Democracy in the Middle East

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison reflects on Democracy and the Middle East.

(Robison) I have just returned from a week in the Middle East, specifically Beirut, Lebanon. The purpose of the trip was to attend a conference of Arab leaders and intellectuals focusing on future of the region. These several hundred participants would describe themselves as moderates, allowing for some elasticity in the definition of that word.

It did not come as a surprise that most of the opinions expressed were passionately expressed. What did come as a bit of a surprise – to me at least – was the breadth and depth of the anger felt and expressed towards the United States. I had thought that much of the conference would focus on the two reports on the Arab world that have recently been published by the United Nations.

These two documents, written entirely by Arab scholars and activities, are highly critical of Arab governments for their having failed so badly to lead their respective countries further down the road of economic development, education and human rights. The reports are scathing in their descriptions of gender inequality and the lack of effective programs aimed at poverty reduction. These are excellent reports. There is at least one more to come and they are all the more noteworthy because of who wrote them.

Well, I was wrong. These were not the issues under discussion. What practically everyone wanted to talk about was what is wrong with U.S. policy in the region. You will not be surprised to learn that, in the views expressed in Beirut, there is a lot wrong with U.S. policy; in fact not much is right.

The villains at the moment are George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, of course. Big time. But the spoken and unspoken assumption there was that Bush, for U.S. domestic political reasons, has given Sharon free rein to do pretty much do whatever he pleases. The Prevailing Arab view this makes Bush complicit in Israels harsh treatment of the Palestinians. The conventional wisdom in Beirut was that Bush could change Israeli policy dramatically if he chose to do so. Never mind whether that is or is not accurate but that is certainly the view.

Many non-Arab scholars and politicians who focus attention on the region would point out that the non-democratic Arab regimes have long used Israeli-Palestinian problems as a means of diverting attention away from their own inadequacies. Again, true. But the rhetoric is no less passionate for that.

President Bush has recently had much to say about U.S. goals in the region being those of democracy and economic development, which, in his view, go hand in hand. So far, it is a message that plays better at home than abroad.

Reactions to the president’s statements, both in Europe and in the Middle East, range from skeptical to hostile. Almost all focus on the dramatic difference between advocating democracy and imposing it – as in Iraq. One prominent European commentator has taken to referring to the neo-conservative advisors to President Bush as Democratic Bolsheviks, by which he means they are determined to force democracy on people whether they want it or not.

Even observers who agree with the long-term goal seriously question the administration’s tactics and means. I personally have no doubt whatsoever that President Bush is genuinely sincere when he talks, as he does frequently, about our commitment to the global expansion of democracy. But we all know that in most complex matters, good intentions are rarely enough. And that is definitely the case in the Middle East.

I return home a little wiser and good bit more pessimistic. The road ahead is very steep indeed.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is President of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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