the groups involved, such as those affiliated with radical Islamist movements, are decidedly undemocratic. Others have proven too willing to cooperate with local nondemocratic regimes: Egyptian human rights activists, for example, serve on the government-created Egyptian National Council for Human Rights, which has no power to compel the government to change its predatory practices and serves only as window dressing. Likewise, in Algeria, Syria, Tunisia, and other Arab countries, labor unions and business organizations enjoy government patronage in return for collaboration with the state.
Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway, in a Foreign Policy article dating from last year, also weighed in on the deft push and pull that Middle East governments have used to manipulate civil society and grassroots movements - employing a combination of crack downs and warm embraces to further their ambitions.

Government repression and, at times, co-optation have also undermined Arab democrats' effectiveness. Some regimes—notably Saudi Arabia's—move quickly to clamp down on any nascent liberal debate. Others are more tolerant, giving liberals some intellectual space to write and discuss issues openly, as long as their talk is not followed by action. Arab democrats in countries such as Egypt are not a persecuted group. Rather, they tend to be professionals comfortably ensconced in the upper-middle class. Therefore, they are hesitant to demand genuine reforms that might lead to a hard-line takeover and content to advocate democratization from the top.
This adroit massaging of the system at least partially explains counterintuitive facts such as this one noted by Cook:

...although many Arab countries are already awash in civic organizations (according to one study conducted in the late 1990s, Egypt alone boasts some 19,000 of them), these countries remain oppressive.
It should also be noted that many of the regimes in question are known to allow for, if not openly encourage, a certain amount of anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and coddling of religious extremism in order to deflect negative attention outward, and provide release valves for mounting tension. These attitudes create a compromised environment within which to attempt to promote liberalism per se.

The Cold War Effect

During the height of the Cold War, and before that moment in some instances, US foreign policy was governed by a stricter doctrine of self interest and realpolitik which led the government to support countless authoritarian strong men, despots, and brutal dictators that insured beneficial treatment and hegemony for US strategic and economic interests. The irony is, that this approach gave life, nourishment, and succor to Communist movements that came back to plague and threaten those same interests decades later. Because the US was perceived as the patron of the brutal despots in Latin America and Asia, the disillusioned and angry masses had few places to turn. Into this void, the Communists stepped, and in the process Communism itself became synonymous with resistance to the dictatorships, and gained in popularity and prestige beyond what might have occurred in a more open marketplace of ideas. The same dynamic is being repeated in the Middle East, only this time fundamentalist Islamists are playing the part of the opposition movement. Gilles Kepel offers this insight from The War For Muslim Minds [p. 63-64]

To the vast numbers of malcontents in the Middle East, the West's continued support for authoritarian regimes in the region appeared clearly as bad faith. As an alternative, Islamist ideology, presented as an indigenous political solution, became increasingly appealing. Whatever its expression, whether moderate or radical, conservative or revolutionary, peaceful or violent - even terrorist - Islamism asserted its authenticity and altruism, its lack of concern with anything but the interests of the people from whom it had emerged, rather than those of foreign powers or global oil producers.
Carothers and Ottaway take note of the inability of liberal democratic reformers to build a popular mandate, and the opportunities this creates.

Arab democrats have so far shown little capacity—and less inclination—to translate abstract ideas into programs with mass appeal. Because they talk to Western organizations and each other more than to their fellow citizens, opposition political parties with a liberal agenda find themselves unable to build broad constituencies. This failure leaves the field open to government parties, which can build a following on the basis of patronage, and to Islamist parties, which build their following in the best tradition of mass parties, with a mixture of ideological fervor and grassroots social services.
So, our efforts to support civil society ends up as an exercise in funding groups that get coopted by the government in question, which in turn neuters the progressive and reformist aspects of those groups. But as a result, the Islamist organizations enjoy the advantage of having no connection to the unpopular regime in question, so they stand apart as the "true" face of opposition and the authentic voice of the people - unfettered by ulterior domestic motives or foreign intervention. In addition to the corrupt regime's kiss of death, liberal democratic movements are guilty by their very association to the US.

