The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Another Failed US Policy

The Moroccan Summitt came and went with many arguing that nothing news-worthy happened. Perhaps on the surface they are right. But for the sake of austerity, lets have a look.
While some argue the economic reform before political reform discourse never left, the outcomes of last week's Moroccan Summit firmly resituated and re-centered this notion.

It is within this context that states concerned about the Arab world's governance condition converged to discuss the US diplomatic plan to democratize the world (since Iraq has not proven a successful democratizing kick-starter). Yet, what really was on display is another expression of a US policy failure.

Last February Al-Hyatt newspaper leaked the US's Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI). Immediately, Arab leaders balked. Most prominently Hosni Mubarak called the plan "delusional" and an invitation to open "the gates of hell" without controlled reform (translation no reform, only adding cosmetic national councils). Yes....when one wants to bring a sudden stop to a idea's circulation - employ the chaos argument. Other defensive, and not necessarily wrong, arguments Mubarak proffered were the "Islamists will hijack the Democratization process," reform cannot come from outside, and reforms were already in progress.

By mid-March 2004, the US had not realized that while it could unilaterally launch a war, it was unable to push diplomatic reform plans. Mind you, many warned that the US's measures had no teeth. Brian Whitaker of the Guardian sniffed the GMEI out for what it was nearly as quickly as it was launched.

This did not stop the US State department undersecretary Marc Grossman from touring the Arab world with his "we don't want to impose this on anyone but it will be done" message in March 2004. I remember his encounter with then Egyptian FM Ahmad Mahir being more or less hostile. According to the view then democracy, one way or the other, would stop the scourge of terrorism. Terrorism is treated so simplisticly that if you eliminate authoritarianism it will magically disappear (without changing the US's biased regional policies).

Arab leaders responded launching diplomatic missions to Europe to try and unite Old and New Europe against the US's imperialistic designs. In large part, they succeeded.

The "initiative" battle was more or less over when Bush convened the G-8 summit in Georgia last June. The GMEI (then changed to Broader ME plan because in German "Greater" implied, ironically, imperialism when it was translated) was blocked by which countries did not show up rather than those in attendance. As pointed out then "Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two countries covered by the initiative but alarmed by its potential implications, declined invitations to the summit. Tunisia, which holds the rotating presidency of the Arab League, followed suit. Leaders of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey and Yemen accepted Bush's invitation." So four out of 22-Arab league countries attended.

The idea of democratizing the Arab world fades as Iraq unravels. Yet, a summit scheduled to further discuss the outdated plan in Morocco took place on 11 December. The NYT ran a story on 5 December, entitled "US Slows bid to advance Democracy in Arab world," which forecasted the get-together's expected agenda and limited outcomes. The NYT also followed up with a piece that correctly argued that Arab leaders used the "excuse" of the Arab-Israeli conflict as the reason not to reform. The story did not, however, choose to focus on how the US plan had changed over the year and became a fairly large diplomatic failure. I am not sure the US could have ever pushed through, morally or practically, such an ambitious reform program. However, the Moroccan summit's limited outcomes are further evidence that the US is losing influence with its regional allies.

Essentially, democratization efforts are being sidelined in favor of developing the social and economic aspects of the Arab world. Afterall, the Washington Consensus (WC) has been wrongly telling us for years that when the economic reform is done then political reform (read democracy which, in turn, is understood as peace) can commence. The Arab governments, knowing this convention to be wrong, simply have called for the WC to be followed. Indeed, this WC approach is a tremendously popular refrain in a certain party secretariat's reform plans in Egypt. In the absence of any real desire or ability to oppose the Arab states, US policy shifted towards accommodate the possible.

Anyone who has thought more than a minute about this insanely wrong and simplistic "economic reform leads to democratization" concept (derived from Modernization theory) knows that what took place last week was not a sincere attempt to create a dialogue or space for development. Morocco's summit was "politics as usual" as the US continues to sure up support for its contradictory regional role as a destabilizing hegemon.

I often argued last spring that when the GMEI successfully ran out of steam, we would see the proliferation of "We tried but Arab Culture resists modern democracy" arguments by US officials and more right-leaning analytical servants of political power. Nevertheless, I was outwitted again.

Instead of blaming the looks like they instead will simply blame the rulers, who are marketed as pining to stay in power at any cost. But then again, I should of realized....the culture argument is being saved for when the US military leaves Iraq in the midst of its ongoing civil war.

The truth of the matter is....the US never cared if there was democracy or reform. They only care about making sure that the dictators that exist in the region are friendly to the status quo minded establishment in Washington. By treating the Arab states as their vassals rather than actors (with interests and attributes) that can contribute to international political development, the US repeatedly, and likely uncaringly, continues to frame its policies erroneously. Its dialogues between equals (even when the equals aren't equals) not orders from above that translate into every language and produce more promising, balanced policies.