The Magazine

Democracy for Muslims--Sort Of

His administration's policies don't match the president's rhetoric.

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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IS THE UNITED STATES about to become midwife to democracy in the Muslim Middle East? President George W. Bush has certainly given unprecedented speeches on the inalienable right of Muslim men and women to be free, and on December 12, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a new $29 million pro-democracy U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative. "America wants to align itself with the people of the Middle East," declared Powell, and the initiative places "the United States firmly on the side of change, on the side of reform, . . . on the side of hope."

The director of central intelligence, George Tenet, whose CIA credentials make him as important as Powell in the eyes of the Middle East's conspiracy-fed regimes, has also stated that the United States ought to "enlarge the opportunities within the Muslim world to embrace democratic norms, to encourage open, constructive political discussion in closed, reserved societies, [and] to support experiments in improved governance." And the State Department's director of policy planning, Richard Haass, states unequivocally that "the United States can and should do more promoting democracy" in the Middle East.

Clearly, something has changed since the Gulf War and Bush père's New World Order. It would have been inconceivable for Haass's former boss and mentor, the "realist" national security adviser to Bush I, Brent Scowcroft, ever to recommend a more liberal dispensation throughout the Middle East. The American Left and Right could rise in moral dudgeon about the racist foundation of Boer culture and politics in South Africa, championing through sanctions the democratic rights of African blacks. Yet liberals and conservatives across the West have shied away from reprimanding Muslim Middle Easterners about their governing ethics. Highly Westernized, pro-American, "pro-Israeli" despots might occasionally get pilloried--the shah of Iran got scorched. But most rulers, particularly when they depicted themselves as defenders of a non-Western cultural and political tradition, were granted enormous latitude in their behavior, even with respect to the status of women, religious pluralism, and other hot-button issues. Muslim traditionalists, Islamic reformers, and Arab secular liberals might scathingly critique Saudi Arabia's repressive, so-called "orthodox" society, but American diplomats, businessmen, journalists, and academics rarely did.

Until September 11. Now a consensus is growing within the administration that there are causal links between Middle Eastern authoritarianism and the rise of lethal anti-American Islamic extremism.

But is this actually changing the way Foggy Bottom, Langley, and the Pentagon deal with their Middle Eastern counterparts? American rhetoric always has some effect in Cairo, Riyadh, or Amman, but the daily actions of diplomats, spooks, and soldiers are more convincing indicators of American intentions. And if we use that standard, there is little reason to believe the status quo has changed. Indeed, the Bush administration may even make the situation worse.

In the Middle East, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, William Burns, articulates counterterrorist, not democratic, priorities. While recently visiting Algiers, Burns announced that Washington "has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism." The United States even appears to be on the verge of signing an agreement to sell the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika military equipment to fight Islamic militants in a decade-old war that has killed at least 100,000 people.

Islamic militants in Algeria have indeed been savage; their ferocity has been matched, however, by a military regime that has demonstrated since its revolutionary birth in the fight against imperial France an enormous appetite for violence. Unless the Bush administration intends to adopt Algiers's counterterrorist tactics--interrogation through torture, indiscriminate murder, and sometimes the slaughter of entire villages--it is highly doubtful that Algeria's military regime has much to teach us about al Qaeda, which has astutely kept its distance from Algeria's killing fields. In fact, until the arrest of the Algerian Ahmed Ressam, the wannabe bomber seized at the U.S.-Canadian border in December 1999, neither Algiers nor Washington nor Paris had focused at all on Algerian-al Qaeda connections. And today Algerian military men, in light off-handed moments, can still suggest they didn't really care about alQaeda until the Americans came calling. No fools, they have happily welcomed American Special Forces, diplomats, and spooks.