The promotion of democracy in the Middle East remains a prominent part of American political rhetoric. But what are the US’s real motives? And what is at stake for Muslims? MUZAFFAR IQBAL explores the undercurrents of this new initiative...
The new American initiative to "promote" democracy in the Middle East was launched in December 2002, when Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, announced the creation of the "Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI)" as a programme designed to "promote political, economic, and educational development in the Middle East". The project has all the trappings of that peculiarly American preoccupation with the grandiose: it is a mirage of dreams that creates the illusion of providing visionary leadership to a world desperately in need of messiahs. Thus Bush Jr’s latest "vision thing" may sell well for the home crowd, who are particularly short of visions to inspire them in an election year, and it may even provide a smokescreen for the debacles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, at least for mildly critical bystanders, but outside the US it will be a hard sell. By June it may even fall flat, because at that time a new round of undemocratic actions will have started, to handpick a puppet regime in Iraq.
This latest "vision" of Bush’s would not ordinarily have been the topic of this article; American political leaders have a track record of such illusions, and they always vanish the next morning. This time, however, there is something more than delusion in this grandiose plan. There are several reasons why the Bush administration has selected this particular time to promote this new initiative, and the initiative itself has certain elements that are part of a long-term US strategy for the Muslim world. So it deserves to be examined.
The new "vision" comes when there is growing impatience and irritation among Americans about Iraq. Attacks against the US and other coalition troops continue without respite. The Iraqi resistance shows signs of sophisticated planning as well as commitment: most road bombs explode exactly when the US soldiers are passing through; attacks are generally aimed at selected targets; there have been many tactical attacks on the newly established internal Iraqi security structures, and so forth. In addition, despite efforts to provoke Sunni-Shia confrontations, at the moment Iraqis are achieving remarkable success in avoiding this trap.
Although the Iraqi resistance is now clearly a well-established phenomenon, there are clear reasons to believe that the US government is not yet ready to give up its aggression. The Americans have raised a new Iraqi police force, now numbering around 67,000, and there are 9,000 men in the border security force, although these two forces are of little use against the resistance. Their numbers reflect the high level of unemployment in Iraq, rather than a desire to serve American interests. The police are lightly-armed, do not have body armor or protected vehicles, and have suffered many attacks in recent months. The social and personal cost of serving the Americans is high; at least 600 Iraqis have been killed in attacks, and the recruiting process is not easy.
These developments in Iraq should be seen in the context of the impending presidential elections in the US, as well as the European attitude to the illegality of the invasion of Iraq (March 2003). The newly elected rulers of Spain, for instance, have already announced the withdrawal of their forces from Iraq. In Britain, the Hutton report’s conclusion, absolving the government of "sexing up" the threat from Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, has failed to dent the widespread scepticism about misuse of information. The public space is full of credible voices that are still casting doubt on the government’s ostensible reasons for going to war; the mythical weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have also still not been found. Hans Blix has recently said that politicians in the US and Britain acted more like salespeople than statesmen: Tony Blair’s "intention was to dramatise [the WMD], just as the vendors of some merchandise are trying to increase or exaggerate the importance of what they have."
Even without the damage caused by such comments, both Bush and Blair continue to face embarrassment, and the impact of this public discourse on the political climate in the US and Britain cannot be ignored. Perhaps it is to neutralise this political fallout that a bipartisan panel has been constituted by Bush to investigate intelligence failings in the run-up to the invasion. But it will not report its findings until 2005, well after the US presidential election. Unless there are damaging leaks from the panel or from some of the aggrieved intelligence agencies it may expose to criticism, the Bush administration will probably be able to use the investigative process to protect itself from further damage.
What cannot be ignored, however, is the financial burden of occupation. The Bush administration is asking for a record defense budget of just over $400 billion for fiscal year 2005 (which begins on 1 October). This does not include ongoing war costs, which are normally met by supplemental appropriations, likely to be around $50 billion. Because of the impending election, the supplement will not be sought in November, as is normally done, but in January next year. This means that the US armed forces will have to stretch their existing budgets to cover three extra months of operations. This may mean reduced supplies for an already stretched army, but the Bush administration is not so concerned about the soldiers on the ground as it is with deflecting attention from Iraq during Bush’s re-election campaign; hence the urgent need to create a "vision thing".
