Events

The Middle East: Post Iraq

June 16, 2003 // 12:00am

The opinions expressed in the following transcript are solely those of the presenters and in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.



Panel I: Post Iraq War Middle East and Prospects for Liberalization

Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, The Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park, and Senior Fellow, Saban Center, Brookings Institution


I’m going to make just a few remarks, as I know this is a subject that many people here know as much about as I do.

I’ll begin with an observation of a survey I conducted (with Zogby International) in late February/early March in six Arab countries--Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. It was in part about what people expected after the war in the region. As you know, the vast majority of the people in the region opposed the war. I asked them about the prospects for the Middle East after the war. One of the questions was about democracy: “Do you think that the war with Iraq will bring more democracy or less democracy in the region?” The majorities in every single country in the region said there will be less democracy instead of more.

So I start with that as a way of analyzing what was at least the mindset--where most people believed that there would be less democracy rather than more--and look at it more objectively in the context of what has transpired since the war. There are clearly two reasons for the public perception. One reason has to do with America’s intention. When I asked them “Why do you think the US is going to war?” very few people said they believed that democracy was a factor in the American calculation. In essence there was a mistrust of American intentions. They didn’t believe that America was going to war for democracy, even though America was saying it was doing it in part for democracy. The second reason was that there was the reality on the ground for some of them—as the war was on its way, many of them were experiencing more repression instead of more democracy. Many of their governments had already agreed to support the US, and most of the public opposed the war. The governments felt insecure as they always do in this kind of confrontation. And what do they do in an environment like that? Limit freedoms, make arrests, and try to disrupt any possible organization that would oppose preparation for the war. So clearly, there was anticipation that because of this kind of tension--the governments going in one direction and public opinion going in another--the bottom line outcome would be more repression rather than more democracy. Clearly those were the two reasons, I think, that were brought out during the war, and I think one can argue pretty much immediately after the war, because of the insecurities and the fear.

Now, let’s sit back and look a little more analytically at what has happened since the war, and what is likely to happen in the near future. I think if you look at our own projection of likely political liberalization, you have to look at several factors. What has changed in terms of the conditions that would enable more liberalization in the Middle East than before? What has not changed? What has gone in other directions?

First, if there is anything different in US policy, it is not so much in the way the US is behaving, but certainly in the way the US is speaking. There is a sense in the American body politic, in a way that has not been internalized before, that democracy is good for national security. Clearly many in the American body politic, among the American elite, and certainly in this government, since 9/11 have believed or come to believe that part of the 9/11 problem, the terrorism problem, is related to the absence of democracy in the Middle East. The US has always spoken about democracy, but there is perhaps a very strong school now that sees democracy as an end for national security. In that sense, that might be a new incentive for the US to pursue this issue.

Second, let’s look at governments in the region, which are obviously central in all of this. On the one hand, they see what happened to Saddam Hussein. For the Iraqi people, even though they didn’t like the occupation, and they don’t now, clearly Saddam Hussein was not a loved leader. Leaders in the region watched his fall with worry. There is insecurity about being too far away from their public. In that sense I think there is an incentive for these governments to find a way to get the public more behind them, for selfish, long-term reasons. They need more legitimacy than Saddam Hussein appeared to have.

Third, there are factors that not really related to the Iraq War. If you look at the region, it was failing--failing economically and politically, and most in the Middle East were facing crises. There was incentive for them to change in a particular direction. That hasn’t changed with the war, as both the needs and the incentives to change remain. If anything, these factors have been exacerbated for most of these countries. So there are some incentives independently from the Iraq situation to create political change or reform in the region.

But I’m afraid that on the other side of this score sheet the trends are much more powerful. At the end I’ll describe the picture as I see it, pertaining to Iraq and the region broadly. Obviously, Iraq is going to be important. It’s important because it’s going to be a test for American foreign policy and American intention, but there’s also a question of whether it would in fact become a model to be emulated for other countries in the region. Looking at the Iraq situation today, I’d have to ask about the likely emergence of a vibrant democracy in Iraq in the foreseeable future. And I would be very skeptical about it, and not because Iraq does not lend itself to that. I don’t believe that for a minute, and I think whatever emerges in Iraq is going to be better than the ruthless regime that prevailed in Iraq. We are talking here about degrees. When you look at two real issues here pertaining to the prospects of true democracy in Iraq, I think you’d have to be skeptical.

