Across the Bay

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Forum for Future Stalemate

That's pretty much the summary of the "reform meeting" in Morocco: the victory of Arab pathology and stalemate. This explains the reaction of Lebanese Human Rights activist Chibli Mallat who called the meeting a failure: "Nothing has changed. The indices of democracy have fallen behind." But that was all predictable since, as this NYT story from a week ago shows, The "Powellites" had decided to basically dump any serious demands on democratic reform and opted to focus on economic reform. Needless to say, this is precisely what the Arab regimes wanted all along, and what the Europeans wanted as well.

Indeed, the victory of Arab pathology was resounding, as the regimes not only managed to fend off any threat to their power and status quo, but they also managed to score points tying any reform efforts to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and asserting that all reform comes only "from within." In a nutshell, that's Powell's legacy at its finest. You achieve nothing but preserve the status quo, and you get slapped around and people score points off your back! Even the Saudis threw jabs at Powell. Saud al-Faysal lent his advice to Powell that the US could do so much better at winning the hearts and minds of Muslims by reversing its "bias toward Israel." Faysal even dismissed any clash of civilizations "or competing value systems" adding "the real bone of contention isthe longest conflict in modern history." Amr Mousa, the secretary general of the Arab League, went even further by saying that no partnership can go forward if one of its parties is accused of terrorism (i.e. the Arabs) and called for pulling all accusations against Islam as a religion and culture. Ahmad Abul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, took the cake when he said in an interview that he resisted the notion that "reform" was necessary in the Arab world. "I prefer the word 'modernity,' " he said, on grounds that reform means something is wrong and need to be fixed. Yes of course, nothing is wrong with the Arab world!

Predictably, Powell called the meeting "historic" and "a success" (Arabic) according to the Lebanese An-Nahar. A NYT story quotes Powell on why he thinks it was a success:

"[W]e have progressed to the point where this rather disparate group of nations can come around and say we will talk about these issues. That makes it a success"

Please, contain your excitement! Again, Powell in a nutshell. Can you lower the standards any more?

Needless to say, the French jumped on the occasion completely on the Arab regimes' side, also tying this to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and praised the economy-first approach that the EU started in Barcelona. French Minister Michel Barnier referred to the "unique and old" relationship between the Euros and the Arabs (i.e., we told you that economic deals are the only way to go you stupid Americans, and we take the lead on this), and refused that the Morocco meeting should replace the Barcelona framework. What - ever! Neither one does anything about the more important issues of liberalization of education (including religious education), the press, women's rights, human rights, political pluralism, religious pluralism (even Turkey has a horrible record on this point), minority rights, etc. In fact, if you read what Barnier said, he practically echoed the Arab despots word for word including supporting the Arab position on no reforms from the outside and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Well, you can't expect more from the frogs anyway. They have no interest in democracy promotion in the region.

So what does all this mean? Absolutely nothing. Complete stalemate and, as Mallat said, failure.

Lee Smith and Ammar Abdulhamid shared their reactions to a comment by Greg Djerejian (Belgravia Dispatch) on how "Middle East democratization efforts through the broader Middle East might best be spearheaded via economic reforms preceding political ones, ie. more of a China model."

In a private email, Lee wrote:

" I think many people, including myself when I wrote on Dubai, have overstated the case for economic liberalization. It's useful and important, but it's also one of the messages of the regimes: first economic liberalization, and then social and political reforms. Well, of course the regimes will be comfortable with economic reforms since no one stands to benefit from such movement as much as they do--look at Gamal Mubarak. Economic liberalization without social and political reforms, in the PA oranywhere, is a potential disaster: there are no political reforms in the offing in places like Dubai. I think it's time we started hitting hard at both Arab and Western officials who think economic liberalization is a panacea; rather, it will just further consolidate the elites' hold on power.
Reforms in the educational system and press are fundamental. Does anyone believe the US would be "liberal" if we had free-markets and yet systematically taught in schools, churches etc. that non-whites were inferior?

Ammar followed with another email:

"The paradigm of economic reforms coming before and paving the way to political reforms have been tried in Egypt, Jordan, and even Syria over the last few years, and did not work. Lack of public accountability and the corruption of the ruling elite made sure of that. The Morocco Forum is going to be a big failure because more emphasis is going to be put on economic reforms. Seeing that the Bush Administration is now adopting the economic approach, the Europeans can feel quite justified now with their approach to their Medditerranean partners which always emphasized economic reforms over everything else.

If the political will to change is not there, nothing will work. Period.

Michael Young (and Chibli Mallat) have made similar points as well. Joshua Landis still holds on to the "China model" to a certain degree, although not without simultaneous reforms in education. He once wrote:

"[E]conomics are fundamental, but helping people get richer goes hand in hand with improving education and increasing literacy rates. Education is at the heart of the reform process. Furthering the enlightenment project and strengthening notions of skepticism and "secular" truth is essential. It means getting away from memorization and the worship of authority, whether it be of the president, or "texts," or revealed truth. Free debate is at the heart of this project. Only by reinforcing the notion that there are many sides to an argument and many ways to view truth will citizens begin to relinquish notions of a transcendent morality and value compromise over conflict, cooperation over confessionalism, and tolerance over tribalism."

Make sure to also read his excellent paper on Islamic Education in Syria.

So in the end someone in the cabinet decided to roll with the Euros on this one with no leverage whatsoever (the US can't even get the lead on this, as evident from Barnier's remarks). The result is a double failure, both on the European front and the Arab front. The whole thing smells of Powell's style. Stalemate, Powell's middle name, is once again victorious. The pathological Arab narrative survives unscathed, with European backing.

Joshua Landis sees it slightly differently. In an email message, he set a balance between pragmatism and hope:

"I agree with your forward looking agenda of deep political reform for the Middle East. There is a reality check however. The US is in no position right now to carry through with it. That is why Powell is being given the freedom to smooth over relations with the Arab World and mimic the Europeans, who do not believe in bringing democracy to the Middle East, but confine their objectives to encouraging baby steps of liberalization thorough engagement and deal making. The long and short of it is that the US must get Iraq right before it can peddle its transformation package to hostile neighbors. Everyone is watching Iraq. The US needs the support of the surrounding countries. It cannot take on the world and must concentrate on goal number one - putting Iraq back together again. To do this Washington must bring along Europe and Iraq's neighbors. The price will be the President's Forward Strategy for Democracy in the Greater Middle East. If Iraq works, it will be its own tonic."

Let's just hope that the M.E. liberals, and their hopes of a US commitment to democratic reform, have not been left out in the cold.