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Wednesday, April 14, 2004

DEMOCRATIC PROSPECTS IN IRAQ AND THE MIDDLE EAST (Final Version): #4 of an 8-article series

This, the 4th article in the series, looks directly at the compelling need for the US and its allies to promote democratic and economic changes in the Arab status-quo . . . dominated by 21 dictatorial regimes and failed economies save for the tiny, oil-rich Persian Gulf States, with the despotisms and their winner-take-all politics (not to mention the rampant corruption and nepotism) varying only in the degree of repression and use of brutal force, as well as their foreign policy alignment with or against the US and the West. Clerical-fascist Iran, a country of 70 million where a diehard group of militant Shiite leaders rules in a repressive manner despite the elected president and parliament --- despite, for that matter, a survey carried out in 2002 that showed nearly 90% of the population critical of the clerical regime --- is another major problem country for the US. Two of these states, Iran and Syria, are pursuing WMD programs with vigor. Libya's wacky leader, Khadaffi --- whose pronoucements often remind you of Daffy Duck's in the Loony Tunes cartoons (even the same half-hysterical sputterings) --- has recently renounced his programs and opened up to international inspections.

Meanwhile, both Syria and Iran seem to be supporting a variety of terrorist movements . . . no doubt some inside Iraq itself right now.

Post-Saddamite Iraq, now in transition --- experiencing a turbulent period that has to be expected to persist the closer the June 30th deadline of transferring sovereignty to a care-taking transitional government there, itself to run the first democratic elections next January --- is the pivot here. If a consensual, constitutional government can be created there with growing security and economic prospects, then the spillovers onto the rest of the Middle East will be of great momentum, something Tony Blair agrees as much with as George Bush. As the British Prime Minister noted in an article published earlier this week in London,

"If we succeed -- if Iraq becomes a sovereign state, governed democratically by the Iraqi people; the wealth of that potentially rich country, their wealth; the oil, their oil; the police state replaced by the rule of law and respect for human rights -- imagine the blow dealt to the poisonous propaganda of the extremists. Imagine the propulsion toward change it would inaugurate all over the Middle East."


So, to rephrase Tony Blair's statement as a query, what are the prospects of democratic change in Iraq and the larger Arab world succeeding?

That key query is precisely what the next article in the mini-series will grapple with. If need be --- if the argument there requires more space --- the series will be extended to yet a sixth article.

Here, in this article, our task is more focused. Given the spun-out nature of this argument over the last two weeks, never mind its complexities and ramifying analysis, it seems advisable to help remind faithful buggy visitors what its pivotal points so far amount to: in particular, why it's essential that the US and its allies in Iraq persist in the campaign to initiate sweeping changes, political and economic, in the dangerous Middle East status-quo. As things now stand in the 21 Arab dictatorships, they're a fertile breeding ground --- amid a burgeoning population explosion, half the 300 million Arab peoples under the age of 15, with half of all Arab men in their late teens and early twenties unemployed, no prospects at all --- for future jihad-obsessed recruitment to Islamist terrorism.

Something has to be done to change that status quo. On their own, the Arab despots themselves are unwilling to initiate the needed drastic reforms --- on the contrary. Right now, only the US, along with its democratic allies in tansitional Iraq --- from Japan, Australia, South Korea, and Mongolia (yes, democratic) in Asia to 20 of our 25 NATO allies --- have the power to begin nudging change of the sort that Prime Minister Blair endorses in his statement.



(i.) What Changes in US Policy?

American foreign policy, as the first article in the series documented, has undergone a radical shift the last few months, visible in outline form even before that, though, as part of the effort to topple Saddamite Iraq and seek to promote there the first consensual constitutional government in the Middle East, with guarantees of respect for human and civil liberties . . . including a parliament, the right to form political parties, a new constitutionally loyal military and police force, a free media, and the beginning of a rule of law.

