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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

U.S. in the Middle East: "Kiss of Death"?

Starting with this comment by Prasad and the subsequent discussion we had over dinner, I've been reconsidering the neo-con project of remaking the Middle East. I'm beginning to admit that it may not be completely w/o merit.

This Slate opinion piece, which I've left sitting in my inbox for the past two weeks, touches on some of these themes:

The Kiss of Death
Why do Arab reformers claim U.S. support is hurting them?
By Lee Smith
Posted Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004, at 2:26 PM PT

Here's an excerpt, which includes a (2ndhand) quote from Naghib Mafouz:

Raymond Stock, a longtime Cairo resident and biographer and translator of Naguib Mahfouz, remembers a night he spent with the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and others when the subject of U.S. support for democratic reforms came up, and many at the table said they wished America would shut up. "Mahfouz said, 'What's wrong if the Americans want us to have democracy? Sometimes our interests can coincide.' "

Stock explains that in the Arab world "the idea of democracy has never been divorced from the West. The problem is that many people who call for democracy don't really want it. They want their own voices heard, and it stops there. This is true of Arab nationalists and Islamists. If standard democratic institutions are built, there will be an opportunity for all voices to be heard and participate."

Those institutions can't be built without external pressures, and right now the United States is the only nation capable of exerting enough force to make it happen and willing to do so. "Asking the Arab world to reform," says the Syrian intellectual Ammar Abdulhamid, "is dabbling with its innermost political life." That is to say, any real reform in the Arab world will have to go well beyond cosmetic changes and address the political, economic, and social structures that sustain Arab regimes and preserve the status quo. Clearly, the region's governments won't do that work if they're not compelled to do so.

PS: Slate's columns are great b/c they're heavily hyperlinked. The column above cites a Fareed Zakaria column, and includes a link to Obviously, lots to read in the archives there. (Probably should add his The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad to the reading list.

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