Friday, May 06, 2005

The Arab Democracy Debate Intensifies in Washington

Rami G. Khouri

Rami Khouri is editor-at-large for The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

One of the important and still evolving new developments in Washington's Middle East policy has been the recent proliferation in American efforts to study and to promote democratic reform throughout the Arab world. Several aspects of this seem significant, are very visible here in Washington, and need to be more widely appreciated throughout the Middle East.

The extent, depth and quality of work being done in the United States on Arab democratisation, along with economic, education, security and other reform issues, is impressive. It will also be consequential in due course, because this is an arena where Arabs and Americans are slowly finding it mutually beneficial to work together for a change, rather than opposing, resisting, resenting or fighting each other.

The bulk of the work on Arab democratic reforms is being done by civil society institutions, mostly think tanks and universities. It is refreshing to have so much American energy devoted to exploring the best paths to Arab democracy, and to have American scholars, activists, institutions and officials finally joining and supporting those small numbers of Arabs who have been working for democratic reforms for decades.

One change already visible is that the initial American focus on simply advocating democratic change in the Middle East has now been replaced by a more subtle and useful analysis of three related issues: how to bring about democratic change on the ground, how to anticipate and accept the consequences of this (e.g., Islamists and groups critical of the US and Israel are sure to gain power in many countries), and how to align the democratisation policy and trend with the other pressing issues in the region.

One consequence of this trend has been that public discussion of the Middle East in Washington and the US as a whole has slightly shifted away from the traditional intense focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the more recent focus on Iraq and the war on terror. There is also much debate and disagreement on the real motives for the American government's recent shift towards a greater focus on promoting Arab democracy, and whether Washington has either the commitment or seriousness needed to pursue this policy over the long term.

Critics or sceptics of the US see its policy as driven only by its understandably angry reaction to the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, with Arab democracy being the antidote to dysfunctional political systems and environments that ultimately spawned a global terror industry. They point to the continued sharp discrepancies — or hypocritical inconsistencies — between Washington's democracy promotion efforts in different parts of the region. Iraq and Lebanon, for example, get a great deal of American attention, but promoting democracy seems infinitely less urgent for the US in Libya and Tunisia, to mention only two of the most glaring examples of Arab autocracies and dictatorships that seem to elicit indifference from the American leadership.

These and other issues will sort themselves out over time, presumably, if this trend continues, because these matters are now being subjected to a great deal of very serious analysis and discussion. One of the striking facets of this dynamic that should be grasped more widely in the Arab world is the critical — in fact, the leading — role played by civil society institutions. The most serious policy-related research that both drives the debate and provides the American and Arab governments with useful options to consider is being conducted by organisations such as the Brookings Institution's Saban Centre, the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Middle East Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, and a handful of others.

Equally significant is that the research under way in most cases is managed jointly by American and Arab scholars, providing a combination of relevance, accuracy and realism that was largely missing from both the unilateral American government's exhortations and small-scale democracy programmes of recent years, and the pleas by Arab democrats for action on the ground. The debate today is in the mainstream, whereas in the last decade or so the idea of changing Arab regimes and their political culture was more the private domain of slightly fringe groups that often seemed as interested in Israeli national security needs as they were in American or Arab needs.

The debate has moved quickly in the last few years from the arena of motional exhortations and unilateral threats to the more productive level of exploring a range of more subtle, interlinked practical realities: realistic options for changing political environments in the Middle East; how the US, Europe and others abroad can be involved usefully and credibly; whether democratisation and regime change via unilateral military force can remain elements of American policy in the region; the best combination of positive inducements and sanctions or threats that could be used to prod change; and whether the focus for democratic reforms should be on Arab governments or civil society.

When I discussed these issues recently with J. Scott Carpenter, the deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labour, it was clear that Washington itself was evolving in terms of how it could most effectively work to promote Arab democracy. He thought a more collaborative and less confrontational era was in the making, noting that “we want to turn the page and see together how we can face the challenge of helping these societies and governments reform over time. We want this to be seen as more of a joint project than something of an American project”.

He also reflects what may be a slightly more humble American official posture that tries to respond to and work with Arab democratic activists, rather than lead or create them.

The focus on the Middle East is becoming multipolar, looking at Arab-Israel issues as well as the regimes themselves. The difference now over two years ago is a willingness to engage in real issues confronting societies in the region, and a real clear understanding by governments in the region of the need to change.

We also see people all over the region asking themselves, “why not here?” Egyptians see events in Lebanon, Tunisians see Abu Mazen getting grilled by Palestinian journalists on Al Jazeera television, and all this creates ferment in the region. The US is not responsible for it, but we have a role to play, and we want to see how best to support and channel the ferment in a positive way.

One of the reasons why the discussion and debate on Arab democratisation are moving ahead so strongly in both the US and the Middle East is that credible civil society activists and institutions are working together to drive the agenda. This has enriched the policy options available to all concerned governments, and has also provided an important new impetus that prods governments to behave more intelligently and urgently.