A rule of law, as the second and third articles on democratic government noted, entails fair and equal treatment of all the citizenry of the country, however powerful or humble of whatever their ethnicity and religion; a politically independent system of courts, prosecutors, and lawyers --- all of whom have to be trained in a rule of law; and the promotion of transparency in political and administrative life, including a crackdown on corruption and nepotism . . . rife in Arab history and culture, and a major cause of the economic backwardness of the Arab peoples.


(ii.) Why The Changes?

The simplest answer: the war on terrorism. In particular, the 9/11 massacres underscored, by a variety of evidence cited in the earlier articles, how widespread the support for militant Islamist fundamentalism in the Arab countries and wider Muslim world happens to be . . . including admiration for bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Something needs to be done to reverse this support. In the Bush administration, the key premise behind this radically new US policy is the close connection in the Arab and wider Muslim world --- brought out by survey data in different polls over the last 2.5 years --- between a country's degree of autocracy and economic failure, on one side, and support for militant fundamentalist Islam and terrorism in the population. As the recent Pew Survey of Global Attitudes showed, a large majority or plurality in the Muslim countries surveyed except in democratic and secular Turkey admired bin Laden.


(iii.) More Evidence of the Need for Change

There is other survey evidence too. A secret Saudi poll, administered shortly after 9/11 and leaked to the western media, found that 95% of Saudi men between 25 and 41 years of age admired bin Laden. That was the fall of 2001. A few months later, a Gallup Poll taken in 9 Arab countries showed that 60% of those queried denied that Muslims had even been involved in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. In September 2002 --- a good year after 9/11 --- a Gallup poll in Egypt found that a majority of the people continued to deny that Muslims had carried out the terrorist attacks.

Turkey, to repeat, is the big exception. Note, however, the difference in the support for bin Laden in Morocco as opposed to Jordan, never mind Pakistan (too bad other Muslim and Arab countries weren't surveyed). No surprise. As we'll see, Morocco --- a moderate despotism --- has better democratic prospects than almost all the other Arab countries.


(i.) Amid Political and Economic Failure, the Dictators Scramble To Save Their Rule and Corruption

The problem of widespread support for militant terrorists and radical Islamist spokesmen is aggravated by the double-dealing nature of the existing despotic dictatorships, even those like Egypt allied with the US and receiving annually a payment of over $2 billion a year for 2.5 decades now. The autocrats aren't fools. They know that they face alienated and angry populations, full of young men who are either unemployed or struggle on with doubtful prospects. Take Algeria, which just held elections for the presidency year since the late 1970s. As
earlier buggy articles this last fall and winter tried to show, the dictators and their ultimate prop --- the secret police and the threat or use of force against dissidents who challenge the , with a restricted list of opposition permitted. As the New York Times observed:

"There remains an Islamist reservoir in the heart of this society that could be reactivated," says Hamida Ayachi, an Algerian journalist who has written extensively about the movement. As is the case in so many Arab countries, nearly three-quarters of Algeria's population is under the age of 30 and half of those below the age of 25 are unemployed. The Islamist movement easily influences them.


(ii.) Foreign-Generated Humiliation and Resentment

Note something else here, no less important as a source of support for radical fundamentalisms.

The awareness of failure and weakness in the Arab world compared to others --- a growing awareness of Arab backwardness, compounded by repeated defeats in war by tiny Israel (Jews traditionally a subservient dhimmi people in Islam, obliged to pay annual tribute to the Muslim rulers and to show deference to Islam and Muslims in person) --- has further unhinged the Arab masses, creating a pervasive sense of angry, bewildered humiliation. The faithful in Islam, remember, are supposed to be rewarded by their deity --- politically and otherwise, Islam itself tied to a conquering Arab imperium from the very start . . . one Christian, Persian, and pagan country and region after another falling swiftly to victorious Arab warriors in just a handful of decades in the 7th and early 8th centuries. Those victories and a sense of a superior civilization solidified the early Muslim conviction of having the true faith.