The first issue is American foreign policy. It’s very clear that the US today is not likely to be making democracy its top priority in Iraq, at least not in the way it was talked about, meaning an electoral democracy quickly. And it’s obvious what happens in an environment like this. You have 150,000 American troops on Iraqi soil. Your first job is to protect them. And whatever it takes, you want to minimize the casualties. If it means you enter a village and attack, you enter a village and attack to reduce the risk rather than go and build bridges on an individual basis with the people.

We already know that the prevalent Iraqi sentiment is that this is an occupation force. And clearly, the US was unprepared for the occupation. It had only one shot at making a first impression, and that shot is lost. And now it’s an uphill battle to try to build the trust. And when reporters go there and interview Iraqis, and ask them bluntly, “Do you think you are better off today than you were under Saddam Hussein?”--the majority says no. And that’s because there is no security. They’re not talking about the absence of political freedom, that’s a different story, but of their own lives, in terms of the personal security, running water, unpredictability, uncertainty. And, by the way, the image that is projected on our televisions today of anarchy in Iraq is in a way a barrier to democracy because people in the region are terrified by the anarchy a lot more than they are terrified by authoritarianism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union many people were terrified by what seemed to be anarchy in the Soviet Union. Regimes obviously exploited that and they emphasized the stability of the Chinese model of reform instead. And I think you have a level of discomfort in the region in terms of what they see for now in Iraq. Obviously, if things improve it will have a tremendous impact.

Second, other than the forces and the security in Iraq, the strategic calculation is a priority for the United States. There is an obvious fear after it was observed that the most organized segments of society today are the religious groups--both the Shiite and Sunni--and that scared a lot of people in Washington. The issue is no longer “Do we have electoral democracy?” In fact, we’re redefining it. We are saying, “Well, democracy is not about elections, it’s about institutions, and let’s buy time.” That may have been the intent from the beginning, but certainly that's not the way it is perceived in the region. And ultimately, my thinking is that the US success in Iraq is going to be defined not only in terms of its ability to impose law and order and prevail and minimize the casualties–which is going to be the key measure here in the political arena in Washington–but also in terms of how it will play into the bigger strategic picture for the US in the region.

Let’s start with Iran. If the US is going to embark on a confrontational policy with Iran, there is going to be incredible insecurity about empowering the Shi’as in Iraq. Rightly or wrongly, whether there is a connection or not, there is going to be tremendous fear of that, because it will be a policy that will alienate large segments of Iraqis who might be more powerful down the road.

What happens with the US relationship with Turkey will be very much a factor towards the American policy towards the Kurds in Iraq. And for now, it is clear that the US is opposed to a Kurdish state. The Turkish/US relationship is still strong, but it has been shaken in ways that we have not seen since World War II. And while there is no alternative for either side in the short-term, there is a different kind of discourse here and there about the relationship, and clearly that is going to affect how the US looks at Kurdistan.

Many people in Washington who were calling for democracy before the war now want to play divide-and-conquer because it is high politics time in Iraq. That is going to be a momentum, that is going to be a trend, that is clearly going to affect how the rest of the region sees the outcome in Iraq. There are opportunities in Iraq, there are opportunities in the region. Every major shift in power like this one creates opportunities in ways that we have not seen in the past. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the first Bush Administration advocated democracy for about one year–until Iraq invaded Kuwait. The key issue that was highlighted was democracy, that this was a model, and that the collapse of the Berlin Wall signified a new era, an era of democracy. The first Bush Administration pushed for democracy, and actually it did have opportunities in the Middle East, and some countries responded. It happened in Jordan, it happened in Yemen, it happened even in Algeria. And then we saw the consequence--fear of Islamic fundamentalism, coupled with the strategic priorities that came out of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait--and the whole issue died. And why should we expect something different today?

Now let me briefly turn to something other than American priorities--whether governments in the region have additional incentives to try to liberalize on their own. I already mentioned a couple that would come out of it. But here too, I think, ultimately they all are facing strategic calculations that they must address. It is fair to say, at least for those of us who have been watching this for a long time, that out of the past two and a half years, both because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and because of the Iraq War, there are more opportunities for militants to organize. And there probably is more being planned today than there was before. We’ve seen, and I would expect, that some of them will turn not only to American targets but also to target governments in the region. We have seen the boundaries being pushed in the recent Saudi attacks. And that means that governments are going to face an internal issue of stability, which will be paramount for them, and that the US will support them on it because of the war on terrorism, which will be seen to be more of a priority for America today.

