Unintended Consequences | The Nation


Unintended Consequences

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Supporters of the Bush Administration have tried to claim credit for what they see as the new stirring of democracy in many Arab societies. Others argue that the Administration's Greater Middle East Initiative has not gone anywhere because of Washington's legitimacy and credibility problems.

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: The Administration's adoption of the rhetoric of democratization is welcome. But Washington continues to support--and indeed makes its own use of--the repressive apparatuses of countries like Egypt and Jordan, which are used to punish internal political opposition. Democratization and a respect for human rights are closely connected. That is why we must stand for ending the use of violence in domestic political affairs. When we see Washington make that point in public, we'll know it is starting to get serious about "democratization." For now, most reformers in Arab societies are extremely wary of being tarred with an American brush--especially as long as the US is seen, as it still is, as essentially supporting Israel's colonial policies in the West Bank, and as long as the American occupation of Iraq is seen as having led to chaos in that country.


: Bush's military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have not produced stable governments that anyone would want to copy. And both new governments have a distinctly Muslim fundamentalist coloration. The Administration's policies have actually strengthened the Iranian hard-liners while having little effect on other regimes in the region. Nothing that happened in Lebanon had anything to do with Bush or Iraq. The municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and the changes in electoral law in Egypt are purely cosmetic. It is a good thing for the US to support democracy in the region, but it has to be done wisely. The main effect of aggressive Bush Administration policy to date has been to spread instability and increase polarization.


: The US war in Iraq has encouraged "liberation movements" in the region, who now feel that there is a superpower that can give them an edge in their internal domestic struggles. But many of these movements have adopted sectarian or ethnic identities (for example, the Syrian Brotherhood and the Kurds in Syria). At the same time, new "Chalabis" are appearing, hoping to copy Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi's success in orchestrating a war and regime change through public relations and lies. Syrian opposition figure Nizar Nayouf provided the media with documents detailing where Iraqi WMDs were allegedly being stored in Syria. And Syrian dissident Farid al-Ghadiri of the American-based Al Islah (Reform) Party had been imitating Chalabi's lobbying tactics. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is like the Iraqi Dawa Party, waiting on the sidelines and hoping for change, knowing that as soon as Syria's Baathists depart, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood will easily take over. The overall effect of these new stirrings of democracy, then, has been to increase the potential for sectarian strife in a number of countries.


: The war itself had mostly a negative impact on democracy in the region, but the subsequent advocacy of democracy has had a more positive effect on the region's politics. In general, because the Bush Administration gave this issue such a high profile, all those seeking good relations with the US had to offer something, if only for political reasons. Even those in the region who didn't believe the Administration meant it were happy to see the public pressure: When governments in the region are under scrutiny, the likelihood of an Arab Tiananmen Square is reduced. The Lebanese could go out in large numbers to test the resolve of Syrian and Lebanese forces. Opposition in Egypt has been emboldened. All this has resulted in more stirrings than we have seen in a long time. But profound change is hard to find anywhere.

In fact, Arab governments are assuming two things: First, that the Bush Administration is using the democracy issue to get them to cooperate on strategic issues such as Iraq, the war on Al Qaeda and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; second, that the President, having made the issue a public priority, must now show some accomplishment. For this reason, their strategy is clear: Offer strategic cooperation and give enough evidence of change for the Administration to claim them as an example of success. Yet as soon as the President takes credit for a country as an example of success, they assume it will be very hard for him to move that country back to the negative column. Democracy cannot be seen to march backwards.

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