All the more puzzling, then, the growing backwardness, the foreign rule by Europeans until after WWI and WWII, and the constant defeats ever since at the hands of the Israelis. Why the raw, raging humiliation of it all --- the relentless failures of Dar al-Islam, where peace and prosperity and the rule of the righteous are supposed to prevail, in its struggle with the rest of the world . . . Dar al-Harb, the territories of the unbelievers, the impure, and constant warfare?

Once more, the answer is supplied by militant fundamentalisms.

It's all the foreign devils, conspiratorial cabals of all-powerful Jews, the CIA, the Pentagon, the Bush administration, the US, and the wider West, and at times . . . well, depending on local conditions, the list can run on. We'll clarify the list in a moment or two. In particular, we'll see how convenient the scapegoating of alien demons has turned out to be for the Arab dictators, always concerned to head off challenges and maintain their autocratic rule and extravagantly lucrative fleecing of the masses.


(iii.) Enter the Dictators' Use of Militant Fundamentalism

If political opposition of a legal sort were permitted in Arab countries, militant fundamentalist movements might not have attracted such widespread support. Legal opposition isn't permitted. Arab politics, now and historically, is a matter of winner-take-all. So, in the vacuum, what to do with the growing number of angry, frustrated masses? Enter the dictators' double-dealing game. Almost everywhere in the Arab world save in totalitarian Iraq under Saddam, they have sought to exploit the fundamentalist appeal to the dislocated masses for their own self-serving purposes . . . a means of neutralizing popular disillusion and resentments by channeling the appeal outward, onto foreign devils.

The catch for the leaders and militant agitators of the fundamentalist movements? Tersely put, they have to avoid any challenge, direct or indirect, to existing dictatorial rule.

What happens if fundamentalist militants seek to ignore these limits --- if they challenge the rule, even without resort to violence?

By now, the evidence here is overwhelming. Any such challenge has led to its swift and brutal destruction by Arab secret police and other security forces, especially if Islamist agitators ever tried violence --- the case especially in Baathist Syria in the 1980s and in the 1990s in Egypt and Algeria . . . the latter involving a prolonged war with fanatical kill-crazy militants, now essentially ended in their crushing defeat. [More recently, Tunisia and Morocco and Saudi Arabia have experienced Al Qaeda-like attacks the last two years as well, launched mainly from outside these countries, but obviously with inside help. Not surprisingly, given their urgent desire to survive, the dictators have sought to cooperate closely with the US in the war on terrorism; this seems to be the case even in Saudi Arabia the last year or so.]


(iv.) The Upshot?

To see these points clearly, consider in detail what the Arab dictators --- most of them not paranoid simpletons themselves --- have gotten out of the deal with Islamist spokesmen and agitators. Their benefits are a bountiful trio:

  • First, over the last decade or so, any Arab fundamentalist movements that have survived and been able to attract more and more followers in Arab countries fully understand the limits of what they can say or do in domestic politics. Small wonder. Any effort to overstep the boundaries has been disastrous for such over-reaching radicals: the leaders or terrorist members are hunted down, tortured, jailed, or killed. No habeas corpus there; just lots of corpus delectus.

  • Next, the ability of the fundamentalists to mobilize local support among the disillusioned masses, full of resentments and anger, helps stabilize the domestic scene. It gives the illusion that some form of mental balm for their psychic dislocations, however simplistic and mirage-laden, is at hand --- a flight into a purified revivalist Islam, with hopes for some sort of miracle-working. Call it the opium of the masses, Arab style. And --- as a further twist --- to the extent that Islamist movements have provided certain social services and a new sense of community and meaning for the poor, the unemployed, the distraught, and the half-deranged, they further help compensate for the shoddy social services and rife corruption that mark almost all the Arab dictatorships.

Not that this would be enough by itself to stabilize the domestic scene. Something else is needed, in particular, third and finally, . . .

