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Democracy has slim chance in Arab states

By CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI Think Tank correspondent   |   Oct. 25, 2002 at 2:58 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- The specter of a U.S. invasion of Iraq raises important but knotty questions about whether or not democracy can take hold in the Arab nations of the Middle East, according to analysts at two recent think tank forums in Washington.

"The wind is blowing in the direction of change of regime in Iraq," said Shafeeq Ghabra, director of the Center for Strategic and Future Studies at Kuwait University and former head of the Kuwait Information Office in Washington, during a speech Monday at the American Enterprise Institute.

Ghabra said that the prospect for America to successfully install a democratic regime in Baghdad is the central issue of the debate about a post-Saddam Iraq. He believes the discussion is having a big impact in the Arab political arena because some experts, mostly in the West, have said that a democratized Iraq could lend stability to the region and also help spread democratic ideals of government.

But not a single truly democratic government exists in any Arab nation, and the discussion over Iraq has spotlighted the question of why Arab states have failed to adopt democratic ideals, and whether such a government is possible in Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East.

The poles of the debate are anchored in opposing viewpoints that see Arab politics as a glass that is either half empty or half full.

According to Ghabra, democracy should be the goal, and it does have the potential to take root in the Arab world.

"Democracy can be a competing ideology with all of the other ideologies in the region," he said. Nevertheless, Ghabra said democracy faces many obstacles, including the lack of transparent government institutions in Arab countries, and opposition from Islamic groups.

Ghabra also said that problems -- including the lack of entrepreneurial spirit and of the basic freedoms needed to ensure the exchange of ideas that support a democracy such as freedom of the press -- must also be surmounted.

At a Thursday forum on democracy in Arab nations, sponsored by The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, AEI resident scholar Joshua Muravchik said that although democratic ideals have spread to every corner of world in the last three decades, the lack of such institutions in Arab nations does not mean they are not possible there.

Muravchik said that the Islamic fundamentalist ideas that now dominate the Arab world -- and which are often cited as the reason Arab states will never embrace democratic institutions -- are only a passing fad. He compared their existence to the pan-Arab nationalism and Arab socialism movements that took hold in the region in the years following the end of colonialism.

"I see no reason to believe that this is something that will be enduring or impervious to change," he said.

But in a recent policy brief published by Carnegie, democracy specialists Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers write that it is a "dangerous fantasy" to believe that an American invasion will lead Iraq to quickly establish a democratic regime. They also say there is little chance for such an event to help bring about the establishment of democratic institutions in the surrounding region.

In the report, "Democratic Mirage in the Middle East," Ottaway, a senior associate at Carnegie, and Carothers, director of the think tank's democracy and rule of law program, assert, along with fellow Carnegie analysts Amy Hawthorne and Daniel Brumberg, that the U.S. record of building democracy in countries after invading them is mixed at best.

In addition, they characterize as "doubtful" the Bush administration's commitment to the massive reconstruction effort required to help bring democracy to Iraq.

Ottaway said that internal conditions and the willingness of citizens to pursue change -- not foreign interventions -- are the factors that will ultimately determine what kinds of political changes would take place in Iraq, either on its own or following a U.S. invasion.

"We discovered this in Bosnia," she said. "The internal factors are the most important and there are not ideal conditions (in Iraq) that are very conducive to change."

Ghabra agreed that the potential for embracing democratic institutions and ideals ultimately lies with the Arab people. The question is whether will they move toward it or retreat from it. He said that the history of Arab nations is one of missed opportunities and retreats from situations that could have lead to more prosperous economic and political growth.

Ottaway also said that although the United States has a role to play in bringing democracy to the region, a military intervention is as likely to impede the spread of democracy in the Middle East as to promote it. She said the process of democratization in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world would be a slow and arduous one at best.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that such views ignore the importance of attempting to help Arab nations develop workable visions of democratic institutions in their states. Clawson said that underestimating the importance of helping Arab states find their own visions of democracy limits their potential for creating ideals akin to those established in America's own guiding principles -- the Declaration of Independence. He said that although those ideals did not take hold socially or politically in the short term following the American Revolution, they became goals to strive for throughout the history of the United States.

"It might not change the facts on the ground, but it might change the political discourse," said Clawson at the Carnegie forum.

He added that if the United States does invade Iraq, it must occupy the country for the shortest period of time required to ensure stability, and that the Iraqi people, not the United States, must lead the creation of a new government.

But according to Robert Malley, director of the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group and a National Security Council adviser to former President Clinton, Clawson's argument does not ring true.

"It doesn't seem to me to be the right answer to make sure the outcomes in Iraq will be a democratic regime," he said at the Carnegie forum. The United States would have to provide long term assistance for nation building in Iraq, he said.

Clawson insisted that it is imperative to allow Iraq's people to decide their own fate, even if it means a less than desirable outcome for the United States. Democratic principle, he said, decrees that they must be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.

Malley said it is important to note that the debate over the potential for democracy in Arab states tends to be dominated by extremist positions rooted in best-case or worst-case scenarios. He added that so much of what has been said about a transition to democratic institutions in Iraq is speculation, that in some cases it is "fantasy built upon fantasy."

Malley also said that because the outcomes of regime change cannot be predicted, assertions that a democratic Iraqi regime can lead neighboring countries like Iran towards democracy are misplaced.

Muravchik said one of the best things the United States can do to ensure that democratic ideals are embraced in the Arab world is get behind those who promote such ideals "as strongly as we can."

But Ottaway cautioned against pushing too hard for democratic reforms, because it can destabilize the typically fragile conditions of a state that is reforming itself.

"It is entirely important that we do not push elections too early," she said. "I think the timetable we set in Afghanistan -- two years -- is absurd, as most timetables in these situations are absurd. Ideally one should try to postpone elections as long as possible although in practice this may be very, very difficult to do."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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