Friday, June 19, 2009

Middle East Politics: The Ideal, The Real, and The Imaginary

By Barry Rubin

A reader asks: Do we really want to promoting the making of deals with "moderate dictators" or are we better urging them to turn their countries into liberal democracies?

This writer answers:

What we “really want” to do is not the issue here. Political reality is what is important.

Under normal and current conditions we—meaning North America and Europe--are better off making deals with relatively moderate dictators while supporting liberal forces to make them stronger so they can play a role some day. The same principle applies for Israel.

Today—except for Lebanon—there is no real liberal democratic alternative in the Arabic-speaking world regarding real political power. If you want to understand why this is true, read my book The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East. 

The main threats to the West, to Israel, and even to the Arabs themselves are radical Islamists (Iran’s regime, Hamas, Hizballah, Muslim Brotherhoods, al-Qaida) and their radical nationalist allies (Syria particularly).

Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, and—most problematically given its pro-Tehran stance—Qatar are on the same side of this battle as we are--despite all their problems, shortcomings, and appeasement behavior--in this battle.

Let's take the worst-case eample on the above list, Saudi Arabia. Is the Saudi regime relatively moderate? Yes it is...compared to Iran and Syria.

And yes it is compared to what Saudi Arabia would look like if governed by the most likely alternative....Usama bin Ladin.

And yes it is when you keep in mind that the Saudis have played a very positive role in Lebanon by supporting March 14 against Hizballah. In addition, the original Arab plan for peace with Israel proposed by the Saudis--before the Syrians amended it to make it far worse--might actually have been a starting point for serious negotiation.

None of this is to underestimate the terrible things the Saudis do: antisemitic propaganda, an educational system that produces extreme Islamists, individuals funding terrorist groups, an extremely repressive version of Islam at home, an eagerness to appease Iran (especially if the Saudi regime doesn't trust the West to protect it).

All those points are real and should be very much kept in mind. But is Saudi Arabia's government preferable to a bin Ladin or Ahmadinejad type regime in power? Definitely yes. And is there any other alternative at present? Definitely no.

If you want to understand why the current dictatorships are holding onto power and will be removed only by radical Islamists in the foreseeable future, read my book The Tragedy of the Middle East.

Against the fascists, the US and UK had to ally with Stalin; against the Communists with many dictators. Those who are going to engage seriously in politics must deal with this reality.

At present, there is no serious prospect of turning these countries into liberal democracies, certainly not from the outside. Liberal forces are simply too weak. Democratic institutions don’t exist. Anti-democratic Islamists would win elections and never bother to hold them again. This situation has been clearly seen in the events of recent years.

When a democratic upsurge does come along, as currently can be seen in non-Arab Iran, it deserves support from Westerners and verbal encouragement from Western governments. There is certainly a huge difference between the Iranian demonstrators and the current regime. True, there is far less difference between the opposition candidates and the current rulers. But that margin is important.

Would a less extreme Islamist ruling Iran get better public relations’ advantages in the West while developing nuclear weapons? Sure. But so what. The West isn’t going to take on the current regime any way. Public relations are not going to affect Iran getting nuclear weapons at this point.

It would certainly be better to have a leadership less eager to engage in war, less likely to use nuclear weapons, and more cautious in its international behavior. Equally, it would be preferable to have a regime which had a wider gap between a radical ideology and a more pragmatic practice. Finally, it would be nicer to have a regime that had to devote more of its time and attention to improving its domestic living standards than to foreign adventures.

Unfortunately, such options are not very available in the Arabic-speaking world. They may be, today, in Iran.
But again that is Iran, not the Arabic-speaking world.

Is Egypt’s President Husni Mubarak or Jordan’s King Abdallah preferable to Islamist states ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood? Is Iraq’s current regime preferable to a radical Islamist state under Iranian patronage? Is Lebanon under the March 14 Sunni-Christian-Druze alliance preferable to Lebanon under Hizballah? Is the Palestinian Authority preferable to Hamas?

How many milliseconds did it take you to answer that list of questions?

Working with the dictatorships does not mean supporting them when they repress genuine liberal democrats. That’s where the line must be drawn. Yet why should the West help bring anti-Western Islamist groups to power that would create even worse dictatorships and set off bloody wars?

Nor does working with the dictatorships mean being naïve about them and their policies. Of course, the Palestinian Authority is going to incite violence against Israel—though it will also stop many of the resulting terrorists—but won’t make a lasting comprehensive peace with Israel. Certainly, Mubarak’s government will take American money and then order its media to preach anti-Americanism.

All of these points must be taken into account. We are talking about necessary cooperation for mutual survival, not nominations for sainthood, abandoning any criticism, or writing blank checks.

In contrast, the problem with much of Western strategy today is that while claiming to be realistic, it is dangerously romantic. It often seems more concerned in conciliating with the worst extremists than in preserving and strengthening the less dangerous and repressive—though admittedly corrupt and incompetent—incumbents.

Incidentally, this is precisely the conclusion reached by the overwhelming majority of genuine Arab liberals. They hate the existing governments and are all too aware of their flaws. But they prefer the current rulers to bringing into their own homes the nightmare of Islamist Iran, Taliban Afghanistan, or Hamas Gaza. Who can blame them for reaching this conclusion? They prefer staying in the frying pan to leaping into the fire.

In contrast, in the West, the prevalent current thinking often urges jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Of course, it is easier to advocate such a step for those whose feet won’t be the ones getting burnt.

There are good reasons why there are so many sayings about making a distinction between the horrible and the less objectionable though hardly ideal choice: The best is the enemy of the good. The lesser of two evils is preferable.

Politics is the art of the possible. Bad strategy is the vandalism of the dangerously ignorant.

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