  • Even as the surviving radical Islamist spokesmen and leaders have carefully avoided any challenge to the dictators at home, they have been encouraged to direct their agitation and propaganda toward alleged outside enemies --- the new foreign devils, onto which raging fantasies of power and revenge are projected in paranoid manner --- as responsible for the major ills of Arab life: its economic and technological backwardness, autocratic rule, rampant corruption and nepotism, foreign policy weakness, and frustrations galore.

Demonized in conspiratorial paranoid fashion --- in newspapers, on radio and TV, in movies and weekly sermons --- the new turnip-ghost fiends are the usual suspects, well known to outsiders by now: World Jewry, Israel, the US, and now and then the West, Hindu India, and globalizing capitalism.

In radical Islamist demonology --- whatever differences might separate various Islamist movements, including Shiite or Sunni or Wahhabi --- all these fantasized fiends are seen as being in alleged cahoots, operating secretively, with diabolical cunning, to attack and destroy Islam. All of them have to be fought against tooth-and-nail. The infidels are on the warpath. Jihad is essential; terrorism too. Only with the demonized fiends' inevitable defeat will a purified Islam be ensured, along with a return to Islamic glory, power, and riches world-wide . . . which after all are supposed to be the just rewards on this earth for the true-believers.

(v.) The Psychic Roots Here

Such views, needless to add, mirror paranoid fantasies of rage and a rippling urge for destruction and revenge projected onto others . . . a common reaction of the mentally unhinged, full of jarring frustrations and bewilderment; and all the more easy for radical Islamists to propagate in societies whose literacy level is the worst in the world, not to forget all the state-controlled and censored media that severely restrict counter-vailing discourse and imagery. One result has been particularly nasty: everywhere in the Middle East, racist anti-Semitism of the Nazi sort --- historically absent from Arab life until recently --- now rages as part of popular culture, an everyday commonplace. Regularly, worse in some countries than elsewhere, Arab TV displays the most outrageous forms of vicious anti-Semitic dramas, often in dozens of serialized episodes, where Jews are depicted as cannibals and animal-like demons preying on innocent little children --- even killing them for their blood --- and as responsible for Arab failures, weakness, and backwardness.

In the meantime, for the newly mobilized faithful, there is another way to vent the rippling urge for revenge against the foreign demons: rally to and celebrate the glories of Arab strongmen, however murderous, brutal, or lunatic, who seek to stand up to the powerful global cabal of Jews, Israel, and the US. Hence the enthusiasm, brought out in the Pew and Saudi surveys mentioned earlier or in countless Arab media reports, for Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, Yasser Arafat, the firebrands who lead Hezbollah or Hamas or Islamic Jihad. By the same token, true believers will not be deceived by Western newspaper accounts that Muslims themselves were behind 9/11's massacres. No, it's all a lie, part of the larger global conspiracy. Seems preposterous? Sure . . . to us. Not to the Arab masses.

As the Gallup poll in February 2002 found, 60% of the population in 9 Arab countries --- nearly two out of three Arabs --- refused to believe that Muslims had even been involved in the terrorist attacks.



The Dictators Con Game Analyzed From a US Perspective

The huge challenge caused by the spread of radical fundamentalism, its conspiratorial paranoid projections onto foreign devils --- the USA at the top of the list --- and the lavish use of the state-controlled Arab propaganda all combine to underpin a dangerous, ever expanding pool of potential terrorist recruits for radical Islamist networks like Al Qaeda. Doubly so, note quickly, for demographic reasons: half the 300 million Arab peoples are under the age of 15. There will be about 450 - 500 million of them in another two decades or so. Right now, unemployment is rampant in the Arab countries --- 20-30% on an average for men alone; and much higher for young men.

The significance of all this for Americans and our allies? It doesn't take crystal-ball powers of divination to foresee what will happen if, as this population explosion persists, the gospel of hate --- Prime Minister Tony Blair's apt description this last week for radical Islamist agitation and propaganda --- continues itself to attract followers among the angry disillusioned masses.

