Monday, November 14, 2005

Shades Of Gray

In reading the transcript of Anthony Cordesman's recent testimony before the Senate concerning the Saudi Accountability Act (a punitive and heavy-handed measure that might be more feel good than efficacious in altering Saudi policy), I am reminded of many of my concerns with the cult of democratization that has sprung up in recent years - and grown empowered and emboldened post-9/11 (hat tip to praktike).

Part of the problem in discussing the topic of democracy promotion is that the way the debate is framed naturally leads to certain policy manifestations. How can one seriously oppose democratization without sounding like the Grinch that stole Christmas? It's like opposing puppies and kittens.

More seriously, by framing the issue as a pro-democracy/anti-democracy binary choice, proponents of a certain strain of policies designed to bring about democracy (at least in theory), can win support for their cause and portray themselves as the lone champions of freedom, human rights and democracy. They can represent an irresistible force in terms of garnering support - at least within certain influential circles. But in truth, not all roads lead to the promised land, and some methods (such as, ahem, invasion) can actually lead to costly, bloody and counterproductive detours. Further, not all non-violent means are necessarily effective either - nor can important issues such as timing (read: patience), indigenous support and underlying institutional strength be ignored or undervalued.

It is also crucial that we come to appreciate that the transition to democracy can be a highly tumultuous, chaotic and unpredictable affair. It can be, in many ways, a drastic realignment of a nation's society on a revolutionary scale. In a recent post, I discussed the fact that in situations where elections precede strong institutions necessary to empower a democratic model, nations can slip back into despotic rule, or lash out violently at neighbors. Such states are actually more prone to start wars than other more autocratic and dictatorial regimes. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of allowing a more organic, natural evolution of support amongst the target population and growth of other institutional, economic and cultural factors needed to assure more stability and lasting success. An overly imposing or heavy-handed approach by the United States in these endeavors can easily lead to resistance and entrenchment of un-democratic forces, or violent destabilization from half-democracies.

Without further ado, I turn to Cordesman who is speaking words of wisdom about many of the aforementioned topics, and more:

A US Strategy for Saudi Arabia and the Region

For all of these reasons, I see the Saudi Accountability Act as the kind of US posturing that will do far more to aid Bin Laden and extremism than put meaningful leverage on Saudi Arabia or any other friendly Arab and Muslim country. It will simply reinforce all of the regional stereotypes and conspiracy theories that the US does not understand the region, cares little about its people and a great deal about its own interests, and is trying to impose its values and create puppet regimes for its own purposes.

The Bush Administration has almost certainly been correct in stating that the Arab world and Middle East can only achieve stability through reform. Terrorism and extremism can only be defeated at the ideological, political, economic, and social level. Without such action, military and internal security efforts will fail -- sometimes quickly as in the case of Iraq and sometimes slowly as in the case of today's more successful "one man" regimes.

The Need for the Right Kind of US Reform Effort

Where the US, the Bush Administration, and the Congress need to be careful to avoid acting on the assumption that reform can come from the outside, that the same largely American or Western solution can work in all Arab and Islamic states, and that "democracy" is somehow a magic word that transforms entire societies.

• The fact is that meaningful religious reform can only come from within Islam, the region, and individual states. The US and the West cannot fight Islam's battle for the soul of Islam. This is a struggle that can only be fought and won within the region. If it is left to outsiders, or dealt with through denial, it is a struggle that will go on indefinitely and sometimes be lost. It is a struggle that every Middle Eastern intellectual, and every government, needs to face.

• The most outsiders can do is point out the obvious: This struggle is the most important single strategic priority for virtually every Middle Eastern and Islamic state. It is necessary and unavoidable, and interacts with the broader struggle for a tolerant global society based on mutual respect and human rights.
More broadly, the US, the Bush Administration, and the Congress need to be careful to adopt realistic time scales for evolutionary change, and to avoid focusing on "democracy" as if a simple political fix could be encouraged or imposed on every nation from the outside and at the nearly the same time.

• At a minimum, workable "democracy" means taking the time to create government with strong checks and balances. It means priority for human rights and the rule of law over the simple act of voting. It means creating functional political parties capable of both serving the nation and looking beyond one man, one vote, one time. Pure democracy has never worked in any state. Sufficiently crude democracy is little better.

• Both development, and regional strategic stability, will occur one nation at a time, and at different rates and in different ways. They will be driven either by local reformers and by political evolution, or will often collapse into forms of revolution that may be worse than the status quo.

• The real world priority for reform also has to give equal balance to economic reform, employment, education, social services, and reducing population growth rates. It means finding solutions to ethnic and religious divisions, and social change. It means giving at least as much priority to the economic role of women as the political role; creating a broad and globally competitive labor force.

• This kind of evolutionary reform can only occur at a different pace and in a different way in each state in the region. Like religious reform, it can only come from within and must be driven by local reformers. It cannot be driven by US public diplomacy, or by seeking to makeover every state in something approaching the form of the US or Europe. We are not talking about a few years; we are talking a decade and sometimes decades.

If we are to avoid letting extremists like Bin Laden drive us into a true clash of civilizations, we need a realistic strategy for reform on both sides. Saudi Arabia, the Arab world, and other Islamic states cannot deal with their needs for reform through denial, through complaining about outside states and forces, complaining about US and other external calls for reform, or waiting for the solutions to the region's other strategic problems. The US cannot deal with the issue by demanding mirror images, instant action, and all the other aspects of its traditional initial solution to every problem: "simple, quick, and wrong."

