The Mideast and Myopia

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You may have already heard about the NYT Magazine's controversial Kerry cover piece. A discussion on NPR this morning suggested the story was damaging to Kerry, Eugene Volokh has reacted to Kerry's remarkable comparison of international terrorism and gambling prosecutions here and here, and the GOP is reportedly planning an ad campaign based on that very quote.

In the meantime, the print edition of the magazine features a different pull quote from Kerry that spreads across pages 40-41. Challenging the administration's Mideast strategy, Kerry asks, "Do you ever hear anything about this greater Middle East initiative, the concepts or anything? No," he answers himself. "I think we're fighting a very narrow, myopic kind of war."

Liberals across the Arab world, however, seem to feel differently. This morning, WaPo columnist Jackson Diehl writes that, despite the frequent sneers, "the Bush administration's democracy initiative for the rest of the Middle East creeps quietly forward."

There's diplomatic progress involving various Arab governments, Diehl writes, but "More intriguingly, independent human rights groups and pro-democracy movements around the region are continuing to sprout . . . An independent human rights group appeared in Syria this month; Saudi women organized a movement to demand the right to vote in upcoming municipal elections. On the same day that the Egyptian foreign minister belittled what is now called the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) in an interview with The Post, an unprecedented alliance of opposition parties and citizens' groups issued a platform in Cairo calling for the lifting of emergency laws, freedom of the press and direct, multi-candidate elections for president.

"While there have been some arrests, most of the nascent democrats are surviving. Despite all the defiant rhetoric, Egyptian and Saudi police, it turns out, are hesitant to pummel people who say they are responding to the president of the United States."

As Diehl notes, representatives of civil society groups from across the Middle East met in Beirut last month. Their statement was delivered to a gathering of foreign ministers in New York by Noha Mikawi, an Egyptian woman. "We are here as individuals," Mikawi said, "women and men who believe in the rule of law, an independent judiciary to protect it, an active and freely elected parliament to enact laws, an accountable, freely elected government to carry them through, and in meaningful human rights, including foremost the freedom of expression. . . .

"What we can confidently claim to represent is a pressing voice in our societies that calls for a profound, nonviolent change at all levels."

Diehl believes that "Such empowering grass-roots rhetoric has never before been heard in the Arab Middle East. If the United States fails in Iraq, it may well be snuffed out. But for now, for those who are listening, it offers reason for hope."

NEXT: "The President and I have the same position, fundamentally, on gay marriage. We do. Same position."

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  1. Seeing the photos accompanying the NYT Magazine article, I nearly spewed my water: Anyone else remember Opus in Bloom County discussing political positions, saying that a politician’s statements should be as neat and tidy as his necktie, all the while getting more and more entagled in his ill-behaved tie which he can’t control, much less tie?

  2. Excuse me, is this Reason or some other website??!!??

    I tune in to Reason for Walker-Gillespie-Scowcroft-Buchanan style realist isolationism, not crazy talk of those savages wanting democracy…

    CP Freund will be accused of being a Neocon by the 6th post on this thread, guaranteed.

  3. Dammit, I come to Reason for Walker/Gillespie/Scowcroft/Zakaria/Buchanan pronouncements of realist isolationism.

    What the hell is this crap about these savages wanting the vote?

    Incidentally, I’ll bet $1,000 that Freund is labeled a neocon within 5 more posts.

  4. Dammit, I come to Reason for Walker/Gillespie/Scowcroft/Zakaria/Buchanan-esque pronouncements of realist isolationism.

    What the hell is this crap about these savages wanting the vote?

    Incidentally, I’ll bet $1,000 that Freund is labeled a neocon within 10 more posts.

  5. You’ve heard about the “nuisance” comment. Now, go see Brent Scowcroft’s remarkably similar comment from two years ago.

  6. Good post, Mr. Freund. Thank you.

  7. Snake: Some of us favor both military isolationism for the US and the spread of liberty abroad. I respectfully disagree with my colleague Mr. Freund about the extent to which the U.S. military has been and can be a force for other people’s freedom.

  8. The article (and ol’ C.P.) are quick to credit newly open pro-democracy movements in the mideast to this administration’s “Big, Randomly-Deployed Stick” mideast policy, and surely the threat of unprovoked large scale US invasion does figure into the bits of tolerance we’re seeing from regional governments.

    But are these movements pure, local grassroots organizations? Or are they getting quiet State Department/USAID/CIA support like the successful Otpor and Kmara movements in Serbia and Georgia? Or are they getting support from elsewhere, like liberal Western NGOs?