Let me offer a few final remarks on the issue of Arab-Israeli peacemaking and its link to democracy. The US is going to want cooperation from countries in the Arab world to push for the peace process to the extent that the political measure here at home is going to be a) whether the President succeeds in bringing a happy outcome in Iraq, and b) succeeds in pushing the Arab-Israeli peace process forward. Those will be the two measures. I believe those will be the levers that the Administration will use that will trump all else, pertaining to democracy. In that sense, I don’t see something fundamentally changed. If anything, one can argue that the Administration’s hand is weaker than it was before the war--in part because it has the troops to defend; in part because the outcome of Iraq, the Arab-Israeli issue, and terrorism, is not dependent on only the Administration--it doesn’t have the power to do it. It is going to need to muster the help of everyone else in order to have political successes in all of these areas. In that sense, I do not see a fundamental transformation that leads me to believe that we are on the verge of a new era. I do see opportunities. Whether they are exploited or not is going to be really more a function of the other strategic issues than it is of internal dynamics.


Marina Ottaway, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Thank you very much. It’s always difficult to follow in the footsteps of people who have said much of what you plan to say. But let me try to not bore you by speaking too much about many of the points that Shibley made. A few weeks ago, I was in South Africa and I happened to hear Former President F.W. De Klerk talking about the transition in South Africa. And the concept he kept repeating was that of paradigm shift. He was discussing when is it that the South Africans had reached this point, when their outlook on the political situation had shifted completely, when they had accepted the idea that the old political system could not continue, that deep change was necessary and that it was the time to bite the bullet and say goodbye to apartheid. And if I were to apply this concept of paradigm shift to the Middle East, I would argue that the war in Iraq has not created this paradigm shift. In other words, if we look at the prospect of transformation in the Middle East post war and before the war, I think we do not see any radical change. We see bits and pieces of change, but certainly not a situation that creates a completely different set of incentives for either the United States or for Arab governments to undertake what is, in the end, the very dangerous process of political liberalization in the Middle East. Political liberalization is a good thing. Democracy is a very good thing. Getting from here to there is, as you know, always extremely difficult and extremely dangerous. And I’d argue that the incentives for undertaking that step don’t seem to be there in the Middle East at this point. And not just for Arab governments, but also for the United States. Let me talk a little bit about what we are seeing and what we are doing at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We are trying to monitor the process of political reform, the changes that we see occurring in the region and the changes we do not see occurring in the region. Let me talk a little about what we see occurring.

What we are seeing is a flurry of what we could call – I am a bit hesitant here because cosmetic reforms would be the easiest term, but there may be a little more than cosmetic reform, but certainly they don’t go very far. And what I mean here is reforms that do make a difference, do make a difference for particular segments of the population, but really do not change the nature of the political system that we find in these countries. And one of the changes that we are beginning to see, and that we are going to see more and more I think, everywhere except in Saudi Arabia in the months to come, are changes concerning the position of women. There has been a flurry of appointments of women in high positions, women judges appointed in Egypt, to the high court I mean. A few more women ministers appointed here or there, a lot of women becoming candidates in parliamentary elections, and even more talking about running as candidates in a variety of countries. These changes are significant from the point of view of the women involved. And certainly they are significant changes. I am not going to dismiss them as being purely cosmetic. But from the point of view of the governments in power, these are not changes that affect the nature of the political system. I don’t think we have seen any countries where the fact that women vote somehow really does make a big difference in the nature of who is going to be elected, who is not going to be elected. And even less so if the elections that take place are for national assemblies or local councils that do not have power. So there are changes that are important for the society, but not really for the political system. Whether these changes will translate into real political changes in the long term is something that remains to be seen. But, I argue that if there is a change in the long-term, it’s going to be in the very long-term, not in the next few months.

Other changes that we see: there is a lot of talk in a number of countries about the setting-up of a human rights council commission, a government-controlled human rights commission. I think these are certainly ideas that send a signal, they send a signal that there is an acceptance if not of the need to really improve the human rights situation, at least of the need to send a signal that the human rights situation needs to be improved, which is certainly a step in the right direction. We have not seen these commissions functioning yet, so we do not know in how many countries in the end they will be set up and so on. What we know from studies done in other parts of the world is that very rarely do very much. Human Rights Watch has produced a very good study on this. Very rarely we find examples of government-created human rights commissions that have really done their work. Most government-created human rights commissions end up being staffed by people who are totally faithful to the government. And even more importantly, they are usually starved for funds, so in the end they end up being very ineffective. So is this a good thing that Arab governments are setting up human rights commissions? Is this a real change that we see all this talk about creating human rights commissions? Well, the talk and the actions do indicate to something, but it’s far too early to say this is a real change. It may be a little more than cosmetic but it does not veer far.