Washington's effort to promote democracy through civil society has run into another problem as well, one related to the United States' dismal image in the Arab world. Put simply, many local activists refuse to work with Americans. Washington's policies toward the region--from the Iraq war and the war on terrorism to its support for Israel--are so unpopular that Arab activists cannot embrace the United States, or even be seen to cooperate with it, without compromising their credibility within the communities they serve.
In this sense, the US finds itself in a Catch-22: it must try to support civic groups that are in line with its values and morals, but doing so undermines the efficacy of those same groups. In fact, those groups start out with a heavy presumption against them by virtue of their American-style message. And in the meantime, the governments in question have been able to coopt many of the groups we are seeking to promote which has only added to the popularity and prestige of the very factions we are seeking to prevail against in the war for Muslim hearts and minds: the radical Islamists.

Beautifying Windows

The regimes that stand in the way of democratic reform have adopted similar strategies to stymie the reforming effects of economic development. Akin to the predominant thinking regarding the efficacy of civil society in sparking democratic evolution, policy wonks have fostered the belief that economic development inevitably leads to increased political liberalization. The Middle East regimes have shown a stubborn and determined ability to resist the effects of such economic factors.

Washington's second major misapprehension about how to spur democracy--through economic development--stems from a confusion of correlation with causation. Economic development and democratization may in fact often go hand in hand, but this does not mean that the former causes the latter. In fact, social science research indicates that, although economic growth is critical to sustaining democracy, it is not enough to create it. Yet Washington acts as though it is: programs run by the Partnership for Progress (an initiative by the G-8 group of highly industrialized countries plus Russia to promote political change in the Middle East), MEPI, and USAID are all predicated on the assumption that economic development produces new entrepreneurs, who inevitably demand greater political openness.

The Middle East, however, has refused to conform to this model. Whenever Arab leaders have reformed their economies--as during Egypt's much-vaunted infitah (opening) in the late 1970s or Algeria's version of the same in the 1980s--the result has been economic liberalization without either the institutionalization of market economies or the emergence of democracy. As expected, economic development has given rise to new classes of entrepreneurs. But these business leaders, whose fortunes have remained tied largely to the state, have been easily co-opted by local repressive regimes.
Just like the advent of civil society, these regimes have learned to control the effects of economic development by maintaining close state control over the process. Instead of an organic opposition group organized around human rights issues, or an entrepreneurial class desiring increased freedom and structural integrity to pursue their fiscal aspirations, these dual movements have become state actors, whose interests are often intertwined with the forces that they have, in other historical contexts, opposed. The result has been incremental changes that amount to little more than window dressing, without the requisite institutional changes or the measure of autonomy from the influence of the regime that is needed to empower these groups and allow for them to affect the changes predicted and observed in other regions.

The third area of policy that Cook describes as in our arsenal is the "diplomatic isolation, sanctions, and invasion" of regimes that fall out of favor. While sanctions and isolation have proven successful in some regards, such as rendering Saddam Hussein's attempt to reconstitute WMD programs fruitless and forcing Muammar al-Qadhafi to
comply with several measures (such as acknowledging and compensating for Pan Am 103, renouncing terrorism, and abandoning its WMD program), neither have had any major impact in terms of promoting political liberalization. Furthermore, while the Iraq campaign has the potential to end with a manifestation of political liberalization, the costs in terms of economic resources and human lives has proven too expensive to attempt to replicate - and probably unattractive from an indigenous perspective as well. As Cook put it:

With Iraq's transformation into an ostensibly liberal pluralist state growing ever bloodier, democracy--imported at the tip of an m-16 rifle--is looking less and less appealing to many Arabs.
Thus, we should look at a way to adjust our strategies and policy imperatives in order to maximize their effect and their ability circumvent some of the obstacles erected by the regimes that, understandably, feel threatened by the prospect of widespread liberalization. In Part II, I will look at what Cook offers in terms of advice, as well as some other possible avenues to explore.

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