February 26, 2005

Column 2005-2-26 Commentary

In this column, Brooks puts on his rose-colored glasses. Then he puts on another pair. Then another. Then another. And then another. And then . . . well, you get the idea. Brooks is going to be relentlessly optimistic in this column, and just you try to stop him! Go on, try! Please try? Won't somebody please, please try?

Brooks begins by asserting that the most powerful question in the world today is "Why not here?" Personally, I often look at Canada and wonder "Why not here?", but that's not exactly what Brooks is getting at. Instead, he refers us to the inspirational examples of Eastern Europe, where people looked at Western Europe and said "Why can't we have parliamentary democracy here?", Ukraine, where people looked at Georgia and said "Why can't we have a bloodless popular revolution to overthrow the corrupt post-Soviet elites here?", and the Arab world, where people are presumably looking at Iraq and saying "Why can't we have our local despot overthrown by an American invasion which will kill thousands and create a deeply entrenched guerilla insurgency and an election carried out entirely along ethnic and religious fault lines which may well lead to a civil war?" Or something like that. I might point out that since most people in the Arab world are in fact Sunni Arabs, they might be more likely to look at the insurgency and think "Why not here?" But perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic.

Brooks then cites Thomas Kuhn to support his contention that things are changing. This is great, except for the fact that Kuhn was actually writing about science, as Brooks acknowledges. Is his description of the way science advances, via paradigm shifts, applicable to international politics? Personally, I don't know, and I don't think Brooks does either. It's certainly possible, but a little study might be in order. On the other hand, Brooks has never been one to let facts get in the way of sweeping claims.

As the first example of change sweeping through the Arab world, Brooks cites Lebanon. Specifically, he quotes Walid Jumblatt saying that the American invasion of Iraq has sparked a process of change. For those of you not in the know about Lebanese politics, Jumblatt is a leader of the Druze community in Lebanon (the Druze follow a religion derived from Shia Islam). He leads the Progressive Socialist party, which is the Druze party in the Lebanese National Assembly, Lebanon's democratically elected legislature. In fact, Lebanon would be, by any measure, one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East. According to the CIA World Factbook, Lebanon has held "several successful elections" since 1991, when the civil war ended. While Syria certainly exerts considerable influence on Lebanese politics, it is worth noting that not all of that influence is military: for instance, last September the National Assembly voted by a margin of 96 to 29 to extend the term of the current president, Emile Lahoud, by three years, largely because Lahoud is strongly pro-Syrian. It should also be pointed out that Lebanon is not exactly representative of the Arab world: it is 39% Christian and also contains more Druze and Shia than Sunni Muslims. And while a number of opposition groups (largely Druze and Christian) want Syria out, there are also groups, most notably the main Shia parties, Hezbollah and the Amal movement, that support Syria's continued presence. (For information about Lebanese political parties, see here; for the Lebanese political scene, see here.) Furthermore, as the CIA World Factbook mentions, groups have been calling for Syrian withdrawal ever since Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000. And the fact is, the recent developments in Lebanon that Brooks mentions -- protests, people camping in the street, etc. -- have been largely prompted by the assassination of Rafik Hariri, not the Iraqi elections. Jumblatt is probably attempting to butter up the U.S. so the heat is kept on Syria to withdraw, and judging from Brooks's reaction, it's working pretty well.

The next place where things are changing is Palestine. Many Arafat cronies have been ejected from the Palestinian cabinet. "Fresh, more competent administrators are in", Brooks says. But are they more competent? Well, given that they have only just been inaugurated, I'd say it's too soon to tell. But there I go again, foolishly looking for evidence to back up the assertions I present as facts. Brooks also quotes Saeb Erakat as saying that "What you witnessed is the real democracy of the Palestinian people". Once again, Brooks fails to identify the man he's quoting, so I'll step into the breach: Erakat is the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, a Fatah (the party of President Abbas) member, and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. One might say that he has something of a vested interest in the recent elections being regarded as democratic, though given that turnout was less than 50%, "real democracy" may be an overstatement, especially considering Hamas's victories in recent local elections and the fact that Hamas boycotted the Palestinian presidential elections. However, Palestine is not quite as convincing an example as Lebanon, so Brooks doesn't spend nearly as much time on it.

The final concrete example is Iraq, where, as Brooks says, "there is actual politics going on". Well, there's also an actual insurgency going on, but Brooks ignores that. He also ignores the fact that the actual politics include things like the Kurds demanding that they be allowed to retain their militia. In fact, the Kurds are also demanding the city of Kirkuk and autonomy in turn for their support of any candidate for prime minister. Call me cynical, but it looks to me like the Kurds are making preparations for secession. "The leaders of different factions are jostling" Brooks says, neglecting to mention that this is true only for non-Sunni factions, since the Sunni factions are barely represented. Even more laughable is his characterization of the leaders as "more or less secular". The next prime minister of Iraq is almost certain to be Ibrahim Jafaari, a member of the Dawa party, which was originally founded with the goal of creating an Islamic state in Iraq. Last February, Jafaari championed the idea of making Islam the sole source of the constitution. I'd say Jafaari is considerably less secular: one might almost say not secular at all. (All information taken from www.juancole.com). Brooks's assertion that we should broadcast this politics to the entire Arab world is also questionable. Do we really want Sunni Arabs across the Middle East to watch as Kurds and Shiites representing the Shia clerical establishment negotiate on how much autonomy the Kurds are to get in return for their allowing Islamic law to be imposed on the rest of the country? Given that far more Sunni Arabs are participating in the insurgency than the new government, I'm not really sure that we should hold Iraq up as a role model.

