Across the Bay

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Democracy or "Liberal" Autocracy?

Via Greg Djerejian comes this very good piece by Ray Takeyh in The National Interest. I'll quote the segments highlighted by Greg:

    It is customary for U.S. officials to cite the successful campaign of unseating the autocracies of eastern Europe as the necessary paradigm for political change in the Arab world. Yet despite a bipartisan consensus, America's democratization efforts in the Middle East have historically eschewed any vigorous promotion of reform in favor of offering technical assistance. Instead of utilizing intensive diplomatic and economic pressure to force reluctant states to comply with reform criteria, successive U.S. administrations have opted for dialogue with the incumbent regimes. The region's leaders, far from being viewed as the main obstacles to reform, are often seen as the necessary partners in a shared progressive enterprise. And so Washington's strategy of political change, endorsed by both parties, follows a well-worn path of promoting liberalization rather than genuine democratization. And as a result, a strategy of incremental liberalization necessarily conforms to the parameters established by the incumbent regimes.

    Herein lies the fundamental weakness of America's approach. Washington has erred in its assumption that the region's ruling elites are prepared to initiate reforms but merely lack the expertise with which to carry them out. That misconception is evident in the proposals envisioned by the State Department, which emphasize technical assistance--aid to legislatures, training and exchange programs for civil servants, election monitors and so on.

    The central dilemma of the Arab political order is not unfamiliarity with the process of political competition, but an entrenched elite that is determined to retain power. No amount of technical assistance can overcome that reality. This is not to say that the region's elites are unaware of the need for change and adaptation. Yet most Middle Eastern leaders--hereditary monarchs, revolutionary mullahs and perpetual presidents alike--are more attracted to the Chinese model, which seems to offer the promise of economic growth and development without displacing any of the political prerogatives of the ruling regime. This is not to downplay the value of the Arab world moving along a Chinese path. Liberal autocracies would certainly be an improvement over politically repressive, economically stagnant regimes--but they would not be functioning democracies.

    It would be a mistake to claim that there have been no reforms in the Arab world. Indeed, since the end of the Gulf War, a number of authoritarian states in the Middle East have undertaken programs of guided, selective liberalization. Although democracy advocates routinely acclaim measured liberalization as a necessary prelude to democratization, in the Middle East such liberal autocracy seems to be an end in itself. In such an order, the rulers may eschew full-scale authoritarianism for a system that offers periodic openings in response to a variety of social, political and strategic challenges. Despite its tolerant pretensions, this governing structure lays down clear "red lines", ensuring that the prerogatives of the executive are not circumscribed by legislation and judicial oversight. A liberal autocracy may hold elections and countenance critical media, but all actors must agree to the rules promulgated by leaders who remain unaccountable. Far from challenging the reigning autocrats, the current partnership actually complements their survival strategies. [Emphasis added]

I couldn't agree more with that last part. That's why I have always found this argument half-baked, and it has been at the center of my debates with Josh Landis. That's also why people like me find the shift in policy brought on by 9/11 and advocated by Neocons very refreshing, even if we don't agree with every last detail be it in theory or praxis. While force cannot solve all problems (though it can solve others!), the quasi-stalemate of the "realists" (mainly DoS) simply does not work. Sure, carrots and sticks, working with the EU, and all that is fine. But toward what end? "Liberal" autocracy? Economic but no real socio-political and legal reforms? I've already touched on that in this post where Lee Smith, Josh Landis, and Ammar Abdulhamid shared their thoughts as well. Make sure you read it.

So, I'm intrigued by the proposal seemingly adopted by Greg as an intermediate step of linking free-trade style initiatives to legal/political reforms. Yet, I remain skeptical if, in the end, what we're assuming is that by and large, the autocrats will not be changed. I.e., no real constitution or independent judiciary, let alone proper checks and balances through an effective parliament. This is not to mention real freedoms, not just cosmetic ones as we see in Syria. These are masquerades, no more. In the end, it's operating under the premise of "red lines" and many intellectuals, dissidents and journalists will be going in and out of jail for as long as this charade continues.

The economic (determinist) debate or the structural debate don't really convince me. Talking about structures and institutions while simultaneously holding on to corrupt elites in power sounds paradoxical and self-defeating. Look at Lebanon (see my "Jumblat's Sarcasm" post below). We had institutions before the Syrian hegemony and the rule of the security apparatuses. Those institutions continued to function in some fashion or another even during the war. However, what did the Syrians (who represent the autocracy found in the rest of the ME) do? They subverted them while maintaining their fa├žade. They mutilated them beyond recognition. The only thing making the Syrians think again about leaving the Lebanese alone is the threat of the international community. Not any incentives. The incentives might finally drive the deal home, but they wouldn't have initiated that deal. Just ask Chirac about that experience with Syria itself! Furthermore, it's that external backing that gave the opposition its backbone. For the first time, because of that shift I mentioned earlier, they feel that maybe this time they won't be left in the wind.

In the end, I use the analogy of Gorbachev. He started a process that ultimately led to his exit from power. Anything less means we're basically kidding ourselves.

Addendum: Cf. also this essay by Fareed Zakaria from this week's Newsweek. If you're familiar with his book The Future of Freedom, it's along those lines.

Update: See this post by praktike at the "Liberals against Terrorism" blog for more links on the subject, including one to this paper by Amy Hawthorne on the role of civil society in the drive towards democracy in the ME.

See also this piece by Robert Rabil in the Daily Star. Writes Rabil:

    As long as autocrats determine public space in the Arab world, and as long as Islamists dominate Arab political discourse, reform will, paradoxically, be used to increase the longevity of oppressive rule. Arab rulers have often created a facade of reform to appease the West, but also to hijack the agenda of reformers. Whether in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, the pattern is a similar one in that the core demands of reformers - full participation and representation in political systems, ending stifling states of emergency, putting term limits on those holding office - are largely ignored by regimes. Arab rulers are both the judge and jury for deciding the extent and scope of change.

    In the name of "security," mainly on account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they erase public space; in the name of "civility," to satisfy Islamic fundamentalists, they deny full participation and representation in society. In fact, many Arab rulers not only keep reformers weak vis-a-vis the state, but to enhance their Muslim credentials and, therefore, increase their waning legitimacy, they also indirectly align themselves with Islamists.

Indeed, this is what's been going on in Egypt on the level of society, and what's been happening to a certain extent in Syria with Bashar's rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood. The relation of the Alawite regime to Islam has been studied by Josh Landis in this terrific paper.

On the issue of the US assistance of opposition groups being a "kiss of death," see this earlier post of mine, and this piece by Lee Smith.