The Saudi and Arab Side of the Effort

The Middle East and Arab world will succeed, if and when, it starts to solve its problems one nation at a time, honestly, and without waiting for outside aid or solutions to all the region's ills. It is also important to note that it now has a unique window of opportunity.

The resources for action are also much greater today. The current projections of the EIA indicates that MENA oil export revenues will rise from a recent low of around $100 billion in 1998 in constant 2004 dollars to over $500 billion in 2005 – reaching or exceeding the former peak of some $500 billion reached in 1980..
The question is whether MENA governments will act upon this window of opportunity, whether the wealthier states will look beyond their own needs, and whether the poorer states will actually move towards effective development and reform. No nation has developed since World War II that did not develop itself, and solve virtually all of its own problems. If Asian states like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, or other Asian states had waited for peace or regional solutions, Asia would be another Middle East.

The US and Western Side of the Effort

The US and Europe, however, need patience, a balanced approach to reform, strong country missions capable of encouraging local governments and reformers, and the understanding that different societies and cultures will often take a different path. In practice, this means a very different strategy based on persuasion, partnership, and cooption rather than pressure and conversion:

• Implement a broadly-based reform strategy: Social, economic, and political reforms should be supported, but in an evolutionary sense. The US and Western states, however, cannot be seen as pushing these reforms in ways that discredit local officials and reformers. Outside pressure for change will be resisted even if the reforms are necessary, and too much overt pressure is counterproductive.

• One size does not fit all. The Arab and Islamic worlds are not monolithic. Each
country requires different sets of reforms and needs. Some need help in reforming their political process, others need economic aid, and others need special attention to their demographic dynamics and population control. The West, therefore, must avoid any generalized strategy of dealing with the Arab-Islamic world as one entity.

• Work on a country-by-country approach and rely on strong country teams, not regional approaches: Regional polices, meetings and slogans will not deal with real world needs or provide the kind of dialogue with local officials and reformers, tailored pressure and aid, and country plans and policies that are needed. Strong country teams both in Washington and in US Embassies are the keys to success.

• Recognize that the pace of reform will be relatively slow if it is to be stable and evolutionary, and dependent on partnership and cooption. Artificial deadlines and false crises can only lead to failed tactics and strategies. Outside support for reform must move at the base countries can actually absorb, and shift priorities to reflect the options that are actually available. History takes time and does not conform to the tenure of any given set of policymakers.

• Carefully support moderate voices: “Moderates” in the region do need the support of the West, but obvious outside backing can hurt internal reform efforts. Moreover, “moderate” must be defined in broad terms. It does not mean “secularist” and it does not necessarily mean “pro-American.” It also, however, does not mean supporting voices that claim to support freedom and democracy, but are actually the voice of extremism.

• Democratization is only part of reform and depends on creating a rule of law, checks and balances and a separation of powers, protection for minorities and human rights, and effective political parties. Trying to force or "rush" democracy on Middle Eastern countries is impractical and counterproductive. The goal should be to help MENA countries develop more pluralistic and representative governments that respect the rights of minorities.

• Recognize that the key to effective action is local political action, dialogue, education, efforts to use the media, and public diplomacy: The West and the US cannot hope to win a struggle for Islam and reform from the outside. It is the efforts of local governments, reformers, educators, and media that will be critical. Encouraging and aiding such efforts is far more important than advancing the image of the US or Western states or trying to shape local and regional attitudes through Western public diplomacy.

• Avoid generalizing about Muslims: generalizing Islam as a source of violence and discriminating against Muslims in the west can alienate “uncommitted” Muslims.

• Demonizing any part of Islam will aid extremists: The problem of terrorism is not the problem of “puritan” or “Wahhabi” Islam, but the attitude of violence and intolerance of politically motivated groups that exploit religious teaching to gain legitimacy in the eyes of their recruits and followers. To defeat these groups, their motivations need to be understood and fought at their roots. E.g. Al-Qa'ida's goal of ruling the “Arabian Peninsula.”

• Avoid supporting “secularism” against “traditionalism:” The region has seen its share of failed governance systems. Most efforts to secularize have failed and the US should not be seen as a driving force behind what may be assured failure. Moreover, the word “secularism” translate into “elmaniyah” is often intermingled with “atheism.”

• Don’t try to divide and conquer: The West should stay clear of issues like Sunni-Shiite frictions, and taking sides with ethic and sectarian groups. It does not serve anyone when they are played against each other. The Iran-Iraq War was a perfect example of how interfering can backfire. The US should avoid playing any role that could encourage such divisions, particularly given the current environment in Iraq.

• Liberalism vs. counter-terrorism: The liberty democratic societies afford people is sometimes the same tool extremists use to spread their hateful ideology. The west must be careful in advocating immediate liberalization and freedom of speech of the Middle East.

• Apply a single set of standards to Western and regional counterterrorism: Do what you preach and preach what you do. The West and specifically the US should void being seen as supporting violation of human rights and abusive security measures in counter-terrorism, which advocating human freedom. Violence by states against civilians be it Russia, Egypt, or Israel should be equally condemned.

In short, any effective strategy to deal with terrorism and extremism means addressing two key strategic issues that go far beyond the so-called war on terrorism. One is whether the Arab world can recognize the need for reform and achieve it. The second is whether the West, and particularly the US, can learn to work quietly with nations for effective reform, rather than seek to impose it noisily, and sometimes violently, on an entire region.
Go read the rest. Overall, a very nice summary.

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