15 March 2004

Article 88

The Guardian has started what looks to be an important new series of articles on politics in the Middle East. In the first article, Brian Whitaker discusses some of the problems with imposing democracy on Middle Eastern (or, in more-accurate terms, Southwest Asian, which avoids the Anglo-American biases inherent in "Middle East" in favor of a relatively neutral geographical designation) nations from above, from a purely Western perspective.

The American working paper [justifying G-8 imposition of democracy] also gives the game away by saying that the Greater Middle East initiative will address "conditions that threaten the national interests of all G-8 members… extremism, terrorism, international crime, and illegal migration." In other words, the motive is not altruism but the self-interest of the G-8. While it is always possible that what is good for the G-8 can be good for the Middle East too, constructing a reform programme around the fears of outsiders rather than the needs of the people involved is a bad way to start.

Essentially, what the working paper does is to take some of the desirable attributes of successful democracies — press freedom, transparent government, women's rights, etc. — and look for ways to replicate them (or at least promote them) in the Middle East. The trouble with this is that it ignores the underlying problems: why is press freedom restricted, why is government not transparent, why do women lack rights?

On the crucial issue of democratisation, it fails to ask the most basic and obvious question of all: what are the obstacles? Why has democracy in the Middle East not progressed further than it has? In the minds of President Bush and the neo-conservatives, with their Cold War fixations, there is no need to ask the question, let alone try to answer it. The Middle East's problem, as they see it, is tyranny; "bad guys" like Saddam Hussein or fanatical Iranian clerics trample over people's freedom, but once they have gone everything will be fine. That, of course, is where it all went wrong in Iraq. The American planners focused on Saddam and didn't consider what to do about the can of worms he had been sitting on.

There is, however, another reason why the question, "What are the obstacles to democracy in the Middle East?" tends not to be asked. It's too embarrassing — both for the western powers and for governments in the Middle East. Beyond the embarrassment of asking the question, there's the even greater embarrassment of looking for solutions. If there is ever to be real democracy in the Middle East, a lot of people will have to change their ways drastically — not just in the region but in Washington too.

"Beware Instant Democracy" (15 Mar 2004) (ellipses in original).

Although he never comes right out and says so explicitly, what Whitaker seems to be getting at is the "means shape the ends" problem that has haunted US foreign policy since Roosevelt. The first one. Consider the converse case for a moment. Assume that the power relations are inverted—that some monolithic image of fundamentalist Islam has the military, cultural, and economic power to impose its systems and beliefs on the West. Only a moron would claim that the same mechanisms "necessary" to create a fundamentalist Islamic "republic" in Germany would suffice, or even be appropriate, in the US. Or France. Or England. Or Italy. Or anywhere in Latin America. Or Australia. The varying degrees of historical acceptance of theocracy and aristocracy counsel radically different approaches. Then consider the likely results if a single Master Plan would be imposed. Returning to "reality," only a moron would claim that the same changes need to be made in Saudi Arabia as in Kuwait, or Iran, or Syria, or Lebanon, to accomplish the stated goals of the working paper (even without questioning those goals). However, it appears based on recent history—the last quarter century or so—that the morons are in ascendancy in Washington.

This posting does not violate UCMJ Article 88. Not only am I no longer subject to the Code, but I do not hold the government officials in question in contempt—for their arrogance and ignorance places them beneath contempt.