    Diehl also neglects to mention that along with all these genuinely positive developments, the same US foriegn policy that’s pressuring the Arab states to open up a bit has accomplished exactly the opposite in Iran. Bush made oppressive, terror-sponsoring states like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia “allies” immune from US invasion in exchange for a bit of liberalization, but at the same time froze out oppsressive, terror-sponsoring Iran — which arguably had the most successful grassroots civil society movement in the region up to that point. Now Egypt and Saudi Arabia are taking the first small steps that Iran blew past years ago, while ten years of democratic and pluralist gains in Iran are being wiped out.

  9. “Such empowering grass-roots rhetoric has never before been heard in the Arab Middle East.”

    Is this true, or is it a matter of cherry picking, or are we simply now starting to notice actions that have been going on for some time because its in our interest (or someone’s interest) to notice them or otherwise display them as signs of “transformation?”

    Also, it looks like Call Me Snake lost his first bet. Now, let’s see if we can make him lose his second. 🙂

  10. Charles P. Freund — NEOCON! 😉

    Call me snake, I didn’t want to see you have to take out a second mortgage…

  11. Call Me Snake,

    I expect a portion of the disbursement now that you’ve lost your second bet.

    Folks, we only need a few more posts to get another grand from Call Me Snake! Keep those posts coming! 🙂

  12. Call me a liar,

    He still owes us the first grand. 🙂

  13. I don’t know about other countries, but putting a positive spin on what is happening in Saudi is nothing but BS. I guess Charles and Diehl have been listening too much to the PR firms the Saudi Royal family hired to improve their image.

    “Saudi women organized a movement to demand the right to vote in upcoming municipal elections.”

    The whole municipal ‘elections’ is nothing but a sham. The real women movement in Saudi took place in the first public demonstration by Saudi women in 1990 when they defied the ban women driving (which still exists by the way).

    “While there have been some arrests, most of the nascent democrats are surviving. Despite all the defiant rhetoric, Egyptian and Saudi police, it turns out, are hesitant to pummel people who say they are responding to the president of the United States.”

    Again, I would argue that the situation in Saudi now is no better than before with respect to this issue. The Saudi government arrested a group of intellectuals last year for writing an open letter advocating reforms and accountability. Three of them are still in prison for refusing to back down from their demands. Their crime, having contacts with the international media.

    The author does not offer any evidence (e.g., number of politically motivated arrests going down, reducing censorship, etc.) to support his claim.

  14. I don’t know that I think this is politically motivated cherry picking so much as possibly excessive optimism. I say ‘possibly excessive’ because I don’t know how many people feel this way compared to how many felt this way in the past.

    It is very hard for me to figure out what the real state of affairs is. I think it is indicative of an isolationist bias to simply assume that grassroots movements would have been fine without intervention, just as it is interventionist bias to say something like “Such empowering grass-roots rhetoric has never before been heard in the Arab Middle East.” Like all problems of many variables, it is difficult to assign cause and effect. We have introduced a new variable, but I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that things would be fine if we hadn’t or that things are obviously better for people outside of the liberated areas of Iraq not under siege.

    A friend of mine in the military suggests that I should look at small scale for evidence. One thing for sure, he suggests, is that the US military is killing a ton of terrorists every day. We are inflicting casualties on those seeking to disrupt democritization for whatever reason. Some are Iraqi, some are Iranian, some are Saudi, but they are all getting dead. Fighting ‘asymmetrical’ war is about waiting until the bad guys bunch up to do something, and then killing all of them. “Chop off whatever they show you.” We are killing a lot of them doing just that. He is convinced that over longer periods of time, an organized insurgency will not be sustainable in the face of humongous casualties while inflicting so few. Security will follow, but it will be a while in the coming.

    Who knows.

  15. Jason Ligon,

    I am being neither pessimistic nor optimistic. I am, however, questioning the self-serving remarks of individuals like CPF, Diehl, Michael Young, etc., who appear, like all zealots, to see what they want to see. Indeed, at this point its equally plausible to argue that America’s efforts are a hindrance to liberalization in the middle east; the fact that they walk about like a blinded cyclops with regard to this possibility makes their arguments even more laughable.

    One thing for sure, he suggests, is that the US military is killing a ton of terrorists every day.

    So what? I love how we so easily slip into a Viet Nam meme – the so-called “body count.”

    He is convinced that over longer periods of time, an organized insurgency will not be sustainable in the face of humongous casualties while inflicting so few.

    Actually, most successful insurgencies have been able to withstand massive casualities (in comparison to their opponents) over long periods of time; indeed, such slaughter is in some ways to the advantage of the “cause,” as it can and does create new recruits. Indeed, from a historical perspective, the Iraqi insurgents have all the elements available to create a successful long-term insurgency:

    ** They are fighting a foreign occupation (as opposed to a native regime – the latter rarely being successful).

    ** Much of the population is friendly to them.

    ** They are receiving aid (e.g., money, equipment, troops, etc.) from outside sources.

    Successful insurgenices need not be centralized either; thus the fact that the Iraqi insurgency is a loosely organized hostile opposition to the U.S. is not neccessarily detrimental.