Apparently, Brooks isn't that sure either, because he doesn't talk about Iraq for very long. Instead, he goes on to compare the situation in the Middle East now to Eastern Europe in the late 80's, with the democratization, or possible democratization, or democratization-related program activity, of Iraq being compared to the reunification of Germany. He cites a member of the Council of Foreign Relations as saying that American diplomacy is best when it pursues a "maximalist" approach, such as pushing for the reunification of Germany. And we all remember how American troops were greeted as liberators when they finally invaded East Germany over the protests of our pusillanimous so-called allies. Wait a minute, maybe this isn't such a good analogy after all. And I'm not even going to comment on the assertion of Claus Malzahn, a columnist for Der Spiegel, that "We Europeans always want to have the world from yesterday, whereas the Americans strive for the world of tomorrow."

Brooks finishes by saying that the Bush agenda is clearly dominating the globe. Is this supposed to be surprising? After all, Bush is the leader of the world's only superpower, which might have just as much, if not more, to do with the dominance of his agenda than the agenda's content, especially when we realize that by "dominating", Brooks means "everybody is talking about it". Well, to quote Mark Twain, "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it". When Bush meets with Putin, there is certainly a lot of talk about democratization. Do we expect to see democracy flowering in Russia any time soon? Not unless we have David Brooks-level naivete, we don't. When politicians gather in Ramallah, Brooks says, they talk about democratization. This is presumably a reference to the selection of the cabinet of the new Palestinian Prime Minister (since that's what he was discussing earlier), and is interesting because they're not actually talking about democratization. Maybe Brooks missed it, but that happened. There was an election, even. What the politicians were discussing was the constitution of the cabinet. Everything happened in a perfectly democratic way: a cabinet was submitted to the legislature, it was rejected, and a new one was selected, submitted, and improved. While this is new and important and deserves to be talked about, it doesn't really qualify as democratization. And to say "When there's an atrocity in Beirut, the possibility of freedom leaps to people's minds" is somewhat misleading, given that people have, in fact, been talking about freedom, and voting in relatively free elections, for a number of years now.

Of course, Brooks's relentless optimism may be justified. But even he is forced to acknowledge suicide bombings in Israel and Iraq at the bottom of his column. And really, the whole "Why not here?" argument is flawed. Consider, for instance, Eastern Europe. Western Europe did not suddenly become democratic in the mid-80's, leading the Eastern Europeans to rise up and demand democracy in their turn. The question "Why not here?" was one that many Eastern Europeans had asked before: see Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, for examples. The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe was far more complicated than a lot of people suddenly thinking "Wait a minute, how come they have democracy in Western Europe and we don't have it here?" The Ukraine example makes more sense but is far less applicable to the Arab world, where even in those countries (with the exception of Lebanon) that have elections there is no thought that the opposition leader could actually win. As for the idea that having elections in Iraq will suddenly make Arabs think "Hey, we could use some of that democracy stuff here", I don't buy it. It's not as if no Arab had heard of democracy before the Iraqi elections. Or as if there were no Muslim countries with elections: consider Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Bosnia, Albania, and Senegal, all of which have had democratic elections in the last ten years. Even Pakistan had (relatively) democratic elections prior to the Musharaff takeover. Millions of Muslims vote in India's elections. What has prevented the development of Arab democracies is not the inability of Arabs to believe that Arab democracy can exist, but consistent American support for Middle Eastern tyrants, because the tyrants were willing to negotiate with Israel or could provide oil. And the best way to promote democracy in the Middle East is to promote peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, thus obviating our need for the Mubaraks, who torture their pro-democracy reformers but are willing to make peace with Israel for a billion or so in military aid a year, and drastically reduce our oil dependency, thus reducing our need for the House of Saud and their ilk, who ruthlessly suppress democratic agitators but sell us oil on fairly reasonable terms. This would allow us to press for democracy in the Middle East using diplomacy without worrying that we would be undermining our two most important strategic goals there, ensuring the survival of Israel and a supply of oil sufficient to our needs. The fact is that Arabs have already asked "Why not here?", and come up with an answer: because the Americans won't let us.

And, of course, we must recognize that asking the question "Why not here?" can have a downside as well. After all, the editors of the Times must have asked themselves "Why not David Brooks here?", and look how that turned out. We must hope that they figure out their mistake soon.