We have recently seen constitutional reform and a constitutional referendum in Qatar. Certainly, the constitution is a step in the right direction, but I think there are real great dangers in what is happening, in particular, great dangers in the US reaction to what is happening. The constitution in Qatar is extremely limited from the point of view of democratization, as are most of the constitutions in the Gulf States. Something that you may never suspect by reading the American press or by listening to the statements made by members of the Bush Administration is that these are not even constitutional monarchies. In other words, the constitution of Qatar, the constitution of the Gulf States are not constitutions that create, that make absolute monarchies into constitutional monarchies. The definition of a constitutional monarchy is one where the power of the executive is strongly constrained by the constitution, and we are certainly not at that stage. I It’s certainly a good thing that there is an admission by these rulers that they need to sort of institutionalize the political system. What worries me is the US reaction, that is, the fact that for political reasons US officials tend to respond to these reforms as if they were the real thing, while they are at best a small step in what needs to be a long series of steps in a certain direction. And this acceptance of small changes as a fundamental shift toward democracy sends a message to the Middle East that the US is willing to settle for cosmetic reforms in the end, and not really pushing for real reforms. I will come back to that point in a moment.

What we don’t see changing – what has not changed? Granted that it is early days, but in many areas not only nothing has changed, but there is no indication that change is about to take place. First of all, it’s clear that political reform in these countries continues to be introduced from the top and that we are not seeing a really strong demand for democratic reform from the bottom up. There is a lot of strong demand for change. The Islamic movements certainly represent a demand for change, but not for democratic change. The situation remains the same as in the past: the groups that ask for democratic change, by and large, are weak political groups, that they do not have much following in the society. So, to the extent that there is a process of liberalization, it starts from the top; it’s a supply-side process, it is not a demand-side process. Secondly, the core power, we don’t see any sign that anywhere the core power of the government is really being affected. There is a lot of reform, a lot of changes can be introduced in a country without the core power of the government being affected. There can be a lot of reform, for example, of local government systems. There can be a lot of reform in, as I said, in the formal political system, without the core power of the executive, whether the republic or the monarchy, being challenged. The political systems of the countries of the Middle East are structured in such a way that the core power of the executive cannot be challenged, and we don’t see very much change in that. Political parties that portray themselves as democratic parties remain extremely weak and they are poorly organized. All the organizations that are working on political party reform in the Middle East have come to the same conclusion on this point, that democratic political parties are not only poorly organized but not particularly interested in organizing. One paradox is that organizations like the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, that try to do political party training report that the Islamist parties are more likely to go to their meetings, to send organizers to their meetings, and in fact to try and implement some of their suggestions, than the democratic political parties, because the Islamist political parties seem to take the idea of political organizing much more seriously than the democratic parties are doing. Essentially, Islamist parties take organization very seriously, and democratic parties do not. Unless democratic parties change their attitude, and so far we don’t see any sign of that, they will remain weak. The situation is not going to change very much.

The other related problem is that the democratic message that is transmitted by these political parties is either poorly articulated or articulated in such a way that it does not reach the majority of the population. We hear a lot of talk, for example, on the part of the democratic political parties about the need for constitutional reform. There is no doubt about the need for constitutional reform in many countries, this is rather blatant. But constitutional reform is not a message that is likely to attract a great deal of following particularly on the part of people who are not terribly educated, who are struggling to stay alive and so on. It is not a message that has a great deal of popular appeal. One of the problems we see is the incapacity of the democratic parties to articulate a message that can be attractive to more than just the intellectuals. In the end, the democratic message is a message directed to the elites more than to the mass of the population.

