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.

And there is nothing wrong with CIA officers' discreetly gathering information from Algerian intelligence and security officers about Algerian-affiliated terrorist groups that have, to some extent, merged with the al Qaeda network in Western Europe. France's internal-security and intelligence services have, however, much better information on such terrorists than do the Algerians. But so far we have not heard senior U.S. officials publicly thanking the French, who gladly share their al Qaeda-related intelligence information. Nor have we heard Assistant Secretary Burns similarly praising the Israelis, from whom over the years we have learned much about Middle Eastern terrorism.

At a minimum, it is historically bizarre for a senior State Department official publicly to embrace the Algerian regime, suggesting that we are in an undifferentiated fraternal struggle against terrorism. It is certainly unlikely that Algeria's generals will view Burns's remarks and any American weapons sales as incentives to democratize. And the average Algerian probably would find Burns's comments appalling.

Assistant Secretary Burns was, of course, following precedent. Colin Powell had similarly praised the regime of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. "Egypt, as all of us know, is really ahead of us on . . . the issue of the war on terror," averred Powell. "They've had to deal with acts of terrorism in recent years. . . . And we have much to learn from them."

It would be helpful if Secretary Powell were actually to spell out what we ought to emulate in the Egyptian modus operandi with Islamic terrorism. Truth be told, the Egyptian foreign intelligence service isn't particularly good and, like the rest of the Arab world's foreign intelligence agencies, was no more adept, and certainly less interested, than the CIA in gutting al Qaeda before 9/11. And Egypt's internal counterterrorist tactics, though less frightful than the Algerians', have been brutal. Mubarak, like the Algerian generals, scared many of his worst militants into moving abroad, where they played essential roles in developing the anti-Western creed of Osama bin Laden. Mubarak's counterterrorist strategy has, of course, another anti-American corollary. Always concerned about its own legitimacy, the regime has tolerated, if not explicitly encouraged, virulent anti-Americanism in the press, media, universities, and religious schools as an escape valve for its citizenry's numerous frustrations. What is it then in Mubarak's Egypt that we are to study admiringly?

As Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami has pointed out, President Mubarak quickly saw the Grand Canyon-sized bilateral possibilities in Secretary Powell's remarks. "There is no doubt that the events of September 11 created a new concept of democracy," Mubarak appreciatively replied. "Democracy" Egyptian style doesn't encompass free elections or political freedom. Indeed, President Mubarak and his minions saw individual liberty as a root cause of September 11: In Egypt, radical Muslims go to jail by the thousand; they don't get to fly back and forth to and from Europe.

Mubarak and the Algerian generals know--and so does Secretary Powell--that the United States isn't going to pressure them into any democratic experiment. One is struck by the voluntary nature of the Bush administration's democratic aspirations for the Muslim world. We would like Muslims to be free, but we want Muslim dictators through a process of self-examination to discover for themselves the blessings of democracy for their people. Though history isn't littered with dictators reborn as democrats, the State Department appears to be hoping that the awful state of affairs in the Middle East--poverty, poor schooling, a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the West and East Asia--will somehow scare repressive regimes into diminishing their hold on power.

Secretary Powell summed up the ethos of our new pro-democracy initiative in an interview with the Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.

So we are not dictating [about democracy in Saudi Arabia]. We are not telling them how they should do it or who they should look like. . . . Each [of our friends in the Middle East] has its own system, each will have to make its own judgment as to whether it will change, how fast it will change, and we hope that we can help influence them as to how change comes about and what change might be better. . . . [But] there is no suggestion of regime change. . . . This is an initiative to help . . . governments who are inclined toward change.

As for what occurs to the Middle East's rulers when they read such comments by our diplomats, they probably ruminate on how good it is to rule in an age when non-Muslims show such deference to the culture and traditions--many of which arrived via London, Paris, and Berlin--that give them unchallenged dominion. They might also think that, next time the State Department issues a human-rights report about their countries, there should be two entries under state-sponsored torture: those "interrogated" strictly for domestic reasons, and those "interrogated" at America's request.

WE CAN ALSO SEE elsewhere the limitations of America's concern for democracy in the Muslim world. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's surrogate Persian service has ceased to exist. Radio Farda (Radio "Tomorrow"), which is essentially an American pop-music station, has replaced it. Though RFE/RL's service was hardly an aggressive on-the-ground radio in the tradition of RFE/RL's Cold War era Eastern European services, the Persian service had developed an important following among student dissidents, who are the cutting edge of freedom in clerical Iran. Though the "independent" Board of Broadcasting Governors oversees America's foreign-language broadcasting, the bureaucratic truth is that if senior voices at the State Department and the National Security Council had wanted to, they could have prevented the death of Radio Liberty, which is how the Persian service was known in Iran.

It is worthwhile to remember that the State Department opposed the creation of RFE/RL's Persian service in 1998. It was deemed an unfriendly, provocative signal to send to Tehran, which seemed to be blossoming with progressive clerics under the tutelage of President Mohammad Khatami. Today, Secretary Powell and Deputy Secretary Armitage have certainly not echoed President Bush's support of the student demonstrators. For anyone interested in the spread of democracy in the Muslim Middle East, Iran is easily the most important country. Yet, with the occasional exception of the president, the administration remains quiet. It appears that a wholly misplaced fear of tarnishing the students' fight with an endorsement from the Great Satan is diminishing the chances that Iran could become a democratic bellwether for the region. Oddly, America's willingness to help those struggling for individual liberty seems inversely proportional to the willingness of Muslims to fight. As the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum recently remarked, it's a good thing Ronald Reagan didn't think this way about Communist Poland.

The Muslims in the Middle East may still, however, luck out. There is a chance that war in Iraq and the creation of a functioning Iraqi democracy could shake the region into a more liberal order. The effort to build an Iraqi democracy could also prompt the United States to back democracy less timidly elsewhere. It is also possible that another massive al Qaeda attack inside the United States could reinforce the wake-up call that we received on 9/11 about the politically dysfunctional nature of the Middle East. Such an understanding, of course, will collide with Washington's increasing counterterrorist liaison relationships with undemocratic but "pro-American" regimes.

The administration, then, is wavering on the spread of democracy in the Middle East. We may need the miscalculations of Saddam Hussein and the bravery of Iran's students to get the American government to move decisively in the direction the president has claimed to endorse.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.