Across the Bay

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Kiss me, I'm a M.E. Liberal!

Lee Smith wrote a terrific piece in Slate on the triangle of the US, Arab regimes, and M.E. pro-democracy reformists and liberals.

Lee does his audience a favor by introducing an important distinction between "regime liberals" and actual independent liberals! Regime liberals are the ones who portray working with the US as "the kiss of death." Meanwhile, real liberals like Syrian Ammar Abdulhamid (check out his "Tharwa Project") has no qualms about receiving help from the US:

[Democratic] institutions can't be built without external pressures, and right now the United States is the only nation capable of exerting enough force to make it happen and willing to do so. "Asking the Arab world to reform," says the Syrian intellectual Ammar Abdulhamid, "is dabbling with its innermost political life." That is to say, any real reform in the Arab world will have to go well beyond cosmetic changes and address the political, economic, and social structures that sustain Arab regimes and preserve the status quo. Clearly, the region's governments won't do that work if they're not compelled to do so.

Already, there have been some positive results. According to Abdulhamid, pressure from the White House—namely the Syria Accountability Act and the U.S.-co-sponsored U.N. resolution on Lebanon—"has created a crisis and loosened the regime's grip. A number of dissidents used the opportunity to raise their voice. When the regime saw this, it tried to engage with some of them. For instance, the new information minister was on Al Jazeera talking to dissidents, which is something that's never happened before. We should not be overly optimistic, but we need to plant seeds now."

As for those in the Middle East who want to distance themselves from U.S. reform plans, Abdulhamid says some of them are "just well-intentioned people who think U.S. support will discredit them. But using the United States is not being pro- or anti-United States; it's being pragmatic. The Great Powers will always have designs and interests in this region. They'll use us, so let's use them. This is a highly politicized environment, so we have to be good politicians. We really have to understand the game; there's no excuse for not understanding."

Lee also articulates for the first time his thoughts on the policy the US should adopt in pushing for reforms and democratization in the M.E.:

In any event, it's time for the policy debate between the neoconservatives and the "realists" to move on. Assuming the administration's policymakers are really serious about reform in the Arab world, we'll need good cops working along with the bad cops. If the White House simply maintains the pressure, the crisis will render the regimes incapable of any reform, and eventually they'll just crack down on real liberals and reformers. U.S. officials have to push hard and at the same time help the regimes enhance their own prestige.

First we must acknowledge that there are very few real reformers in any Middle Eastern regime. There are, however, plenty of pragmatists who can be convinced, through force and blandishments, that their privileged place in the world depends on their ability to cut deals. We need to identify, empower, and threaten these people.

Next, and most important, we need to recognize that, like unhappy families, each regime is different and that each has its own needs, strengths, and weaknesses. There is no one way to peace and prosperity in the Middle East, and neither the road through Jerusalem nor Baghdad will get us there.

Lee Smith, Joshua Landis, and I have been debating this issue and readers can track it down on this blog and on Landis' blog. Joshua was the most ardent supporter of working with the Syrian regime of Bashar Asad based on the same elements raised by Lee in this piece. If you push the regimes too far without tricking them, bribing them, or convincing them, you risk them shutting down any outlet and window for change. After all, they still hold most of the keys. However, Lee has also articulated a point I hinted at repeatedly, and that is the wheels of change might not be fully controllable by the regimes, and that's why the whole business scares them stiff. Which is all the more reason why a complex and clear policy needs to be articulated beyond the Realist bickering against the Neocon views.

But Landis has identified an incredibly complicated problem in Syria, what he called "Asad's Alawi Dilemma." Bashar Asad is part of the Alawi oligarchy that rules a majority-Sunni country. In a sense, while Bashar might be the best hope for Westernization (according to Landis) he is also completely tied down by his status as an Alawi. Landis explains:

"In order to reform and shake the corruption and incompetence out the ministries, Bashar must change the way the administration works. If he makes it more representative and allows for greater democracy, he may be swamped with Islamists and alienate the Alawite support that is the backbone of the regime. The same thing will be true if he really goes after corruption and the mafias in the ministries. He has no constituency save the Alawite generals and old guard that put him into power and maintain him there. If he pushes reform too hard, he will either undermine the generals and Baathists, causing the regime to collapse, or he will be replace by the generals. This is Bashar's Alawi Dilemma. Syria remains a deeply fragmented country, where the religious communities still do not trust each other."

(The post is required reading. See also his latest post after a long absence!)

This gridlocking factor is what keeps Landis very cautious and adoptive of the "incremental changes lead to fundamental changes" approach. While Lee doesn't deal with this issue, his post shows that you can't adopt a single approach. As he put it: "We need to identify, empower, and threaten these people." Soft power cannot work without the backing of "real" force, or else the result would be what happened to Colin Powell (and the UN): become a laughing stock and preserver of the untenable status quo.