As one recent journalistic account put it recently about the dictators' use of fundamentalist paranoia and its externalized focus on fantasized foreign devils :

The news and information outlets of those [Arab] countries, most of which are state-dominated or government-controlled, have fueled anti-American fury, with no strategic attempts on the U.S. side to counter the constant negative messages. Surveys of the Arabic-language media, especially outlets controlled or censored by governments supported or defended by the United States, show just how destructive key Arab governments have been in Washington's all-but-vain efforts to counter terrorist propaganda.

Americans would know little if anything about how "moderate" Arab regimes are whipping up hostile public opinion were it not for a small, Washington-based foundation called the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which has earned widespread respect for its world-class translations from Arabic into English. With little or no editorial comment, MEMRI publishes the translations in English for public use


Further Evidence of the Need for Sweeping Change in the Arab World

For those still in doubt about the need for outside countries like the US to try instigating sweeping changes in the Arab political and economic status quo --- remember, the US alone having the power and influence to press home the changes, supported by a large coalition in Iraq of democratic allies from Japan, South Korea, and Australia in Asia Pacific to 19 NATO countries in Europe ---consider, by way of persuasive nudging, a couple of more big pieces of hard evidence:

(i.) Loony Egyptian Conspiratorial Obsessions and Paranoid Projections

MEMRI's latest survey of Al-Ahram newspapers --- which are controlled by the Egyptian government, and whose chief editor is a government appointee who simultaneously chairs the Arab Journalists Association in the Middle East --- documents in detail the rippling, Nazi-like racist propaganda that infects the country's media. Repeatedly, over the years, Al-Ahram papers liken the US to Nazi Germany; claim the US purposefully targeted Afghan women and children in the war against the Taliban; support suicidal terrorism with enthusiasm; and blame the CIA and the Israelis for introducing AIDS into Africa. Josef Goebbels, the chief Nazi propagandist in the Hitlerian regime, would be proud of his Arab successors . . . who, to repeat, aren't confined to Al Ahram in Egypt, let alone elsewhere in the Arab world. Egyptian TV recently featured a lengthy TV drama-series right out of Nazi propaganda, as did Syria.

As we've said, such vile racism and conspiratorial bug-in-the-ear fantasies are rampant on the Arab street and in even educated circles. Those who can stomach the extravagantly vicious political cartoons that illustrate Al-Ahram's crazed paranoid obsessions will find a link to them at the bottom of the MEMRI survey.


(ii.) The Saudi Twist

In Saudi Arabia, the Mafioso-like family of 4000 princes who have squandered trillions of dollars worth of oil revenue since the early 1970s --- the country's per capita income about a third to a half of what it once was in 1980 and unemployment among men around 25% --- have gone even farther in this double-dealing game. They have actively funded and encouraged Al Qaeda and related Sunni extremism. More specifically, using their lavish oil revenues to gain an aura of religious legitimacy, the thuggish rulers have promoted extremist Wahhabi Islam --- a Saudi specialty full of racism, misogyny, hatred of Christians, and hatred of Shiite Muslims --- in both their educational system and through cultural and educational outlets all over the world. These exports of militant and hateful fundamentalism have had a baleful impact around the world.

In Muslim countries like Pakistan --- where thousands of madrassa-schools have systematically indoctrinated local youth for decades --- the Saudi propaganda and oil money have created a legion of future jihad-robots. In West Europe, they have helped promote a growing antagonism among young Muslims toward the secular societies around them. And we know that Saudi money --- whether as bribes or other forms of financial support --- helped bin Laden and Al Qaeda strengthen their global network.


All of Which Brings Us Back to the Key Question:

By now, that question should be pulsating with alert high-energy in your thinking: what are the prospects that the democratic transition in Iraq will succeed, and --- as a result of direct and indirect spillovers --- initiate the drastic changes in the failed and dangerous Arab status quo that are needed to yank the 21 Arab dicatorships into the modern world . . . not to mention help the democratic yearnings of the Iranian people come to fruition too?

Despite all the uncertainties here, we will be in a position in the next article (or two of them, if need be) to focus directly on a convincing argument that sorts out the pros and cons.