Across the Bay

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

A Tale of Three "P's"

Ramy Khoury in his eternal wisdom has decided to enlighten us -- with a dash of witty charm on top! -- on what the real solution for the ME is.

He oh-so-cleverly summed it up in three "P's": "the Palestinians, Powell, and Arab Power." Oh... you had me at P. But then I P-uked my guts out.

As you might have guessed (after all, is it really that difficult?!) Ramy's genius solution is the solution of the Palestinian problem. But whom does he call to task on it? Powell... Can you feel the excitement? Is there anything more stagnant than these two: Powell and the Palestinan problem? And finally to "reveal" the breathtaking "original" conclusion, what is the hurdle to Arab reform ("power")? The above-mentioned Powell (whom Khoury calls: "a cruel symbol of the global values we wish to embrace to live life to its fullest, and also of the pro-Israeli American policies we abhor because they promote death and suffering in different Arab lands.") and the Palestinian tragedy. Mind-blowing isn't it? How could we have missed it!?

But it gets better. Khoury then writes:

"Arab governments both promote and resist change; the Arab League speaks of change but rejects a foreign role in this, while some Arab governments expect change to happen only with prodding and assistance from abroad; the Arab private sector includes great reform leaders and success stories, alongside forces that wish to maintain the existing protected, often monopolistic systems; and civil society organizations - especially political parties, think tanks and professional associations - remain weak and marginal, beyond the useful role of articulating broad goals and advocating reformist values. Arab governments that speak of political reform and democratization are not widely believed by most of their own people, who assume that ruling elites will not voluntarily share or relinquish power."

Did I miss something here!? Powell parrots the same contradictions that Khoury just laid out! He wants the regimes to be in charge of reform, which means it'll never happen. He says it should come from the inside, which is another way of saying we'll never see it.

This is precisely what Ramzy Baroud tackled in a piece in the same paper.

I will discuss Baroud's strong points as well as his weaknesses. Let's dare to match Khoury's wit with our own "three P's": Paradox, Paranoia, and Paralysis. (I left out Pathologies this time!)

In response to Khoury's "Palestinian" problem, Baroud has this to say:

"[T]he persistence of some Arab countries on placing the solving of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a prerequisite to democratic reform seems rather self-defeating. Sure, if the idea is to highlight that Washington is only interested in achieving its strategic goals and not remedying the bleeding wound of the region, exemplified by the Middle East conflict, then, point taken.

But how long can Arab governments wave this sword? Do Arab women have to be denied proper education, Arab public political representation and Arab nations an integrated economic system, until Israel's Ariel Sharon decides to end his colonial reign in the West Bank and Gaza?

As cruel and costly as the Arab-Israeli conflict has been, I still fail to see the connection.

It's a good thing Edward Said is no longer with us, as he would have labeled Baroud a Zionist, like he did with Ajami, who also tried to move away from the Palestinian issue recognizing its trap.

Baroud further slams the prospect that Arab regimes hold the key (which is the Powell position) calling the bluff of slogans like "gradual change" or "reform doesn't come from the outside" which are part of the mantra of president-kings like Mubarak and Assad who are searching for any excuse to perpetuate their dynasties:

"In many Arab countries, poverty and illiteracy have reached a staggering level; human rights abuses are widespread; prisons swarm with "prisoners of conscience"; freedom of expression is confined to press releases and empty promises; even when positive change takes place, it's often slow and insufficient, a behavior that is rationalized by the compelling need for "gradualism" in reform.

Interestingly, this "gradual" change almost always guarantees the absolute role of the political elite.


Meanwhile, not many Arabs are comforted by the pompous promises made by their rulers of impending reform that are self-imposed and not imposed by outsiders. If there were indeed such as an official Arab alternative to the U.S.-imposed reform, then one must ask: where is it? Why not unveil it now? And what are the follow-up mechanisms that would assure its implementation if it, in fact, exists?

And finally, in a statement that could've been directed at Powell, Baroud writes:

"But how does one explain the fact that Ryan sees in some unmistakably undemocratic Arab governments an example to be followed, while assertively dismissing others who are just as undemocratic?"

These are the strong points. The problem I see in Baroud's piece is his inability to go beyond a paranoid (and always reductionist) view of the US and its supposed "hidden motives." (An almost irresistible delicacy in the Arab world is the speculation about "hidden motives.")

Part of the reason behind this view is a dogmatically materialist outlook. Take for instance the following words and how they're phrased:

"Pletka, one of America's leading neoconservatives, must've known that this talk about democracy, liberation, and the empowerment of mankind convinces no one, except perhaps some innocent souls living on the periphery of history without a spec of knowledge of the political economy that steered its course for millennia."

Add to that Baroud's certainty that America's "real" motives are "obvious."

To be fair, it's not completely due to Baroud's dogmatic materialism that he's left with the impression that the US is only interested in Realpolitik. But here's where the paradox comes in. In their antipathy towards figures like Wolfowitz (who gets lumped under the all-inclusive label "neo-conservative") the Arabs miss a crucial point that it is precisely people like Wolfowitz who want to reverse the Realist grip on US foreign policy and its ineffective results. The opposing policy dictates that the US shouldn't deal with dictators in order to simply guarantee its interests, as that will surely harm its interests in the long run. Case in point, the modern ME. Look at Baroud's comment:

"It seems that the U.S. government's "democracy scale" will always tip in favor of those who unquestionably conform to Washington's political and business interests in the Middle East."

