28/01/2009 - 22:00

Hiatus in US democratic push

28/01/2009 - 22:00


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Barack Obama looks set to follow a different foreign policy path than his precessor

LAST WEEK, State Scene drew attention to the sizeable Chinese market upon which Western Australia's economy so depends and stressed that it shouldn't be taken for granted, since Beijing refuses to democratise China's political order.

It was claimed that market could be disrupted by widespread unrest arising from calls for democracy sparked by the current global recession.

This week a similar overview is offered for the equally authoritarian and unstable Arab world.

Readers will recall that one of the Bush administration's responses to Al-Qaeda's September 11 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center was to redirect America's foreign policy towards transforming the Arab world's longstanding autocracies to democracies.

Those backing George W Bush's desire for such a transformation were dubbed neo-conservatives.

And they promoted the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein's murderous autocratic regime, for which president Bush was so bitterly criticised by that notable freedom-loving troika - Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder and Vladimir Putin - plus the Western world's leftist fraternities that spent years blackening him.

New Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, claimed at her confirmation hearings that America's foreign policy during her watch would be "principled, pragmatic but not ideological".

Ideological here meaning Bush-style backing for democratic reform.

Her choice of words suggests the approach of President Barack Obama's administration in the Middle East, and even nearby regions, won't involve the avid promotion of democracy.

In other words, Democratic Party-controlled Washington will not move towards empowering Arabs to have a voice in how and by whom they're governed.

The Obama-Clinton approach seems set to be to accept the status quo rather than encourage and cajole Arab governments to pave the way for a greater say for their people on how they're ruled.

America's short-lived experiment in encouraging the emergence of Arabic democracies therefore seems set to end since it's no longer to be directed by what Mrs Clinton dubbed ideology; instead, pragmatism is to prevail.

And the meaning of what she's called principled is anyone's guess.

The Bush democratic mission, as admirable as its vision for Arabs was, certainly faced a formidable road.

One who describes this well is Barry Rubin, editor of the Middle Eastern Review of International Affairs.

"There is a paradox in the Middle East," Rubin says.

"Incompetent, corrupt governments have failed to develop their own societies, to provide the context for a higher standard of living, and to defeat Israel.

"Their [often oil rich] countries trail the entire world (save sub-Saharan Africa) in most statistics.

"But these same bad governments have remained in power for more than 50 years and remain entrenched."

Mr Rubin asked why such governments were so resilient.

His answer is that they'd systematically "redesigned their societies" to ensure they retained power.

"Nearly all institutions exist to ensure regime protection," he says.

"For example, military officers are promoted on the basis of loyalty not competence, they are moved around frequently, policed by paramilitaries, and kept away from weapons systems that could be turned against their political masters.

"Likewise, the economy is dominated by government industries and by select families loyal to the regime.

"Even elements of civil society that elsewhere in the world counterbalance governments have been co-opted in the Middle East.

"The press is rigidly controlled. Genuine human rights organisations are outlawed and replaced by fraudulent entities loyal to the regime.

"Labor unions are small and weak. Businessmen have little choice but to keep silent to preserve government contracts and to work with government industries and the oligarchic families.

"The dominant ideologies (Arab nationalism, populism, Islamism), co-opt intellectuals and students by promoting these ideologies they too become part of the problem."

Mr Rubin estimates that because so many Arabs are "fearful of an Islamist future", with its bondage and servitude, roughly 60 per cent back their respective regimes, while 20 to 30 per cent desire an Islamist blueprint of harsh theocratic governance.

But only about 5 per cent support liberal democracy, the governing arrangement former president Bush and the neo-conservatives wished to see blossom across the Middle East.

These levels prompt Mr Rubin to claim that the tiny liberally inclined Arab cohort will be a long time, if ever, emerging pre-eminent.

Notwithstanding this, he hasn't condemned the difficult pro-democratic path President Bush and neo-conservatism adopted.

"American policy toward the Middle East is basically correct: maintain pressure on regimes and help reformers where possible," Mr Rubin says.

"The West should broadly encourage hopeful developments.

"In the Persian Gulf region, countries such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are becoming pragmatic thanks to the influence of their business communities.

"Monarchies in Morocco and Jordan show progressive tendencies, and in Lebanon a popular revolution has largely expelled Syria's occupation.

"Communal blocks negotiating over power could be successful in Iraq.

"In Iran, a majority wants liberal democracy and free elections, though the reformers accomplished next to nothing during their years in power.

"Only fear of savage repression and mass murder keeps the populace in line with the regime."

Only time will tell what Mrs Clinton's inclusion of the word 'principled' and exclusion of what she dubbed 'ideology' will mean for those living in the bitterly contested Middle East.

State Scene's guess is that the difficulties encountered, and doggedly confronted by the Bush administration, which most Democrats persistently criticised, means Washington will now opt to leave the Arab world as it presently is - undemocratic.

Politically speaking, the future for the average Arab, from Morocco on the shores of the Atlantic to Yemen on the Indian Ocean, thus remains far from sanguine.

But, as The Washington Times recently editorialised: "Thanks to Mr Bush, more than 55 million people today in Afghanistan and Iraq are freed from brutal dictatorships: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq."

Arab states with oil deposits - Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Gulf States - will continue to amass foreign currency reserves and invest in Western real estate, treasury bonds, and stock exchanges but they're unlikely to self-start democratising.

Nor will their leaders ever ask why the democratic West can generate wealth without producing oil.

Little seems likely to change over coming decades.

Change is now less likely since the US appears set to vacate the ranks of those seeking to ensure the emergence of Arab democracies.

True, this isn't a sure bet, even though certain Arabic forces would prefer to see the democratic West adopt their authoritarian path.

The Al Jazeera Network recently signed a deal to broadcast, via Worldfocus, a syndicated nightly news program produced in New York and distributed throughout America.

Some Arab governments have embarked on funding Western universities. Why?

And large numbers of Arabic, like Chinese, students continue to study in the West, with and the long-term impact of that exposure yet to be seen.

However coming years unfold there's little doubt there will be some - even if a minority - in the Arabic world who'll look favourably upon the short-lived Bush years, after which the Washington-led West gave up essentially the same struggle that Democratic presidents Woodrow Wilson, during World War I, Franklin D Roosevelt, during World War II, and Harry S Truman, with the Cold War, believed was worthwhile engaging for non Arabs worldwide.


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