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July 2, 2005

Managed Democracy: Washington's Prospective Policy in the Middle East


by Ramzy Baroud

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's highly publicized tour in the Middle East, Asia and Europe carried with it little or no surprises. But even then, one must not altogether write off the possibility of some lessons to be learned, even if indirectly.

The Middle East leg of her journey, which lasted from June 17-20, was saturated with the same kind of duplicitous rhetoric that defined her legacy during President George W. Bush's first term in office. She verbally reprimanded and threatened Syria and Iran for not fully and unconditionally embracing democratic reforms, while expressing "encouragement" regarding the Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese endeavor for democracy, following the supposed democratic elections enjoyed by these countries.

However, those who are even slightly familiar with the logic of US foreign policy in the Middle East need not bother to decode Rice's rhetoric or the rhetoric of any US official when it comes to the Middle East and the United States' substantial interests there. US allies in the region – i.e. those who unreservedly labor to serve and cater to American economic, military and strategic interests – are either entirely immune to any criticism or, if criticism is inevitable, their most horrific sins are curtailed to barely warrant a few mild words of censure.

While, on the other hand, the sins of America's foes are augmented, embellished and often outright fabricated to necessitate diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and as a "last resort," war. Iraq was an example of the latter, while Iran's current political attitude toward US interests in the region is qualifying it for the important, albeit ominous role of being the Middle East's most formidable boogeyman that, in one way or another, must be taken down.

This logic, simply put, is absurd. While there is no doubt that both Egypt and Iran are redoubtable violators of human rights, who can possibly contest that Iran, despite all its blunders, has taken more steps toward democracy than has Egypt? This is not to deny that Iran's democracy will never be complete without an open and intimidation-free electoral system, which impedes the state's meddling regarding who is qualified and who is not to run for parliament or for office, what party agenda is acceptable and what is not, and so forth. Nonetheless, civil society in Iran and the direct involvement of the populace in determining the countries' internal affairs, despite its many hindrances, is vastly more advanced than that of Egypt, where mass arrests, crackdowns, and torture are all too common.

Yet while Iran received disproportionately higher criticism than any other country during Rice's trip, Bush's closest trustee strangely declared that Egypt's "President Mubarak has unlocked the door for change," even though, ironically, the Egyptian president has reigned Egypt for 23 years and fully intends to carry out another term of authoritarian rule.

This is of course another "encouraging" sign according to the flimsy logic of the Bush Administration's newly forged doctrine on how to manage the Middle East. Washington's new style manual is based on its comprehension of two inevitable scenarios. First, there is the United Nations-sponsored Arab Human Rights Development Report of 2004, which warns that "power will be transformed through armed violence" if Arab states don't adopt serious political reforms and significantly raise the margin of freedom in their societies.

But the second scenario is equally harmful to US Middle East policy, for a genuine democracy will most likely bring to power the repressed anti-US forces dotting the Arab world. After all, opposition groups within Egypt, which are very much in favor of democracy, reforms and civil society, refused to meet with secretary Rice during her stopover in Egypt.

"We are against the US policies in the region and we cannot have any negotiations with them, and all the opposition parties in the country agree on what I'm saying," Georges Isaac, a co-founder of the Egyptian Movement for Change, known as Kefaya (Enough), told Arab News. "If we want political reform to be implemented in the country we want to do it ourselves, not to be imposed or to be even discussed with Rice."

Washington's undeclared new dogma professes a new Middle East policy that works both toward avoiding complete political meltdown, chaos and violence throughout the Arab world – evidently very harmful considering the United States' disastrous debacle in Iraq – while trying to maintain first-class rapport with friendly regimes; key phrase: managed democracy.

Managed democracy is as superficial as it is cosmetic, but it can work miracles, or so Washington believes. Not that such democracy is a new phenomenon. It was, in fact, the subject of awesome experiments immediately following the end of World War II, initiated in Europe, extending to Central America and was later utilized in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But in my opinion, nothing shall mount to the challenge facing the US government in managing democracy in the Middle East, not only because of the formidable task of cosmetically reforming a plethora of countries all at once, but most urgently because of the zero credibility that Washington enjoys anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world.

Washington seems to be counting on the fact that the Arab peoples are so desperately fed up with their governments, that they are willing to forge alliances with whomever to get rid of these oppressive and degenerate regimes. True, but what Washington is failing to factor in is the fact that, according to common political dogmas in the Middle East, the oppressiveness of the regimes can hardly be separated from Washington's own regional designs that compelled a decades-long sinful matrimony between oppressive rulers and equally domineering American foreign policy.

Thus an American withdrawal from Iraq and an end to the unbalanced policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are often amalgamated with the Arab people's most pertinent demands for political rights, human rights and civil liberties. Perhaps Washington is too arrogant to grasp this logic; nonetheless it is prevailing and most fitting.

While Condoleezza Rice's Middle East trip appeared benign and casual, in reality it was tantamount to an official declaration of Washington's prospective Middle East approach. This approach, as I see it, is a blend between the US's traditional policies of designations – friendly allies vs. evil enemies – and carefully premeditated "democratic" reforms that uphold the status quo without tipping the political balance in favor of those critical of Washington's regional role and foreign policy. And in the Middle East, they are many.


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  • Ramzy Baroud is editor-in-chief of the Palestine Chronicle. His book The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle is now out in paperback.

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