Across the Bay

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Dream On (Part II)

This second part of the post deals with two positions against regime change in the ME. The two positions are markedly different however. The first, held by Joshua Landis, calls for a US engagement with "liberal minded" dictators in an effort to push them in the right direction. On the other hand, the second, exemplified by Ghassan Salameh of Lebanon, calls for a fully sui generis reform based on a "new social contract" between ME states and civil societies. The two positions are however unified on one point: both are exclusively interested in economic reforms alone (although Joshua Landis has also analyzed the Syrian education system in this terrific paper).

I have directed readers to the discussion I had with Professor Landis on his weblog ("Syria Comment") where I presented much of my argument. In brief, I pointed out some of the inconsistencies in his position. Landis basically subscribes to Fareed Zakaria's model laid out in his The Future of Freedom. In fact, Landis quoted Zakaria in his response to me:

"the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is -- instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections -- to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war."

The basic problem with Landis is that while he quotes Zakaria on constitutional liberalism, his own piece on reform is purely concerned with economic reforms. I suppose Landis holds that this is the way in for further reforms that touch on cultural and educational matters, but that's not elaborated. In fact, a quick look at his Syrian education paper will reveal the dangerous dynamics of ideology and education and how they're inextricably linked to minority/majority complexes, identity issues, and political and religious legitimacy. Bottom line, it shows that Bashar has as much sway as the US has when it comes to liberalizing Syrian culture! In fact, it shows that essentially, Islamic education in Syria differs little from its much maligned counterpart in Wahhabist Saudi Arabia (and Buthaina Shaaban still wants to bullshit us on the Arabic semantics of Madrassa!).

The paper contains statements like:

"For Syria’s Alawite leaders to back away from this orthodoxy is politically dangerous. To dismantle Nasser’s curriculum and to attack Sunni orthodoxy in the school system would cast doubt on their nationalist and Islamic credentials."

Landis concludes on this very discouraging note:

"The irony in Syria is that so long as minorities have the upper hand in politics, reform of the religious curriculum is unlikely. The political arrangement in Syria, as it now stands, is for the Alawi president to mollify the Sunni population and the ulema by allowing them a free hand in public instruction while curtailing their political influence. The insecurity of the Alawi community’s own Islamic identity severely limits the President’s ability to tinker with Islamic instruction. In fact, it creates a dynamic in which the ulema who cooperate with the government feel compelled to conservatism in order to preserve their dignity in front of a public which questions the Islamic status of the Alawis. In keeping with the “Nixon-going-to-China” principle, Syria may have to wait for a Sunni president before greater liberalization of its religion curriculum is possible. This, of course, is the rosy prediction.

Due to the rise of political Islam in the Islamic World, liberalization seems a distant possibility. Other “secular” states in the region, such as Egypt, have ceded greater influence to conservative Muslims in education despite having Sunni rulers. The future likelihood in Syria is that non-Muslims will continue to immigrate to countries that offer them citizenship with equality as they are doing throughout the region.

One immediately sees the inherent paradox. Landis is opposed to regime change because Bashar is allegedly Syria's only liberal president. At the same time, we are not to hope that Bashar will be able to liberalize anything due to the Sunni (majority) - Alawite (ruling minority) dynamics.

This paralysis is not restricted to the education sector. In the initial paper under discussion (on economic reform), Landis makes the following perplexing assertion:

"Of course, corruption and clientelism have not disappeared; they are the backbone of the regime. No Asad can eliminate them without hastening his own demise. All the same, much reform can be achieved by the Asad regime if it is pushed in the right direction. By encouraging reform without threatening regime change, there is a good chance that, in the long run, the very process of reform will transform the system. This is the logic being pursued with great success by the U.S. in its relations with undemocratic China. It can also work in Syria." (Emphasis added)

The problem is rather clear. Furthermore, Landis seems to be hitting a wall when he says that reform can still be achieved if the US does not push for regime change. Yet, his initial point was that internally such reforms are far too limited because of the corruption of the ruling elite! The "hail Mary" strategy is that perhaps in the long run the process of reform might transform the system. The ambiguity and vagueness of such a statement is confounding at best, scoffable at worst. But I think that there is a basic confusion involved in what exactly is being discussed and sought.