    Tell your friend he needs to do a little research.

  16. ** They are fighting a foreign occupation (as opposed to a native regime – the latter rarely being successful).

    ** Much of the population is friendly to them.

    ** They are receiving aid (e.g., money, equipment, troops, etc.) from outside sources.

    The central questions to me are:

    1) Who is fighting a foreign occupation? If Iraqis are doing most of the fighting, this will be a long and painful process. If great numbers of people are streaming across the border to fight, that strikes me as a different problem. One occupying force fighting another, and it is pretty clear who is trying to kill Iraqis and who is trying not to.

    2) To what extent is the US presence deemed an occupation by Iraqis in the historical sense of the word? Lefty gripes to the contrary, if this is an occupation, it sure as hell looks odd by comparsion to most of those in which locals rose up successfully. I don’t think it is the case that great majorities of people view the US presence as conquerors per se.

    3) Similarly, do Iraqis in general support the insurgents? This is really the bazillion dollar question, I guess. If so, leave and leave them to their fate being prepared to kill the first guy who screams about the Great Satan. If not, you have a shot at making something worthwhile by staying.

  17. Jason Ligon,

    What’s particularly hilarious these days is the fact that even the most optomistic hawks argue that this will be a long process – somehow they think that America’s presence will bring about a helpful “nudge.” However, their position ultimately is not much different from those who opposed the war against Iraq.

  18. “What’s particularly hilarious these days is the fact that even the most optomistic hawks argue that this will be a long process – somehow they think that America’s presence will bring about a helpful “nudge.””

    I don’t think its all THAT hilarious. I was and still am a hawk on this issue, and I have never even suggested that this would be anything other than a long affair. The distinction I was making above is long and productive vs. long and miserable. There were rubes who said things like ‘cake walk’, but that is picking on the easiest targets in your opposition.

    It is hard to figure out the costs and benefits of intervention. The assumption of no costs when you sit on your hands is therefore just as ridiculous as the assumption of easy success. Fans of history, can pick and choose their favorite occupation to sell their preferred position. Some occupations have worked, some have not, and none of them are exactly like this. We can argue all day about the value of body count because we don’t know where the bodies are coming from.

    The decision to go to war was pretty clear cut for many people, myself included, who see the problem as something broader than OBL or AQ, and who recognize the futility of playing defence against a threat of this type. I have not heard any other strategy to deal with the threat as I see it. I am willing to listen to someone who says that we should have taken care of Iran first, because at least that acknowledges the scope of the problem. Once preemption comes into the picture, we are left with the problem of an exit strategy. It is not news to most hawks that this is not easy, but it is better than choosing not to fight the threat at all. The smugness about Iraq that comes from the anti war crowd only exists in the context of the certainty brought by war, and in the absence of any commitment to bring military force to bear on the problem except in the One Approved Problem Spot, we are offered a hunt for OBL that will involve way too many troops as a dog and pony show.

    People don’t agree on the scope of the problem, but it is not obvious at all that the anti war folks are right just because there is an insurgency.

  19. I was fascinated to see that in Iran, the grass roots movement was making progress? Really and what evidence does anyone care to present? The fact that they haven’t executed all four death sentences on a wounded war veteran that quesitons the authority of the clerics? Or that the last election to Majlis was rigged so as to continue the control by the majlis or that the clerical councils can STILL overturn the majlis? Or that the “reformist ” President had lost the support of many because of his ineffectuality?
    Is the US Policy in the Middle East responsible for the rioting and suppression of rights undeway in Iran? No, the Mullahs are facing pressure from below to change. They have been and are. What is happening in Iraq has not somehow resulted in a de-energized opposition.

  20. It’s a matter of confusing cause and effect.
    Do markets generally rise because Merrill Lynch is bullish, or is Merrill Lynch bullish because markets generally rise.
    The whole world is generally getting better and better and freer and freer. (I’m a Julian Simon fan.) Is it because of the neocons or in spite of them?
    Countries under UN sanctions change over time. Is it because of or in spite of sanctions?
    The US of A is the most powerful country and one of the freest on Earth. Is it because of deficit spending?

  21. Jason Ligon,

    I don’t think its all THAT hilarious.

    It is absolutely hilarious. And whether you suggested it or not, the lowered expectations coming from the hawks that are part of the Bush administration make me snicker.

  22. Joe L. the Sophist,

    The U.S. military presence in the middle east is ineffectual and ultimately of no importance; in other words, it will have little long-term effect.

