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What To Do With Bush's Democracy Proposal?

Rami G. Khouri

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President George W. Bush’s sudden call last week to make democratic freedoms the goal of USA policy in the Middle East has generated impassioned debate, as it should. It deserves serious consideration and discussion ? as is always the case with mesmerising offers from slightly dubious salesmen. The initial instinct from the heart is to accept the offer and run with it. But the more prudent signal from the head says to study this more carefully: this is like a used car that has been offered to us for purchase before. We need to kick these tires a few times, look closely under the hood, and buy only when we’re sure the product on offer is the real thing.
Bush's claim to be working for the spread of democracy in the Middle East stems from the disclosure of the fallacy of his earlier stated reasons for invading Iraq, but should the concept of democracy in the region be rejected out of hand?
There should be no ambiguity here: Bush’s suggestion to democratise the Middle East is a good one by any standard. I personally welcome and embrace the concept. But the reality is that Bush’s suggestion has not been approved so far; in fact, the common reaction in this region has been massive scepticism, even some strong derision.

This is a real dilemma: the product on offer is deliciously tempting, but the salesman ? the USA ? is a slightly slippery character whose motives are both unclear and inconsistent. Do we laugh the offer out of town and file the salesman along with shady characters who offer to sell us sea-front real estate in Florida or financial investments in Nigeria? I think not. When the president of the United States ? despite the numbing legacy of Washington’s partiality, double-standards, hypocrisy and transparent expediency in this region ? proposes democratic freedoms as policy objectives for the entire Middle East, we should take a closer look, point out the weaknesses of the offer and the salesman, and identify the many points of convergence with our own priorities and rights in this region.

Specifically, the people and governments of the Middle East should consider doing three things simultaneously: call the American bluff and accept to democratise across the board; propose a specific series of activities by which Middle Easterners, Americans, Europeans and interested others would define the most appropriate way to achieve our democracy; demand that the United States itself simultaneously support the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, accountability and justice for all people equally in this region, with a single standard of political morality and national conduct for all states. Above all, Middle Eastern democratisation will fail if it is treated mainly as an American foreign policy goal.

The USA’ credibility is so low among most Middle Easterners that even the noble offer of democratic freedoms is quickly laughed out of town. We have deep and serious problems in two arenas: Middle Eastern mindsets, and American foreign policies.

Middle Easterners seem mostly to discount Bush’s proposal for many legitimate reasons, such as: the USA is not mandated to define our political cultures. The USA has supported autocracy for decades, so its sudden embrace of Middle Eastern democracy seems slightly suspect. The timing seems self-servingly expedient, if not downright panicky, in view of the USA’ wish to secure wider regional support for its stressed-out policy in Iraq. The USA has talked many times before of promoting democracy and human rights in the region, without following through with anything more serious that sending us slightly goofy American consultants.

After Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia receive more economic and military aid from the USA than any other countries put together.

After Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia receive more economic and military aid from the USA than any other countries put together.

If the USA is serious, it should today use its considerable influence to democratise those Arab countries which depend on it for their economic well-being and security, without waiting to transform the whole region at once. The lessons from American democratisation in Iraq to date are troubling, with USA officials defining who can and cannot play the game, and also setting the rules of the game in terms of religious/secular/ethnic balances. If the USA does this political pirouette from supporting autocrats to promoting democrats, what guarantees that the same USA will not switch course again and drop democratic goals in favour of strict security?

Foreign powers have been trying ? without success ? to change the political cultures of this region for millennia, because national values cannot be dictated from across the oceans. And the average Middle Easterner finds little to applaud in American policies throughout the region, so why should we suddenly embrace the American call for our democracy?

These reasons to doubt Washington’s credibility have not whimsically popped out of a box, like the Bush proposals did last week. They are the consequence of decades of American bad policies, combined with a consistently aggressive and predatory Israel, and equally incoherent Arab reactions. So do we just perpetuate this sad and violent legacy from this terrible trio, or do we try a different approach?

While the reasons for our scepticism of the USA are valid, more valid is our right to democratic governance defined by our own citizens. So the people of the Middle East should get off this dizzying roller-coaster of American hypocrisy, Israeli aggression, and Arab immobility, and respond more intelligently to Bush’s proposal. This is a debate in which we should be intimately involved, defining the goals and means as well as setting the terms of reference for the debate itself.

If Bush indeed seems like a dubious used car salesman selling us a lemon, we should reply by kicking the tires hard, by demanding he replace faulty engine parts and do a new paint job, and by negotiating a better deal that serves both sides’ legitimate interests and rights. The president of the United States just made us a tempting but slightly flawed offer. Call his bluff. Make a better deal.

Published Wednesday, November 12th, 2003 - 10:51am GMT

Article courtesy of the Jordan Times

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