Thursday, March 02, 2006

Forcing Democracy?

Robert Kaplan, a writer I admire, has started some talk with a column in today's Post called "We Can't Force Democracy." It is an argument for caution, claiming that destablizing undemocratic regimes, particularly in the Middle East, does the cause of the region and of democracy no favor. "Stabilizing newly democratic regimes, and easing the development path of undemocratic ones, should be the goal for our military and diplomatic establishments. The more cautious we are in a world already in the throes of tumultuous upheaval, the more we'll achieve."

It is an argument that isn't wrong. It is one, however, that misses the main issues facing democracy activists in the region.

Let's start with the premise. It's not clear at all that America is "forcing" democracy on the region. Our efforts seem to consist of a few bucks thrown to democracy activists in some interesting initiatives and some bully pulpit statements from the president. Taking Egypt as an example, if there is an example of the U.S. government having any kind of wrestling match with the Mubarak regime on any political issue of real importance to Mubarak, I'm missing it. If there is any example of the U.S. forcing the Mubarak regime to change its policy on any domestic policy of importance, I'm missing it. The State of Emergency is still in effect, the last I checked. Torture remains systemmatic. Political opponents and religious and cultural minorities remain jailed and harassed. And while there have been strong pro-democracy statements coming out of the White House, they have been counter-balanced by policies, such as renditions of Egyptians, that actually encourage human rights abuses.

No, any progress for democracy in the region has come from the internal work of activists there. That's true in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt. If change continues to come, it will be again because of the work they are doing. Kaplan's biggest flaw in his argument is the narrow concentration on what Washington is doing. We are blind to the work of the activists in these countries. We don't know their names or where they have come from or what they want. A few names from Egypt -- Saad Ibrahim and Ayman Nour, for example -- get thrown out into the U.S. press at a moment of crisis, as if they have sponteanously appeared, regardless of the decades of accomplishments and efforts and ignoring the many other people doing similar work.
It stands to reason that these people would be more effective because they, unlike the U.S. government, pose a real threat to the Middle East regimes. Not an immediate threat, but a future one, one that can be seen. I keep hearing about how much aid we give these countries and it should be used as leverage. I don't see it. We don't give that much, we never take it away, and if we did, the people would suffer rather than the government. It is little matter to the Mubarak regime.

I don't want to exaggerate the power of the democracy activists -- although the ability of those in Lebanon to bring a change of government was truly breathtaking. In Egypt, the government holds most of the strength. But people there are learning how to use the tools they have, as we have seen in the past election, and this clearly frightened the Mubarak regime into acting. If there is one group that we can count on being cautious in introducing democracy in the Middle East, it is the regimes themselves.

You are right, Robert Kaplan; the United States can't and shouldn't force democracy in the region. But neither can it stop it.

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