Academic journal article Policy Review

The False Promise of Arab Liberals

Academic journal article Policy Review

The False Promise of Arab Liberals

Article excerpt

IN THE MONTHS and years since September 11, the idea that the United States should be more active in promoting democracy in the Arab world has become commonplace. President Bush dedicated an entire speech to the subject on November 6, 2003 after raising the theme for almost a year. The president's embrace of the idea followed months of pronouncements by senior U.S. government officials that addressed the need for political change in the Arab world--for American interests as well as those of the people in the region--and the need for the U.S. government to play an active role promoting such change.

It is not to dispute the desirability of democratization and reform in the Arab world to point out that the U.S. government is going about it the wrong way. The U.S. strategy, as it has been executed, is based on building out from a core of like-minded liberal reformers in the Arab world. In many ways, it is an obvious way to start. As a group, such reformers are intelligent, congenial, well-educated, and English-speaking. Americans are comfortable with them, and they are comfortable with Americans.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we need to recognize that, as a group, such liberals are increasingly aging, increasingly isolated, and diminishing in number. These liberals are losing a battle for the hearts and minds of their countries, and populations are increasingly driven toward younger and more disaffected personalities.

America's problems do not stop there, however. The United States faces a paradox. Liberal reformers in much of the Arab world are already seen as clients of foreign powers and as collaborators in a Western effort to weaken and dominate the Arab world. Focusing attention and resources on these reformers runs the risk of isolating them still further, driving a deeper wedge between them and the societies we (and they) seek to affect. In such an event, U.S. efforts are not only ineffectual; they are counterproductive.

U.S. efforts to promote political openness and change in the Arab world would be far more effective if they stopped trying to coax the disparate sparks of comfortable liberal thought into a flame and instead concentrated on two targets: regional governments and mass publics. The U.S. also needs to be willing to work multilaterally to promote reform in a way it has been unwilling to do up to now. If the stakes were lower, the U.S. could afford the luxury of taking an easier and less effective approach to political change in the Arab world. In today's environment, it isn't nearly sufficient.

The Eastern European example

IN CURRENT TALK about efforts to reform political life in the Middle East, the Eastern European example looms large. Not only did Eastern European communism crumble after almost decades of Western effort, but the end of the Soviet Union spelled the diminution, if not the end, of what had been the primary strategic threat facing the United States for a half-century.

At its core, the Eastern European experience is thought of this way: Communist tyranny spread while Western nations kept alive a flickering hope of freedom through overt radio broadcasting, covert support for oppositionists and "prisoners of conscience," and constant government-to-government pressure on human rights and political freedom. A robust policy of public diplomacy and cultural exchanges revealed the obvious: that communist lies about poverty in the West were just that, and the communist world was falling farther and farther behind a rapidly industrializing West.

On the governmental level, the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan combined with the Reagan administration's stepped-up military spending to provoke an internal crisis. On the public level, a series of initiatives to support non-governmental groups hastened the collapse of corroded and crumbling governments in country after country.

Veteran Cold Warriors view their victory as the product of determination and vision. …

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