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Saturday, August 21, 2004

Debunking the Greatest Myth of All

Is it possible to have reform and democracy in the Middle East without forcing tiny Israel to give up even smaller bits of territory? The mainstream media would have you believe the average Arab is incapable of "compartmentalizing" (Clinton). Their rage is so great, the thinking goes, that only this one issue matters.

Even on its face, this cliche of a canard does not make any sense. The following article is unusual in questioning the conventional stupidity. I hesitate to call it wisdom.

What about Bush's plan for reform in the Middle East? This article tries to answer some of the basic questions. If, like me, you live in a free society can you honestly say you would prefer a brutal dictatorship with no freedom of expression? If you are reading this but answer yes, you are a liar, foolish, or a hypocrite.

.....According to this argument, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, more generally, the Arab-Israeli conflict) perpetuates a regional security climate that is inimical to political reform. There are several sub-variations of this claim, but the most well developed holds that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict allows authoritarian governments to maintain oversized security apparatuses and restrict public freedoms in the name of national security.
Although Arab governments do typically justify repressive policies on this basis, outside of Lebanon and Syria (and, to a lesser extent, Jordan), the conflict with Israel does not directly affect, or even have the potential to directly affect, the livelihoods of Arab citizens. No informed expert on the region would contend that a war between Israel and Egypt (let alone Morocco or Bahrain) is a real possibility in the next ten years. The threat of internal subversion by Palestinian militants is also very remote in most Arab states. None of the thousands of militants rotting away in Egyptian jails have anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Were the conflict to be resolved, Arab regimes would have no trouble finding other suitable security pretexts to oppress their people.
Even in Syria and Lebanon, the claim that the external security threat posed by Israel decisively inhibits democratic transition is dubious. Comparable or greater external security threats did not block democratization in India, South Korea, or Taiwan.[4] In fact, external security threats eventually helped facilitate democratization in Taiwan - the military dictatorship introduced reforms partly in hopes of mobilizing greater Western sympathy for its struggle against China. If the Syrian government were really worried about "Zionist expansion," it would not be so complacent about committing gross human rights violations.

.....the Arab world's authoritarian political climate has itself fueled the growth of militant Islamist movements - this is what President Bush meant when he talked last month of breaking the "cycle of dictatorship and extremism" in the Middle East.[17] Denying citizens peaceful channels of political participation naturally enhances the appeal of ideologies that radically challenge the entrenched political order, particularly among intellectuals. A quarter of a century ago, most radical opposition movements in the Arab world were leftist. Since the end of the Cold War, which diminished the credibility of socialist dogma, Islamic fundamentalism has been the dominant ideological force challenging autocratic governments (many formerly leftist intellectuals literally switched over).
In an environment where freedoms of speech, association, and assembly are heavily restricted, Islamists also enjoy a natural advantage because they can organize and express themselves through mosques and other religious institutions, where governments are typically reluctant to intervene. If relatively free and fair elections are held under such conditions, radical Islamists are likely to achieve inflated electoral success. This is precisely why Islamists won such an overwhelming victory in Algeria's 1991 parliamentary elections (prompting the military to seize power and annul the results). The more protected political rights and civil liberties are, the less likely Islamic extremists will monopolize the political opposition.

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