Thursday, August 03, 2006

We should support democracy in the Middle East

The next US president may give up on Middle East democratisation, but we shouldn't. It's still our best hope

Timothy Garton Ash, The Guardian: A central claim of the Bush administration's foreign policy is that the spread of democracy in the Middle East is the cure for terrorism. So what do you do when you get a democratically elected terrorist organisation? Ignore the contradiction. Pretend it doesn't exist.

...Two diametrically opposite conclusions may be drawn from these first strange fruits of democratisation in the Middle East. One is to say that the whole Bush agenda of supporting democratisation in the Arab and Islamic world was misguided from the start - the product of a naive, missionary-cowboy approach to international politics. It destabilises. It brings terrorists and extremists to power. The cure is worse than the disease. So let's get back to seasoned old "realism". Let's not try to transform these countries or expect them to be more like us, but take them as they are. Let's pursue our national interests - security, trade, energy - with whatever allies we can find. Stability comes first. Your friendly local despot may be a sonofabitch, but at least he'll be our sonofabitch. Or so we fondly imagine.

This is the default position of much European diplomacy. It's the wisdom of Jacques Chirac. Curiously enough, it's also where some of the European left ends up - taken there by its opposition to "war for democracy" à la Bush and Blair, or simply by the kneejerk "If Bush is for it, we must be against it". But following the American debate closely over the past weeks, I find that opposition to the democratisation agenda is also growing inside the US.

... I believe this is precisely the wrong conclusion to draw. In the long run, the growth of liberal democracies is the best hope for the wider Middle East. It's the best hope of modernisation, which the Arab world desperately needs; of addressing the root causes of Islamist terrorism, inasmuch as they lie in those countries rather than among Muslims living in the west; and of enabling Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, Kurds and Turks to live side by side without war. But it will be a long march.

We know from elsewhere that the intermediate period of transition to democracy can be a dangerous time, that it can actually increase the danger of violence, especially in countries divided along ethnic and religious lines, and where you rush to the party-political competition for power without first having a functioning state with well-defined borders, a near-monopoly of force, the rule of law, independent media and a strong civil society. That's what happened in the former Yugoslavia. That's what's been happening, in different ways, in Palestine, in Lebanon and in Iraq. Full, liberal democracy contributes to peace; partial, half-baked democratisation can increase the danger of war.

What we in the community of established liberal democracies should do is not abandon the pursuit of democratisation but refine it. Recognise that only in exceptional circumstances (such as postwar Germany and Japan) do democracies grow from under military occupation, and that the purpose of building democracy does not justify military intervention. Accept that, as the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji wrote in the New York Times, it's better for people to find their own paths to freedom, and our job is to support them...