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Tuesday, March 01, 2005


Time for a rethink?

posted by praktike at Tuesday, March 01, 2005 permalink View blog reactions
David Adesnik quotes from a NYT editorial from January 13, 1988 and says that "the current generation of editors at the NYT has sadly fallen away from the idealism of not all that long ago."

Maybe so, but then again, maybe not.

Here's today's editorial:

It's not even spring yet, but a long-frozen political order seems to be cracking all over the Middle East. Cautious hopes for something new and better are stirring along the Tigris and the Nile, the elegant boulevards of Beirut, and the impoverished towns of the Gaza Strip. It is far too soon for any certainties about ultimate outcomes. In Iraq, a brutal insurgency still competes for headlines with post-election democratic maneuvering. Yesterday a suicide bomber plowed into a crowd of Iraqi police and Army recruits, killing at least 122 people - the largest death toll in a single such bombing since the American invasion nearly two years ago. And the Palestinian terrorists who blew up a Tel Aviv nightclub last Friday underscored the continuing fragility of what has now been almost two months of steady political and diplomatic progress between Israelis and Palestinians.

Still, this has so far been a year of heartening surprises - each one remarkable in itself, and taken together truly astonishing. The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances. It boldly proclaimed the cause of Middle East democracy at a time when few in the West thought it had any realistic chance. And for all the negative consequences that flowed from the American invasion of Iraq, there could have been no democratic elections there this January if Saddam Hussein had still been in power. Washington's challenge now lies in finding ways to nurture and encourage these still fragile trends without smothering them in a triumphalist embrace. [...]

Over the past two decades, as democracies replaced police states across Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America, and a new economic dynamism lifted hundreds of millions of eastern and southern Asia out of poverty and into the middle class, the Middle East stagnated in a perverse time warp that reduced its brightest people to hopelessness or barely contained rage. The wonder is less that a new political restlessness is finally visible, but that it took so long to break through the ice.

David also says that "democracy promotion is a strategy with true bi-partisan potential." Again, one could scratch one's head about the value of certain types of democracy promotion, and one could point to longstanding bipartisan support for other types, but it's hard to deny that something good is going on now.

I pointed before to an interesting Adesnik piece that unfortunately did not get published:

Journalists’ observations about our close relationships with Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia often imply that the President remains blissfully unaware of the contradictions between his rhetoric and his government’s behavior. Yet the inaugural address warned the United States’ authoritarian allies that “success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.”

Which is not to say that criticism of the President is superfluous. In fact, it will have a critical role to play in ensuring that he lives up to his ideals. Inevitably, the temptations of short-term expedience will distract the President from his ultimate goals. It is at precisely such moments that the soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural will empower critics both within the administration and without to insist that the President live up to his word.

Here's hoping David takes another crack at it and gets his piece published, because it's good. And I apologize for earlier rude behavior on my part, even though he's still wrong about Social Security. In any case, it's clear that Patrick Belton is actually the worst OxBlogger by dint of his long absence.

As for Greg Djerejian, I could quibble with this or that (e.g., does Greg think GWB killed Yasir Arafat and Rafiq Arafat? Is Bush really going for the Triple Track approach re:Iran? Is Bahrain in any way like Afghanistan? Will Lebanon revert to its old ways? One could go on.), but it's increasingly hard to deny that positive change of one sort or another is happening in the Middle East despite the, yes, ongoing violence and high cost of Iraq, and that the Iraq War, which I (roughly speaking) alternately supported, rejected, then supported again, then rejected again, and then resolved to support (note that I've been a SoA donor for quite some time) has played a major role. What tipped me, I think, was Rice's willingness to speak forthrightly to the Egyptian foreign minister and to cancel her trip to Cairo at the last minute. It wasn't the biggest thing in the world, and who knows what Hosni Mubarak is trying to do, but Rice's move said to me: "hey, these people might be serious."

There are still a lot of things I don't like about Bush foreign policy and its implementation (cough*massive deficits*cough*energy policy*cough*Sinophobia*cough)--and at some point the rubber is going to meet the road on West Bank settlement policy, for instance--but mindless support for Middle East autocrats is not one of them.

I do think that the idea that democracy is a magical antidote to terrorism has been oversold, and I am congenitally averse to most soaring rhetoric and political polemic, but democracy is a good thing regardless of its instrumental value, and it will definitely help in the long run (even if it leads to upheaval in the short run) by persuading violent groups that they have a stake in a political process and a chance at achieving their goals through peaceful means.

So when Juan Cole writes:

But Washington will be sorely tested if Islamist crowds gather in Tunis to demand the ouster of Bin Ali. We'll see then how serious the rhetoric about people power really is.

My first thought is now: why wouldn't the Bush administration support people power--Islamist or not--in Tunisia? At the moment, I'd be surprised if they didn't. Jordan and Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood question) are probably more difficult test cases, however.

In any case, I urge my fellow liberals (especially you two with the big megaphones) to slough off the slings and arrows of triumphalists who merely want to score debating points, take David's olive branch, move beyond your bitterness about the botched Iraq postwar planning and lack of WMD, and start thinking about ways to be more constructive. To that end, here's a start. And start becoming versed in the concepts of "Islamic democracy."


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