March 4th, 2005 by nick

I wrote my brother Jeff this email:

So what do you say? Are you taking the party line that the extraordinary events in Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Palestine have nothing to do with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, or, as some are even saying, are happening in spite of the Bush policies?

Jeff replied with a very reasonable, nuanced analysis of cause and effect, which you can read below. I replied with:

I can’t disagree with any of that, except for the generally pessimistic tone. And I must note that in order to maintain a pessimistic attitude towards developments in the Middle East and the world, it has been necessary to move the goalposts a considerable distance. Now, instead of tens of thousands of casualties, millions of refugees, hopeless quagmire, an uprising of the Arab street, etc., etc., critics are left with “Disrupting authoritarian rule, though, is not the same thing as producing democratic rule.”

Here is Jeff’s take on it all:

I think there is clearly some connection although, as always in such things, it’s hard to sort out all the causal variables. Clearly Bush’s Iraq policy had nothing to do with Arafat dying. That was a tremendously positive development all by itself. And events in Lebanon seem substantially driven by this assassination that doesn’t seem to me to have been provoked by the Iraq policy. But I think it is clear that the Iraq invasion and the elections in Iraq have had an effect on the region. Bush’s jawboning about democracy and being consistent about at least mildly pressuring friendly countries about that also seems to me to be having an effect. This happened in Latin America at the very end of the Reagan administration and throughout the elder Bush administration when first Reagan started criticizing the Pinochet government and then increasingly the US made it clear that military dictators would no longer be regarded as friendly. That really pulled the rug out from under would be coup makers all over the region. What the US stands for in real actions does make a difference. I don’t think Mubarak would be proposing slightly more open presidential elections except for US action.

I wouldn’t celebrate yet, though. To the extent that the US is contributing significantly to amplifying anti-authoritarian forces in the region, our policy is disrupting authoritarian rule. Disrupting authoritarian rule, though, is not the same thing as producing democratic rule. Democracy is a complex and difficult political artifact; it is not just what arises naturally when you sweep away the “bad” guys, the dictators in place. The most likely outcome of disrupting existing authoritarian arrangements in Middle East countries is their replacement by new (and not necessarily better) authoritarian arrangements or, in some cases, a return to civil war. We could end up with a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon or a new chaotic civil war there; we could end up with a bloody confrontation between the political heirs of Mubarak and the not very democratic Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt; we could get a chaotic collapse of the Saudi royal family leading to a radical Islamic revolution in Saudi Arabia. Israel and reasonable Palestinians could misplay their hands and create a reaction that gives democratic legitimacy to a Palestinian authority dominated by Hamas.

Or we could get substantial liberalization and real movement toward meaningful forms of democracy in some or many of these places. In the 50′s, 60′s, and 70′s we worked very hard trying to promote modernizing and ultimately democratizing social forces in some Middle Eastern countries. We worked especially hard at trying to modernize Libya, Iraq and Iran. The outcomes there were Moammar Khadafi, Saddam Hussein, and the Ayatollah Khomeini (after the Shah’s regime became nastily tyrannical), all of them worse than the authoritarian traditionalists we were originally trying to help to modernize. We can stir the pot and make something happen in the region; it is delusional to imagine that we can control or manage the outcomes with any great precision.

Having said all that, Iraq looks more positive today than it did two months ago despite all the violence. Events in Lebanon are clearly positive developments; Khadafi has backed off his aggressive support for terrorism and WMD; the Palestinian Authority is finally in the hands (sort of) of a thoughtful and reasonable statesman; Syria is on the defensive not only with the US but with several of its Arab neighbors including Saudi Arabia; and Saudi Arabia is feeling the pressure to move cautiously toward positive reforms. All of this is in part a consequence of American policy. What’s not to like? The biggest contribution we could make at this point to help all of this move in a positive direction is dedicate ourselves in a very focused way on brokering an acceptable Israeli-Palestinian agreement. If we can take that deep grievance off the table of Middle East politics, we increase radically the chances that we will get positive outcomes throughout the region.

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