I want to come, finally, to whether the US position on the issue of democracy has really changed, to what the US is doing to promote liberalization and democratization in the area, and whether what the US is doing now is really any different from what it was doing before. The message, the rhetoric, certainly, has changed. Shibley has talked about it. I think there is a big difference, the Bush Administration talks a different talk. It’s much more explicit about the need for liberalization, the need for democratization in the Middle East. When you start looking at what the US is actually doing, you find a great ambivalence on the part of the Administration, which is quite understandable. And it is the same ambivalence that has always been there. We wish these governments were more democratic, but we are not sure we want to take the risk of forcing them to become more democratic, because of the danger of destabilization, because the danger that the situation will spin out of control. The US government is as scared of the Islamist parties as it always has been – nothing has changed, and the rapidity with which Islamist groups have been able to organize themselves in Iraq adds to the concern. The fact that Islamists whether they were Shia’s or Sunnis, were the first off the block after Saddam Hussein went is not very encouraging politically.

If we go beyond the rhetoric and the statements, and we look at what the US is actually doing, the best place to look for is the Middle East Partnership Initiative, because this is the most concrete project to date that the US has embraced to try to promote liberalization in the Middle East. And I argue that if you look, you find that what the Middle East Partnership is doing, what it is proposing to do, to the best of my knowledge, is the same things that we did before, without pushing much further than that. First of all, I, you know, I recognize that it is too early to judge -- the funding for the Middle East Partnership Initiative for this year was very limited, $29 million, which of course is a pittance when spread across the area. The request for FY 2004 is $145 million dollars, which is certainly better than $29 million. It’s still not a great deal of money spread across the area. But more than the amount of money, what I find of concern is the areas that have been singled out, as part of the effort.

There are three areas One is economic development, and to me this is really a retreat from the idea of promoting democratization. Yes, all the studies point out that democracy is much more likely to take roots in countries that are better off economically. Yes, we know that countries that are experiencing rapid economic growth are much more likely to become democratic. But to say that we are going to put our efforts in the area of economic development, means essentially that we are not going to do very much about democracy itself now, because economic development is a long-term process. We have, supposedly, been trying to promote for a good long time. Furthermore, it is clear that before you can really find a direct relationship between economic growth and political change, you need a very rapid process of economic growth. In other words, a process of economic growth that causes a society to outgrow its political system, as it happened in South Korea, as it happened in Taiwan and may be happening in China. But I don’t think there is any likelihood that an aid program of the size that the US is talking about now with the Middle East Partnership Initiative is going to have such a dramatic impact on these societies. I mean many countries, and the Gulf Countries for example, the issue is not more money into the economy, it is that essentially focusing on economic development is a retreat from the real issues.

The second area where the United States is putting emphasis with the Middle East Partnership is education, that is, trying to promote educational reform in these countries. I think that there is need for educational reform in the Arab world, I think there is need for educational reform in the United States for that matter. There is always need for educational reform. But again, the money is not likely to have a dramatic impact and to the extent that this is going to make a difference, even if meaningful reform can be introduced, it is not something that is going to be felt in the immediate future. It is something that is much more likely to be manifested down the road, a long way down the road. Is it a bad thing that we talk about educational reform? I think it’s not. I think it’s a good thing as long as we do not interfere in areas where we should not interfere, as with religious education, I think there is nothing wrong with pushing for educational reform. But is educational reform the road to democratization in these countries in the foreseeable future? I have very serious doubts.

The third area by MEPI is the strengthening of civil society, especially the strengthening organization promoting reforms affecting women. And what I would argue here is that we do not have a very good sense of which reforms concerning civil society we should introduce and which kinds of organizations of civil society we need to strengthen and support to promote democracy. What kinds of reforms concerning the status of women can be promoted that really make a difference from the point of view of the liberalization of the political system? We are working on it at Carnegie right now; we are looking at examples in various countries trying to figure out when women rights reform really make a difference. What kind of women programs for example may translate into greater democracy, greater liberalization? And which ones are good for women themselves, but are not likely to translate into democracy? The change in the divorce laws can make a huge difference for a lot of women. A change in divorce law is probably not going to change much in terms of the politics of the country.

I would argue in conclusion that when we look at MEPI closely, we find that it reflects what has been the position of the United States vis-à-vis democracy in the Middle East all along, rather than a new way of thinking about the problem The underlying assumption is that we cannot tackle the issue of democracy directly. We cannot try to challenge these regimes directly. Instead what we have to build up these ancillary activities which, hopefully, at some point, will build up into some real change in the society.

So, in conclusion, do we see a paradigm change? No, we are not. We don’t see it in the Arab countries and we do not see it on the part of the United States either.


Anatol Lieven, Senior Associate for Foreign and Security Policy, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

I am deeply honored to be invited to speak in this company. The problem about the company however is that I now have to follow two speakers who have sa

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