Reality check

April 07, 2005|By James J. Zogby

WASHINGTON - Although the Bush administration has taken credit for advancing freedom and democracy in the Middle East, reality suggests otherwise.

To make their case, the administration and its advocates are fond of citing a litany of successes. Beginning with Afghanistan and Iraq, then moving to Palestine, Lebanon and recent developments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the White House spins a tale of "freedom on the march." Its implied argument, of course, is that U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and the administration's advocacy for democracy are the causal factors that have unleashed this democracy wave in the broader Middle East.

The argument is wrong in both its postulates and its conclusions. While it is true that the United States ended Taliban rule in Kabul, removed the Baath regime in Baghdad and organized elections in both countries, it is far too soon to declare success in either case. It would be a mistake to declare Afghanistan and Iraq democracies.

In the same week that President Bush was delivering his "freedom on the march" speech at the National Defense University, disturbing articles on Afghanistan appeared in two major newspapers. One detailed concerns that the country is devolving into a "narco state" with about 60 percent of its income derived from heroin and opium. The other article detailed the deteriorating quality of life in warlord-led provinces and concluded by quoting villagers pining for a return of the Taliban.

Iraq has had an election, but is still putting a government together. An election, by itself, does not create democracy or implant a democratic culture. And both the Iraqis and the United States are learning this lesson the hard way.

As premature as it is, therefore, to declare both Afghanistan and Iraq missions accomplished, it is grossly unfair to even suggest that the Palestinian elections or the demonstrations in Beirut were somehow U.S.-inspired (despite what a few fawning sycophants might say). The Palestinian election was prompted by the death of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority's need to legitimize a new leadership. And the demonstrations in Beirut were an expression of collective outrage over the shocking assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mahmoud Abbas is the new Palestinian president, but the Israeli occupation authorities continue to confiscate land, announce new settlement construction and deny fundamental rights to millions of Palestinians - not quite "freedom on the march."

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Syria's long-overdue departure is under way, but this doesn't solve Lebanon's deeper problems. Lebanon is still governed by the 60-year-old national pact that guarantees political dominance for Christians and Sunni Muslims. Today, Shiite Muslims are the largest religious group in the country but have no positions of power. Lebanon needs a new national pact and expansion of democracy to enfranchise the disenfranchised. Sadly, however, this kind of real democratic reform is not yet on the country's agenda.

The kifaya (Arabic for "enough") movement in Egypt is purely homegrown, and has been brewing for years, as have the movements toward expanding citizen participation in several gulf countries. Some have criticized these efforts as half-steps, but they are steps, and they have been developing for over a decade now.

So while the administration, in order to reverse declining U.S. public support for the war in Iraq, needs to advance the claim that its efforts are bringing democracy to the Middle East, the argument simply doesn't hold up.

If anything, U.S. actions in the past four years have done damage to the cause of democracy and human rights in the Arab world. In response to growing anti-American sentiment, some countries, close to the United States, have cracked down on free expression. And U.S. behavior toward detainees at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and here at home has been so appalling as to undercut U.S. claims to leadership in the defense of human rights.

It is this that disturbs me most. Because I believe that the U.S. experience in expanding democracy and promoting human rights holds important lessons for the world, the administration has, in effect - and despite its rhetoric - taken itself out of the game. Some Arab governments now justify their human rights abuses by pointing to similar U.S. practices. And some reformers in the Arab world say they fear the embrace of the Americans because it might harm their efforts.

All of this said, it is good that the administration is speaking of democracy and reform. But it is important that it has credibility when it does so. We cannot open the door to democracy. People must do that for themselves. But if we are a credible and consistent partner in the pursuit of justice and reform, then we can make a contribution.

James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.

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