Friday, March 04, 2005

Democracy in the Middle East

Syria's under pressure to get out of Lebanon, its puppet government there overthrown.

Egypt, ruled since 1981 by President Mubarak and the largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel, says there will be elections in the near future.

Iraq and Afghanistan have held elections, after we deposed their dictators.

Who's next? Libya? Our pals in the House of Saud?

Those of us who opposed the war in Iraq can't avoid this question now: Was Bush right all along? Is democracry "transforming" the Middle East?

Well, first of all, we don't know how legitimate Egypt's elections will be. Mubarak's government hasn't exactly sanctioned opposition parties over the last 2 and a half decades. There's some question about whether or not there's legitimate opposition that will be able to run. Will Mubarak let the radical Islamic elements, who have been his main foe and who have basically been at war with his government, participate in the elections?

And what about Saudi Arabia? Must we know, to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, encourage them to hold real, fair elections? Or is our policy that dictators can remain in power, so long as they're mostly friendly to us? Saudi Arabia's hold on world oil prices has lessened in recent years, by the way. Remember that Saudi prince who promised Bush that the House of Saud would keep oil prices low in advance of the election? If they tried, they didn't succeed at that. Which might mean that oil prices are going to be what they're going to be, even under a different Saudi government. Which means we can't support their government in exchange for lower oil prices anymore because their government can no longer provide them. Saudi Arabia will be a big test of our principles and motivations going forward.

And what about those principles and motivations? Bush's rhetoric about establishing democracy in the Middle East came about after we found out Saddam Hussein didn't have Weapons of Mass Destruction. It was a justification after the fact. Even if every country in the region turned into a stable democratic republic tomorrow, we shouldn't forget that the war in Iraq was not sold to the American people as a war for democracy.

It was also not sold as a war that would kill 1,500 of our soldiers and cost upwards of $200 billion. Our soldiers were supposed to have been pelted with candy and the price tag was supposed to be next to nothing, with Iraqi oil sales paying our bills.

And yet the question remains -- will we look back on the war with Iraq and say, "it transformed the middle east. Look at all of those people who traded tyranny for elected governments?" Too soon to tell, of course. But it will largely depend on our ability to respect whatever democracies form from this. That sounds like a no-brainer. But, we tried to "support democracy," often by force, throughout Latin America in the last century and look at the results: death squads in Honduras. The US-sponsored assassination of Allende in Chile, US support for the authoritarian Contra rebels in Nicaragua, our propping up a dictator in Panama until we carted him off to jail... More recently, and under Clinton, we helped to overthrow an elected government in Haiti, putting it back in power only when it agreed, in exile, to do our bidding.

I'm not so worried, as many are, that Middle Eastern democracies will elect extremist elements from the Islamic clergy. Certainly, those voices will have a role in those governments (as religious extremists have a role in ours) but I think that people are unlikely to elect their own oppressors. Given the choice, people tend to give themselves louder voices, after all. But you will also see things in Middle Eastern democracies that will not sit well with the US. You'll see, as we have in Nigeria, poor people in those regions wondering why they're starving while they're sitting on the world's most important commodity and why multinational oil companies are making most of the money from their oil. What will happen when a people's government in the Middle East starts demanding more from the international oil companies? What will the US do?

What will happen when even a moderate elected government in the region decides that the Palestinians still aren't getting a fair shake in Israel? Or if, and this is a possibility in Egypt, an elected government decides to reverse decades of peace with Israel? Our own commitment to democracy in the region simply won't be known until it is tested by an elected government that acts in a way our government feels is contrary to our own interests.

But first, we need to see some fair elections held without a US invasion toppling the existing government. We might see it in Egypt. I don't know. But I doubt the Syrian's are ready to follow suit. And Iran has another answer -- rather than be "democratized" it plans to nuclearize. And the Saudi's? The Saudi's? If you believe that Bush is committed to the transforming power of democracy, then you have to wonder why he hasn't said a word against his friends in Riyadh.


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