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May 02, 2005

Responding to Democracy

Wesley Clark's contribution to the Washington Monthly's Democracy in the Middle East forum is a great, great read, much better than the title made it sound. On one level, the essay is the surprisingly adept effort of a 2008 presidential candidate to account for hopefully signs in the Arab world. Clark does so by leveraging his Reaganite past and demanding humility from the Bush administration:

The administration has generally responded to these openings by adding to the pressure, calling for withdrawal of Syrian forces and for democracy. But like the rooster who thinks his crowing caused the dawn, those who rule Washington today have a habit of taking credit for events of which they were in fact not the primary movers. Many of them have insisted, for instance, that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was largely the consequence of President Reagan's military policies. As a military officer at the time, and a Reagan supporter, I would be happy to give the Gipper that credit. In truth, however, our military posture was only one factor. As in the Middle East today, individuals who labored for freedom within these countries performed the bulk of the work. Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and other contemporaries looked at America as an ideal, not as the muscle, on every street corner. Other, truly transformative agents of Western influence, such as Pope John Paul II, the labor union movement, international commercial institutions, and the influences of next-door neighbors like the Federal Republic of Germany were at work.

Today, American democratic values are admired in the Middle East, but our policies have generated popular resentment. Although it may come as a surprise to those of us here, there is a passionate resistance to the U.S. “imposing” its style of democracy to suit American purposes. Democratic reformers in the Middle East don't want to have their own hopes and dreams subordinated to the political agenda of the United States. It's for this reason that the administration shouldn't try to take too much credit for the coming changes. Or be too boastful about our own institutions. Or too loud in proclaiming that we're thrilled about Middle Eastern democracy—mostly because it makes us feel safer. A little humility is likely to prove far more useful than chest-thumping.

That's a pretty impressive response, I think. The guy's learning. But on another level, his piece is a blueprint for how America should be responding to overseas developments. And that's where Clark is at his most interesting. Too much US involvement, he argues, can actually co-opt democracy movements by making them appear a front for American interests or an imposition of foreign values. That means that when we crow over our remarkable achievements in liberalizing the rest of earth, we may inadvertently be aiding and abetting Islamists who want to take these burgeoning democracies and leverage them into repressive theocracies. If they can paint the liberals as American stooges, their job becomes ever-easier.

One force Clark implies, but doesn't really address, is the danger that American pressure is forcing rulers to make superficial alterations in their political processes, which are in turn allowing them to retain their dictatorships, weakening their country's pro-democracy movements, and strengthening their regimes by spurring them to make surface changes that look like, but aren't, substantive concessions. So by forcing small changes to come from the top we're setting back the fundamental reforms that can only rise from the population. Not sure if that's true, but it's something worth thinking about.

May 2, 2005 in The Middle East | Permalink

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Comments

The superficial changes you mentioned (instead of substantial reforms toward democracy) are surely what is going on in Egypt. I frankly do not know what sort of dialogue the US is having with Mubarek, but I don't see the US increasing the likelihood of moving away from one-person rule in the form of Mubarek and fils.

Why is it that the US policy and practice toward a (maybe the most) important arab state is so unknown?

As to Wes Clark: good essay with important ideas.

I think he mis-stated his last sentence however:

Let's give credit where credit is due—and leave the political spin at the water's edge.

The point (and his essay basically means this), is that we also have to watch our rhetoric at home (not just overseas), since everything this happens here is very closely watched by the rest of the world - particularly in the mideast, regarding democracy and our goals. If the administration is claiming one thing here and saying something else there, it will be noted.


Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 2, 2005 5:36:50 PM

Wesley Clark uses an awful lot of words to tell me what I already knew.
His nitpicking at the edges of everything doesn't represent any new thought but rather the same old gruel with a whole lotta fancy fifty cent words.
What is new in the Middle East and elsewhere is that the US has adopted a much more sane method of measuring which way the wind is blowing and whether or not it is just a gust or a prevailing wind. Now it is measured in terms of democracy and freedom, over the old tenets of stability at all costs.
No President before the fall of the Soviet Union had the luxury to take such an approach. Now it is the stated position of the US government. While a policy doesn't directly change anything in reality, it does help to make sure that you will be part of the solution and not the problem.
The biggest growing resentment of the US overseas has been coming from places like Iran and Lebanon and it sounds like ... if Iraq, why not us too.

Posted by: Neo | May 2, 2005 7:13:41 PM

I think Clark hits the nail on the head, and calls the Bushites on their "crowing at the sunrise"

What we have in Iraq is nothing like Democracy. Voters didn't even know who they were voting for. Three months after the elections many governement positions are still unfilled. There is fighting between various religious factions and the "insugency" keeps growing

What we have in Iraq is a the beginnings of a civil war.

Posted by: dem4life | May 2, 2005 8:12:11 PM

We just have to be careful that statements like these don't get turned into "blame America first liberalism"

But you know I've got a special place in my heart for that winning smile...

Posted by: kate | May 2, 2005 8:16:57 PM

I believe that Wesley Clark is trying to develop a Democratic foreign policy. He is very adamant that we should not go along with the idea that the Iraq war is bringing democracy to the middle east. I've heard him discuss it several times.

The Democratic Party despirately needs to develop a serious foreign policy, and I think that Wes Clark is the one to help us do just that.

Posted by: Judy | May 2, 2005 8:32:17 PM

I think this is the best article Clark's written to date. He's loaded it with concrete examples to back up every assertation he's made. In the past, he may have been guilty of assuming that people would be able to provide the examples for themselves as they read through his analysis. Now he's provided the examples directly in the text without corrupting his style.

Posted by: ICantBelieve | May 2, 2005 8:33:57 PM

So by forcing small changes to come from the top we're setting back the fundamental reforms that can only rise from the population. Not sure if that's true, but it's something worth thinking about.

It seems unlikely to me. If you're a dictator and you can deflate a burgeoning democracy movement by making cosmetic changes at the top, why wouldn't you, even without American pressure? If the dictators are rational players, our pressure shouldn't change what they do in this regard.

Posted by: Ethical Werewolf | May 3, 2005 12:54:17 AM

Politician : Fellow who figures which way the crowd is going, gets out front and makes a lot of noise so he looks responsible. Statesman : Says what needs to be heard, regardless. Not sure he makes the cut. And what about the rest of America ? It's much closer to home. Checked out U.S. popularity in Venezuela, frinstance ? One thing for sure. I wasn't really impressed by press pushing idea of continuing troop movements throughout Iraq's neighbours at the time of the invasion. Some people on the newdesk really have shit for brains. This stuff was going out world-wide.

Posted by: opit | May 3, 2005 1:13:42 AM

opit, indeed. Its proably because they're too busy dealing with "important" stories like this.

Posted by: Adrock | May 3, 2005 10:19:56 AM

One force Clark implies, but doesn't really address, is the danger that American pressure is forcing rulers to make superficial alterations in their political processes, which are in turn allowing them to retain their dictatorships, weakening their country's pro-democracy movements, and strengthening their regimes by spurring them to make surface changes that look like, but aren't, substantive concessions.

*cough* *cough* Uzbekistan *cough*

Posted by: Phoenician in a time of Romans | May 3, 2005 6:16:05 PM

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