Intruders in the Dust

Why the Middle East rejects American-induced reform


Last week Morocco hosted two bulky events: an international film festival and a gathering in Rabat that brought together representatives from the G-8 most industrialized nations and the Middle East to discuss the issue of Middle Eastern reform. Both happenings were similar in that they rewarded role-playing by actors participating in works of fiction.

Indeed, as the New York Times reported on Monday, a live microphone at the Rabat conference caught what has become a familiar refrain in such debates: "Foreign ministers from the Arab world met here with leaders from the West over the weekend at a forum dedicated to advancing political change in this region. Instead, Arabs vented their frustration with American support for Israel." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted, "we cannot hold up reform" while waiting to resolve the Palestinian issue, "[n]onetheless, the conference's final statement declared that 'support for reform in the region will go hand-in-hand with support for a just, comprehensive and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.'"

The Rabat conference was organized in the context of a G-8 plan for the "broader Middle East and North Africa" approved at the Sea Island, Georgia, summit in June, where it was agreed to set up a so-called Forum for the Future. This is a framework (according to a final document released after Sea Island) to bring together G-8 ministers and ministers from the Middle East so they can "root [their] efforts in an open and enduring dialogue." The forum is supposed to bring together "G-8 and regional foreign, economic, and other ministers in an ongoing discussion on reform, with business and civil society leaders participating in parallel dialogues. The Forum will serve as a vehicle for listening to the needs of the region, and ensuring that the efforts we make collectively respond to those concerns."

In a Washington Post piece last October, columnist Jackson Diehl was buoyant when he wrote: "Drowned out by the bombings in Iraq, and the debate over whether the staging of elections there is an achievable goal or a mirage, the Bush administration's democracy initiative for the rest of the Middle East creeps quietly forward." Diehl legitimately observed that around 40 Middle Eastern civil society groups had responded positively to the forum's invitation for a dialogue, and had read a statement in support of reform to Powell and other foreign ministers on the margins of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last September (a preliminary version of the document was published in Beirut, but was subsequently changed in some of its details)

However, the same civil society groups met prior to the Rabat conference, and in an opinion piece in Lebanon's Daily Star, several representatives admitted that there were obstacles blocking their efforts: "In the original paper presented by Arab civil society groups to the G-8 meeting in New York earlier this year, three imperatives were identified [a "freedom", a "democratic" and a "justice" imperative] which required some response from G-8 ministers and any Arab or Middle Eastern government that was ready for meaningful reform. Neither acknowledgment of these imperatives by the concerned governments, let alone support, was forthcoming."

But beyond the expected reluctance of Middle Eastern regimes to undertake a serious reform effort that must, necessarily, allow for their own eventual removal (and that, at the least, may precipitate such demands), the gradualist American-sponsored Middle Eastern reform agenda suffers from several shortcomings, which are amply recognized by some neoconservatives in the Bush administration.

The first and most obvious is that Middle Eastern civil society is divided over the issue of engaging the West, particularly the United States, on reform. As Abdelkadir Amar, the head of Morocco's opposition Justice and Development Party, put it before the Rabat summit, there was a "contradiction" in Morocco's organizing the forum while President George W. Bush stood "side-by-side with [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, and is undertaking the liquidation of Falluja against all international rules." While Amar heads a moderate Islamist group, his grievances are widespread in the Middle East.

A more common template of public opinion in the region (and one apparently now finding its way into the mainstream American press) is that Western-induced reform, at least where the U.S. is involved, conceals "neo-imperial" designs. In that context, embracing such reform is tantamount to accepting a resurrected form of colonial domination. Not surprisingly, Middle Eastern regimes have taken advantage of these attitudes to better resist outside pressures for change that might undermine their own authority—for once, finding themselves in contrived harmony with their own peoples.

A second problem is, as Powell saw in Rabat, the unresolved Palestinian issue. The secretary quite sensibly wondered what the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had to do with ameliorating conditions in specific Middle Eastern societies. What he must have been all too aware of, however, is that the Palestinians' misfortune has rendered the Middle East virtually impotent in the past half-century, as it has been used as justification for just about any effort to protect the ambient stalemate and perpetuate the rule of autocratic regimes.

There is little doubt that resolving the Palestinians' foul plight would generate greater confidence in the U.S., but that still doesn't explain why regional reform must be made hostage to a conflict a majority of Arabs have no control over. Nor does it explain why the Arabs must accept being set upon by their own oppressive regimes, even as they decry Israel's suppression of the Palestinians. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this unreasonable approach holds sway in the region, and has thrown up further obstacles to addressing reform efforts coming from Washington. "If you can't resolve the Palestinian problem," the voices of protest say, "then you can't be serious about democratic change and liberty in other Arab societies."

The third difficulty of American-sponsored reform efforts is that there are places where domestically generated reform is not an option. It was never an option in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, it is just an inch short of whimsical in Bashar Assad's Syria, and it has proven to be a catalogue of failures in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. One can, of course, go on: Combine the word "reform" with the names Al-Saud and Moammar Qadhafi and you can entertain a schoolyard. There comes a moment when indigenous reform is, quite simply, impossible, and where other forms of more radical change, such as a revolution or a coup d'etat are far more likely, even if they later prove as high-handed as that which they replaced.

So, what are the alternatives? Neocons have scoffed at the prudence and optimism of the gradualist reformist agenda, and to that extent they are right. However, they are wrong in assuming that its alternative, a muscular willingness to mainly use force, is sufficient. The lingering message that has emerged from the Iraq war is that the U.S. has yet to find a proper equilibrium in the good- and bad-cop facets of its personality. There is also the matter of what is do-able, and the peculiarities of each state in the region. Invading Iraq was do-able in a way that invading Iran today is not, even as Iranian civil society offers many more opportunities for change stimulated from the outside than did prewar Iraq.

On its own, the reformist agenda that emerged from the G-8 summit last June will probably fail. But it shouldn't be discarded; rather it should be somehow linked to a parallel policy that accepts that force and other forms of pressure, political and economic, might have to be used, too, to ensure that the absence of reform in the Arab world won't come back to haunt the U.S., as it did on 9/11. To prepare for that, however, the second Bush administration will have to be unified in a way the first one was not.