Landis continues his attempt at convincing readers of his position:

"Bashar must deliver on his early promises to bring economic growth and political liberalization to Syria. His legitimacy depends on it. Why else does he appoint reform-minded ministers and skilled technocrats? He needs change."

I think that what Landis is really talking about is not "reform" but "prosperity." It seems that if Bashar can deliver prosperity, his regime can survive. The point on "skilled technocrats" I think supports this argument. As for political liberalization, the piece itself shows the shallowness of that process, and this recent post by Landis seals the deal. In fact, how can Landis talk about the regime seeking to avoid its own demise by maintaining corruption, yet at the same time talk of political liberalization which would ostensibly lead to that very demise? To add to the problem, how does that then fare for Syria's chances of further reform if Bashar is its best hope to achieve that elusive reform?

To be fair, Landis (like Zakaria) raises an important question, even if it is one that ME dictators have manipulated to maintain power and US aid: what if what comes after Bashar is far worse, like the Islamists, who would kill any prospect of liberalization and reform? But the problem is that Landis' position does not rid us of the existing lack of reform of liberalism! It merely promises us a possible partial reform in the rather distant future, that might be slightly accelerated with US encouragement! I in fact argued that it really wouldn't be reform, but an attempt at more prosperity. Landis also doesn't address the possibility that in his process of political liberalization Bashar might end up bringing to power those same Islamists that a regime change supposedly would bring, keeping in mind what he wrote in the education paper about the need for the Alawite president to cater to the conservative currents of Sunnism! It can be argued that Bashar's recent flirtations with the Muslim Brotherhood might hint at that. The best parallel to that situation is what Geneive Abdo described in her book on Egypt, No God but God, where Mubarak essentially "sold" (or "made a new social contract"!) with the Islamists giving them control over much of social life. This means that the liberalization of Egypt is now even farther away than it was in the 20s and 30s! (On a related note, Landis never deals with the problem of "president-kings" and the dilemma of dictators, even if "reformist", clinging to power.)

These are all things that Landis needs to address, and I give it to him, he's no dreamer or "dragoman" consciously misinterpreting his area specialty (as might be argued in the case of "Saidian" ME scholars). He has no illusions about the state of liberalism in Syria, and he's sincere in his desire to see Syria move in the right direction. He also raises several important cautionary points that need to be seriously considered. But, his position advances very little otherwise, as it is stuck in the web of paralysis that the deadly mixture of Arab nationalist ideology, Sunni conservatism, and corruption create. Furthermore, his entire premise smells of historical materialism, where the economy is the primary engine of change. (See this somewhat relevant critique of that premise by Cliff Kincaid).

Lastly, it should be noted that Landis' recipe seems only applicable to Syria, and perhaps Jordan (Landis' emphasis on the need for a "za'im" strongman fits Jordan too). Landis has to argue that this approach works elsewhere. The above-mentioned Egypt (backed by millions of US dollars) is an indication that it doesn't! See also this over-optimistic and excessively laudatory piece on Abdullah of Jordan by Lee Smith, calling Abdullah "a model" for the ME.

Salameh's piece is even less imaginative than Landis, even when it's more verbose! Salameh basically rehashes old Arab nationalist wet dreams in a new mold that I call the "EU on acid" mold. Once again, the entire argument is economic. Salameh makes a list of points needed for reform. The first is the tired mantra of "reform must come from within" which is another way of saying "it'll never happen!" This nice piece in The Daily Star (which in many ways counters the piece on Jordan by Lee Smith) summarized it well:

"We are often told that lack of economic progress and the persistent dearth of democracy and freedom in the Arab world are the leading causes of extremism. Barely had the UNDP's Arab Human Development Report started to scratch the surface of Arab social problems than Arab political elites began to defensively insist that reform had to come from within. These elites went into self-defense mode, operating on the assumption that the silent majority in whose name they pretend to speak backs them and supports their regimes. It is about time they look more closely and notice the extent of their isolation."

