Across the Bay

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

More News and Views

Via Chuck Freund, I came across this piece in the NYT, which, BTW, has been changing its tone on the ME as of late.

Michael Young is quoted in there, and his statement agains echoes the concerns in Lebanon about a military junta or martial law taking over:

"It's just a first success for the opposition," said Michael Young, an analyst and journalist based in Beirut. "You have to watch out there isn't a military government or some kind of martial law that takes over."

On another note, check out these two posts by Chuck Freund and Nick Gillespie, respectively. Writes Nick:

I agree with my colleauge Chuck Freund's large point in his Egyptian Improv post: It is unambiguous that the U.S. intervention into Iraq is producing real, tangible results in the Middle East. Critics who fail to acknowledge that are writing themselves out of rational debate on the topic. I say that as someone who was opposed to invading Iraq specifically and most U.S. attempts at nation building, much less region building. And as someone fully aware of continuing violence by insurgents in Iraq.

Nick continues to ask more theoretical questions about ME policy, and some are legitimate, so I hate to be selective, but the above quote has a great, and honest, line: "Critics who fail to acknowledge that are writing themselves out of rational debate on the topic."

That's the best assessment, e.g., of As'ad Abu Khalil's post (see below) and Juan Cole's anti-Bushism in his latest ridiculous post (to say the least): they've written themselves out of rational debate. But enough of these guys' blind ideology.

Nick does engage in a rational debate, asking the following question: "it may be the Middle East is getting free from its most obviously despotic regimes, but it's not clear that the opposite of that will be liberal democracy or representative government." That is a valid point, and Nick seems to be in agreement with Martin Kramer, who raised similar issues in a recent talk:

[O]f course there are liberals who want freedom as we would understand it—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of religion, all belonging to the autonomous individual. These are the "freedom of" people, many of them with direct experience of Western democracy, having visited at length or lived in exile in the West. They have created various associations and NGOs, which Western governments and foundations fund. They are good people. Unfortunately, they are relatively few.

A much larger group is what I would call the "freedom from" people. Their idea of freedom is somewhat different. It is freedom from oppressive government, not so much for the individual, as for the collective—the kinship group, the tribe, the religious sect. The quest for this kind of freedom has existed in the Middle East from time immemorial. The late Elie Kedourie put it best. "The Middle Easterner," he said, "is very far from thinking that he has a right to have a say in politics. All he wants is to be left alone and not to be oppressed." Elsewhere he wrote of the Syrians, as archetypes of the Arabs, that "they have never been much accustomed to being asked their opinion about their rulers. For them the happy man has always been he who has a beautiful wife, a comfortable house, a lucrative occupation, who does not know government, and whom government does not know; in short, the private man."

No doubt this is a desire for freedom, but it is freedom from, not freedom of. What is the difference? You may desire freedom from oppressive government, and still deny your beautiful wife the freedom to drive, or get an education, or go about in public. You may fervently wish not to know government, but still expect blasphemers and adulteresses to be punished by law. You may fight for freedom from oppression for yourself, and not much care if your neighbor is oppressed, especially if he is from a different family, or tribe, or sect.

It can well be argued that democracy's concepts of freedom began with this more basic concept. The concept of "freedom of" begins with the desire for "freedom from." But this is where there is a blockage in the Arab-Muslim world, an obstacle...

Kramer goes on to discuss the notion of an "Arab exception," but he is quick to say that he's not dogmatic about it so as to knock the effort to generate positive change. Kramer also notes that the region is diverse, and he even acknowledges that "conditions exist in a few settings for progress." As such, I take issue with this statement:

But to hold the view that there are no exceptions, you have to believe that the passage of power to Islamists is not point final, but an interim phase. To go from "freedom from" to "freedom of," Arabs have to pass through "submission to." To get from tyranny to democracy, they need an interim phase of God's sovereignty—God as a transitional figure, God as Gorbachev.

There are places in the region -- like Iraq and Lebanon -- where the society's own pluralism, and the pluralist democratic system, are safeguards against a takeover by Islamists. What I mean by that is not the exclusion of Islamists from politics. On the contrary, it means that they would participate, and indeed compete, but the system and the plural society would be effective ways of keeping away fundamentalism from taking over socially or politically. The Islamists would have to negotiate and compromise. We're seeing that in Iraq. In the long run, there is a good chance that the society will be less and less attracted to fundamentalism or to excessive religious influence (see Iran). Even if not, it will all still need to be moderated and confined within the system, where there will be people who challenge it and limit its authority. But that's precisely why these systems need to be introduced to the region (or, in the case of Lebanon, reasserted). As we are seeing, the moderation they introduce will have an impact.

Besides, it's not like the present situation is keeping Islamists from achieving their goals. The only thing that they can't quite achieve is to hold full political power. But this has not stopped them from cutting deals with despots and taking over socially, as they've done to a large extent in Egypt, or Saudi Arabia. So the maintenance of despots maintains half of the problem, as they have been the other side of the coin when it came to how much power Islamists got, and how that was used as an excuse for them to maintain absolute power indefinitely. Furthermore, these "secular" despots have engaged in destroying secular liberal movements just as much as Islamists, if not more! So when will we ever be able to dream of liberal democracy if all its proponents are under attack from both the despots and the Islamists, and when only that duo encompasses society and politics! By not doing anything we're effectively sanctioning that duo to continue indefinitely, thus keeping the threat of Jihadist terrorism alive indefinitely.

Of course I am not dismissing the problem or the critique, but I think that holding on to a position that essentially maintains the status quo doesn't solve much of anything. There clearly needs to be change, and change cannot always be fully controlled, and is as such by its nature risky. But can anyone honestly say that it's not necessary? "Proceed with caution" Kramer said. That's fine, but by all means, proceed!