Intended to be widely promoted during the summer, especially around the time of the G8 summit in June 2004, this new vision of George Bush recalls the "Helsinki process" of the post-1975 period, which focused on human rights across Europe, especially in the then Soviet bloc. An indication of the political tenor of this move was given by Dick Cheney, US vice-president, at Davos: "Our forward strategy for freedom commits us to support those who work and sacrifice for reform across the greater Middle East. We call upon our democratic friends and allies everywhere, and in Europe in particular, to join us in this effort."
The visionary rhetoric of a "Greater Middle East" may overshadow past US failures and claims, such as those announced at the time of fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the failure of the Israel-Palestine ‘roadmap’, but it will not transform the Middle East; instead, it will merely attempt to fortify the existing crumbling order. That is probably the real reason for the new initiative.
Kept deliberately vague and pushed aggressively by various US officials, this new initiative may actually be a way of strengthening existing American puppets in the region. Speaking at the fourth annual conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (Washington DC), William J. Burns, assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs (in the US state department) claimed superciliously that a truism "which we as Americans ought to keep carefully in mind, is that enduring democratic change and economic modernization must be driven from within Arab societies… but we can help."
What exactly is this "help" that Americans are promising to the Arabs? What is their definition of the Middle East? Who will really "benefit" from this new initiative?
So far it is not clear which countries will come under this initiative. There are different versions, some including all Muslim states between Morocco and Afghanistan, others including the Central Asian republics. But regardless of the eventual boundary of the new American Middle East, a look at the map clearly indicates that almost the entire region is already effectively in American "hands". The region is dotted with repressive, autocratic regimes, directly or indirectly installed and kept in power by the US.
In the case of Pakistan, for instance, the US and its allies have shown great enthusiasm for the sham democracy of a military dictator; Britain has even indicated that it will support Pakistan’s return to the Commonwealth! Egypt, Jordan, Saudi-occupied Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Morocco, Algeria, and Qatar all have old, well-established US puppet-regimes. Afghanistan is being governed by a US green-card-holder as a fiefdom, and the new regime in Iraq will be yet another example of the "democracy" that the US wants in the region. So what does it mean to launch a new initiative?
Does it mean that these regimes are now being regarded as too insecure to bear the burden of the new American designs for the region? Does this indicate that behind the smokescreen of the new initiative, yet another invasion is being planned for Bush’s next term? If one considers the logistic arrangements being made for a full-scale occupation force of around 100,000 troops in Iraq for at least the next three years, it certainly seems so. This force will be "invited" by the new, hand-picked regime to stay in Iraq at the four permanent military bases that are now being constructed. This not only implies a continued US presence in the region for some decades but also, more ominously, a possible invasion of the only state in the region that has not succumbed to the US: Islamic Iran (Syria does not really count, because it is more than willing to submit when the right price is paid). By stationing such a large number of troops in Iraq, the US will have surrounded Islamic Iran on every side.
There are several reasons for this preoccupation of the US with Islamic Iran: it has never really recovered from its humiliation there. President after president has kept alive the memory of the American hostages and of the fall of the Shah. Second, the presence of a government that came into existence as the result of a revolution that was inspired by Islam means that Islam has proven itself to be a vibrant political force in the contemporary world. The Islamic Revolution in Iran may not have achieved all its goals, but it remains a clear testimony to the applicability of Islamic political ethics, priorities and agendas in a world in which the US would prefer to see only one agenda in action: its own. Furthermore, Islamic Iran poses a direct threat to Israel. This is one of the key reasons for the US’s long-term animosity toward Islamic Iran. This is why it had Saddam Hussein attack Iran shortly after the Revolution (1979). In a remorseless acknowledgment of US policy, Richard Nixon stated in his book, Seize the Moment (1992), that "many observers in retrospect condemn U.S. policy during the Iran-Iraq war. They express shock that we alternately helped one side and then the other depending on the tide of battle. They are only partly right. Our interests demanded that neither side emerge as a clear-cut victor, and the Reagan administration acted correctly in playing both sides." The fact that millions of human lives were lost during this eight-year war obviously has no weight with with this morally bankrupt leadership.
Thus, whatever the talk in Washington about "democratization" of the Middle East, the stated goals of this initiative have no validity; ground realities point to something else entirely. Whether or not this analysis is correct can be judged from the fact that the US has never supported a genuine democracy anywhere in the world. After all, if Algeria could be turned into a killing field and Iraq prevented from developing a fully-functioning, independent and democratic government, and Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Oman and a host of other states remain oppressive oligarchies with active US support, what reason is there to believe that the new Middle East Initiative is really seriously concerned with democracy, or even with US-style pseudo-democracy?