The next Pan-Arab fantasy revisited by Salameh is the "Arab EU." Again, the parallel stops at the economic level. Salameh makes a lame attempt at introducing identity issues in there, but stops short of usefulness or relevance!

Salameh's fifth and tenth (final) points are cases in point:

"The fifth point entails creating a new balance between the rights of individuals and those of groups and communities in the Arab world.

Western democracy was based first on liberating the individual from the control of the church, then from restrictive family bonds to fully direct one's loyalty toward the nation as a whole. Nothing comparable to that took place in the Arab world.

Individuals in our countries continue to refer to their families, tribes and sects for support and help in different aspects of life. We should thus work in our Arab world to bringing about a balance between the need for the individual's loyalty to the nation as a whole on one hand, and his right to continue to enjoy being part of a family, tribe or sect on the other.
The final point concerns creating a balance between protecting national identities and integration in the larger world.

Neither hiding behind our national identity nor surrendering to foreign influence is a solution to our problems. That is why we need to reform our societies before opening up to others, not as a response to international pressures, but to the needs of our societies.

As for our national identity, it can't be protected through isolating ourselves, especially in light of historical experiences where civilizations have gone extinct the moment they decided on isolation.

You can see the terrible circle he's running around in! The fifth point stops short of bringing up the proper analogy which is a complete restructuring of the relationship between Islam and government. Also, it fails to discuss the process of secularization and critical Biblical scholarship and their role, and their (non-existent) counterparts with Islam. Secondly, when Salameh speaks of "loyalty to the nation" does he mean the individual country, or the supposed Arab nation? One of the problems in the ME was not only the sub-national referent, but also the supra-national one, exemplified either in the Islamic umma or its twin sister the Arab umma (the technical term umma is used in both cases). While the former (the sub-national referent) was always held as the greatest danger for ME progress, it was in fact the latter (the supra-national) that proved to be the deadliest virus to ever plague the region and its peoples in the last century plus (and running)!

The tenth point is simply confused and delirious! It's so paradoxical that it's tied up in knots! We are told that reforms must come completely from within before Arabs open up, but then we're told that civilizations go extinct when they decide on isolation! And then to top it all off, we get this spectacular conclusion:

"In conclusion, reform has to come from within the Arab world and not form outside. Foreign-introduced reform often hides agendas aiming to harm our societies, especially if it comes in the context of war. Arabs don't need reform if it is just a response to mounting pressure from powerful countries in order to evade their wrath.

A new social contract between the Arab regimes and their societies would make us stronger before our enemies.

Here Salameh doesn't even attempt to mask the Arab nationalist (Occidentalist) pathologies! He simply lays them out there for all to marvel at! And then you wonder why the Arabs are at the bottom of the scale! Hazem Saghieh said it best:

"And from Arab circles feeding on anti-Western attitudes, the answer has also come swiftly: "Reform is rejected because it comes from the United States." This gives meaning to a statement ascribed to the late Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, who criticized Arab behavior by likening it to a man amputating his penis to spite his wife."

To counter that, one only needs to hear the title of this piece by Kamal Labidi which reads: "The dismal prospects for indigenous Arab reform," as well as this remark by Chibli Mallat at a recent panel discussion in Beirut:
"there can be no change out here until there is regime change." (Dictating to Dictators: US plans for the Middle-East, and Europeans and Arab reactions. Friday June 4th. Centre Interculturel EuroLibanais - CIEL. With Michael Young and Farid el-Khazen.)

Finally, my premise in these posts has been that the aggressive policy pursued in Iraq (and to a lesser degree with SALSA) was necessary. Landis has inadvertently supported my view somewhat. In his paper he said that the US action (SALSA) has given the EU leverage to pressure Syria to include clauses in their future trade agreement (currently being negotiated) on WMDs and other sensitive points that Syria would have never otherwise agreed to. Landis used the analogy of good cop - bad cop and his only objection was that this way the EU would benefit rather than the US. This ignores the initial point that it wouldn't have been possible had it not been for the US' tough action, which is what I'm suggesting. After all, soft power has to have teeth.