This is what they're expecting: a US sell-out. Yet at the same time, and this perplexes me beyond words, they oppose any action aimed at removing dictators, and go back to calling on Powell, the same man whose entire program is based on stalemate! It's mind-boggling.

That tension is frequently there (see my earlier comments on this blog on a piece by Shibley Telhami). In the end, Baroud arrives at this frustrated conclusion:

"Loaded slogans no longer suffice. Tangible change demands tangible action. Either that or eventually the browbeaten and demoralized Arabs would be left with no other option but that envisaged by Washington."

The thing is that the "Wolfowitz solution" already is the only viable solution, because it's the only solution that hits at the heart of the problem: the ME stalemate cannot persist. As Baroud has shown, all the other "P's" (Arab Powers, the Palestinian issue, and Powell) are jokes at best, or Trojan horses at worst, that will keep the Arabs in the same hole they've been in for decades, if not centuries.

But like I said, the "Wolfowitz solution" is not a limited materialist one, it also strikes at the deadly cultural myths and ideologies (like Arab nationalism for instance).

Unlike Baroud, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi realizes that culture and ideas are at the heart of historical change and nails a very significant point:

"[Panahi] was equally outspoken on the importance that some would give to the role of economic policy on helping societies progress to democracy: "I don't see necessarily see that economics are the basis for democracy. As an artist, I believe culture should be the basis for democracy. As long as mentalities haven't changed, we cannot bring democracy into a system. There is nothing we can do if people haven't changed the way they think.

"For example, take Qatar. From talking to people about this country, I understand that Qataris are well paid, they have social security, they have free education, water, electricity and good salaries. With this economy, in principle, Qatar should be the most democratic country in the world."


"When we talk about culture, we're also talking about beliefs. When we have this freedom for different expressions, particularly artistic expressions, we also have ears. We can find out what people's different tastes are, their different approaches, the different concerns, and this is the only way for me to understand what the public or the people want, through those endeavors and cultural happenings."

This has been the problem in the Arab world since the 18th-19th c. (and the early 20th c.) and the encounter with Europe. The "reformists" of that age like Abduh, and later more militant activists like Qutb, coveted only Europe's technological and economic progress but disdained its values and ideas (save of course for Nationalism, and later Fascism and Stalinism that gave birth to Arab nationalism and the Baath, and define modern Islamism!).

This attitude laid the foundation of what has come to be known as Occidentalism, a reductionist view of the West that labels it "morally degenerate and corrupt" or "lacking spirituality" etc. These views were best expressed in the reactions to (and manipulations of) the Abu Ghraib scandal, which by the way was merely a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it was used to confirm these Occidentalist views of the West.

Instead, what Panahi seems to advocate is an open (dare I say globalized?!) exchange of ideas and views:

"[T]his is how you get a vision, how you communicate different ideas and open new doors. Any type of artistic or cultural event is the best way to dialogue. It's a dialogue between intellectuals from different countries."

This shatters the pathological (I couldn't help it!) and lame excuse of "reform doesn't come from the outside." Of course it does! It comes from an exchange of ideas, which by definition involves the outside! This detrimental dichotomy of "inside/outside" has deep roots, and it was best critiqued by Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya in his brilliant book (one that Edward Said hated) Cruelty and Silence, where he labeled it: "that other ever so destructive dictum of Arab cultural nationalism: never wash your dirty laundry in public, and especially not where a westerner can see you." (p. 321. See also his points on Arab "rejectionism." See also pp. 234-41 and 314-19.)

Unfortunately, we have to go back to our "P's": Paradox and Paranoia resulting in Paralysis. After making all these excellent points, Panahi shatters it all in this conclusion:

"I don't believe you can bring democracy with an army, and that's why my next film will be about that subject. For me it's humiliating and disturbing to see a superpower come and impose its own ideas of democracy in a foreign country.""

Panahi is in denial about the nature of the regimes in the ME. How else but on a tank could the Iraqis have gotten rid of Saddam? And that tank had to have been foreign as no other Arab or Muslim tank was going to do it, and the Iraqi tanks belonged to Saddam himself! I don't see any European from the war generation complaining that their liberation from Hitler couldn't have happened without the intervention of the Americans. Neither do I see any Kosovars complaining that foreign armies helped them get rid of Milosevic.

As for "imposing" democracy, that's simply not true, as the US has gone out of its way, bending over backwards, to make clear that it doesn't expect a carbon copy of US liberal democracy in Iraq. But this is part of the nonsense that leads to Paralysis (which is manipulated by despots in the region). There are fixed elements in the concept of democracy regardless where it comes from. You can't eliminate them and say that you've installed a home-grown democracy, and Panahi certainly understands that. That kind of "democracy" is that of the despotic regimes, and/or the Islamists, who certainly have no problem using democratic principles to get elected, only to abolish them after they take power.

As you can see, there is some sort of debate going on, and Panahi is certainly right when he says that whatever happens in Iraq directly affects Iran and the region. The only question is will the people of the region manage to move beyond the stagnant "P's".