Nascent Democracy In The Middle East

One of the strategic cornerstones and fundamental rationales of the Bush decision to invade Iraq has been the plan to plant and cultivate the seed of democracy in the heart of the Mideast. It is argued that giving democratic freedoms an opportunity to spread to the surrounding populations will effect lasting change in the Arab world. Many of those who support the war see this as our only hope of ending the Islamic terrorist threat. Those who are against the war disagree with this approach, as do some who have supported the war for other reasons. This seeding of democracy is a pivotal argument, since Kerry does not agree with this strategy and this alone is a definitive difference between him and President Bush.

An article by Jackson Diehl in yesterday’s WaPo (Washington Post) addresses the substance of this issue.

The unpopularity of the Bush administration and the predictable resistance from the dictatorships of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are cited as proof that the region’s hoped-for “transformation” is going nowhere.

Despite that skepticism, both here and abroad, there is evidence that Bush’s strategy is showing signs of success.

And yet, the process started at the Sea Island summit of Group of Eight countries in June is gaining some traction — sometimes to the surprise of the administration’s own skeptics. A foreign ministers’ meeting in New York two weeks ago produced agreement that the first “Forum for the Future” among Middle Eastern and G-8 governments to discuss political and economic liberalization will take place in December. Morocco volunteered to host it, and a handful of other Arab governments, including Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen, have embraced pieces of the process.

More importantly, grassroots efforts are gaining traction in the Middle East and that is where real change comes from.

More intriguingly, independent human rights groups and pro-democracy movements around the region are continuing to sprout, gather and issue manifestos — all in the name of supporting the intergovernmental discussions. An independent human rights group appeared in Syria this month; Saudi women organized a movement to demand the right to vote in upcoming municipal elections. On the same day that the Egyptian foreign minister belittled what is now called the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) in an interview with The Post, an unprecedented alliance of opposition parties and citizens’ groups issued a platform in Cairo calling for the lifting of emergency laws, freedom of the press and direct, multi-candidate elections for president.

Diehl then makes an important observation, one that is singularly dependant on a consistent U.S. policy through the election and for the next four years, one that argues for the importance of the “Bush doctrine.”

Despite all the defiant rhetoric, Egyptian and Saudi police, it turns out, are hesitant to pummel people who say they are responding to the president of the United States.

Remarkable. Like or hate him, it seems that even the intransigent regimes of the Middle East have to respect his stance, and with that respect comes an opening for a new voice in Middle East society and politics. Observers are beginning to notice.

“A voice is beginning to emerge that wasn’t there before,” says Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, who attended a meeting of Western and Middle Eastern civil society groups alongside the recent foreign ministers’ gathering. “Most of these people are unknown, they are faceless, but there are a surprising number of them, and the number is growing. They see that they have an opening, and they want to take advantage of it.”

And the effort is gaining momentum.

A “civil society dialogue” was explicitly built into the Forum for the Future process agreed to by the G-8 and Muslim governments, along with a forum for private business. Acting under that cover, more than 40 representatives of civil society groups from across the Middle East as well as from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey gathered in Beirut early last month to consider goals and strategy. They chose 10 representatives to travel to New York and deliver a statement to the foreign ministers’ meeting; along with the businessmen, they will have their own tent at the upcoming Morocco event. The New York group included activists from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan and Yemen.

John Kerry calls for summit meetings to solve the problems of Iraq and the Middle East. Well summits that will actually effect the real issues that need addressing are beginning to occur, all under the auspices and cover of the “Bush doctrine.” The most extraordinary indicator of how far this process has gone is not just the remarkable statement read to the foreign minister’s meeting in New York, but who it was that presented that declaration.

Their statement, read aloud to Secretary of State Colin Powell and two dozen other foreign ministers by Noha Mikawi, an Egyptian woman, was wonderfully bold — and energized a previously skeptical Powell. “We are here as individuals,” Mikawi said, “women and men who believe in the rule of law, an independent judiciary to protect it, an active and freely elected parliament to enact laws, an accountable, freely elected government to carry them through, and in meaningful human rights, including foremost the freedom of expression.”

“We do not claim to represent our societies: only a free vote will,” the statement said. “What we can confidently claim to represent is a pressing voice in our societies that calls for a profound, nonviolent change at all levels.” Each state, it said, should have “set goals and clear milestones for reform within a foreseeable time plan.” As for their own mission, the activists said, “what civil society can provide . . . is the power to pressure reluctant governments (and reluctant fellow citizens), keeping a watchful eye on the processes of and progress towards reform.”

Are these budding democratic efforts fragile? Indeed they are. Do they buck the tide of pessimism and disbelief, both here and in the Middle East? Indeed they do. When Secretary of State Colin Powell is energized by what he sees and hears there is hope that even the recalcitrant State Department will stop resisting this nascent democratic movement and seek ways to support Bush’s strategic vision.

That is why this election is so crucial. Continuity of vision and steadfastness of purpose from the U.S. and its leadership is the only hope and protection these budding purveyors of freedom and democracy posses. That will not continue with John Kerry. The future of the Middle East is not in Paris or Bonn, or even in the futile pronouncements of the UN. It is also not with the Mullahs and their radical religious pronouncements or the governments that support and embolden them. No, it is with the people of the Middle East who, when given a chance to have their voice heard, speak with remarkable vision and clarity.

No. Iraq was not the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. It was the right decision taken at a nexus point in modern human history and the blood of those who have died in the cause of liberty waters the seeds of freedom that have begun to sprout throughout the region. Shakespeare said it well in Julius Caesar.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

There are two floods trying to rise: radical Islamic terrorism and radical Islamic freedom and democracy. It is time to choose which we will support and which we fight against.