  23. Jason Ligon wrote: “There were rubes who said things like ‘cake walk’, but that is picking on the easiest targets in your opposition.”

    I think it’s a stretch to describe that as being an attitude of “rubes”, given that the “cakewalk” reference was from Kenneth Adelman, who was serving on the Defense Policy Board at the time, having been appointed to it by Donald Rumsfeld:
    http://www.townhall.com/columnists/robertnovak/rn20030327.shtml

  24. There have been slowly growing human rights and liberal movements in the Mideast for a long time. It seems that now because of direct funding and focus they are getting more attention. What remains open is whether they will thrive; the war in Iraq is probably mostly a negative in that direction.

    Human rights and free societies come about because people want them, not especially because of the US as example (though it helps) or as armed nurturer (Germany and Japan are liberal societies/governments because they have wanted to stay that way not because we made them so).

  25. Well, I guess we’ll see if they want it. I’ve noticed on TV that most of the people helping w/ cleaning up are the Iraqi’s. It seems kind of stupid for some know it all over here to claim it won’t work, most of the insurgants are foreign-based (according to some sources), and even if that isn’t true, there are many accounts of normal Iraqis who are sick of their country being run by crooks and bandits. And quit whining about the Iraqi forces, they are being trained, not nearly as fast as anyone would like, but they are. I frankly, don’t understand why intelligent people cry like chicken-littles because they don’t like the way the prez. and his admin. are handling it or don’t like the war. To say it won’t be a democracy and relatively safe it some point is not seeing the forest.

  26. “I’ve noticed on TV that most of the people helping w/ cleaning up are the Iraqi’s. ”

    It’s a geographic phenomenon, people who live near a mess tend to clean it up most. Expecting Zambians?

    “It seems kind of stupid for some know it all over ….I’ve noticed on TV ”

    QED

    “It seems kind of stupid for some know it all over here…”

    that’s exactly my argument against US-based world magical forced democratization, in succinct concision. Are you talking to Paul Wolfowitz?

    “I frankly, don’t understand why intelligent people cry like chicken-littles because they don’t like the way the prez. and his admin. are handling it or don’t like the war. ”

    I dont know about chicken-littles but complaining when the government screws up is called responsbile and free and even democratic citizenship.

    “most of the insurgants are foreign-based (according to some sources)” — according to some sources, the Holocaust didnt happen, Israel and the US self-bombed the World Trade center, and Iraq had WMDs and was behind 9-11 too.

    IEven if true — unlikely — or true at different periods, in the American revolution’s battle of yorktown, most of the insurgents were French troops. There’s nothing to learn there. If the locals are abetting them, there is a deep problem regardless.

    “there are many accounts of normal Iraqis who are sick of their country being run by crooks and bandits.” — And many will accept an iron dictatorship to get back a sense of normalcy. That may be necessary but it wont be democracy.

    Wars should be fought for self-defense, international law, even retaliation, not for missionary idealism for the sake of people whom most of those who claim to want to liberate really have nothing but barely concealed contempt for, of the Little Green Footballs blog type outlook. Wars are fought to destroy not create. That’s why they should do only when absolutely necessary.

  27. “in the American revolution’s battle of yorktown, most of the insurgents were French troops. There’s nothing to learn there. If the locals are abetting them, there is a deep problem regardless.”

    For one thing, the French weren’t terrorizing the locals into compliance. It remains to be seen how much the Iraqis are simply afraid of foreign thugs, and the remaining apparatus of Saddams thugocracy, and how much they actually support them.

  28. Bastards won’t stay liberated, eh? Well dammit, liberate ’em again!

    We’re going to liberate the shit out of those people.

    So anyway, when did “They’re mostly foreign fighters, not Iraqis” replace “They’re just a few dead enders, not foreign terrorists” as the talking point used by people trying to show that the post-war isn’t going to hell?

    Sometime before “fly paper,” I think; it’s not a bug it’s a feature.

  29. when did …”They’re mostly foreign fighters, not Iraqis” replace “They’re just a few dead enders, not foreign terrorists”

    Probably after Zarqawi’s group became more noticed (and locally rejected) for its real world and online savagery.

    Interesting story in W Post about Fallujahan insurgents wanting to kick out the foreign fanatics. Most interesting — they’re mad greatly because the foreigners want to impose their religious views on them.

    Although wars of liberation are a bad use of government power and likely to fail, we did nevertheless have golden opportunities to do better after Saddam, squandered by incompetence and ideology and the usual job-seeking by incompetents and ideologues.

    Nice commentary by someone (and not a lefty) who’s been there in real time —

    http://www.livejournal.com/users/collounsbury/229086.html?mode=reply

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