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Middle East 2007
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Two models of democratization
in the Middle East

Richard Falk, TFF Associate


September 26, 2007

The recent political experience of the Middle East has highlighted two distinct, quite contradictory approaches to the establishment and deepening of democracy. These two models can be compared and evaluated by examining the political development of Iraq and Turkey in these early years of the 21st century. It is obvious that the character and evolution of the two countries is radically different in certain respects: Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictatorship that embarked upon failed wars with its neighbors, whose society had been subjected to punishing sanctions between 1990 and 2003, and whose territory had been subsequently invaded and occupied by foreign forces under the principal leadership of the United States.

Turkey has had an elected political leadership ever since the republic was established in 1923 that has rested on a system of constitutional government, although beset by periodic military coups. As a result, the quality of its democracy has been flawed by the existence of a so-called ‘deep state’ associated with the Turkish Armed Forces that claimed for itself the role of guardian of Kemal Ataturk’s conception of the Turkish state and by deep encroachments by governing authorities on the human rights of the religiously observant, minorities, and political dissenters.

In view of such dramatic differences, not even taking account of vast historical differences as well as ethnic disparities, what makes these states suitable as models of comparison with respect to varying pathways to democratization?

The short answer is that these two countries most vividly illustrate the problematic character of ‘imposed democracy’ and the contrasting hopeful potential of ‘spontaneous democracy,’ or more accurately, democratization-from-within. These distinctions are meant to highlight a crucial difference, but should not be viewed in absolute terms.

In this regard, concretely, many, if not most, in Iraq initially welcomed a political outcome that overthrew the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, although deeply divided about an American-led intervention and generally opposed to an American-managed occupation. That is, there were elements of democratization-from-within that lent support to regime change in Iraq, and the elections of an Iraqi government in 2005, although stage-managed by the American occupying force did exhibit a genuine impulse by many people in Iraq (although mainly not, the Sunni minority) to exercise the chief prerogative of citizens through the free and fair election of political leaders.

But the invasion, followed by an abusive occupation, also unleashed parallel forces of national resistance and internal sectarian strife, which increasingly overwhelmed whatever indigenous democratic tendencies were on display in Iraq. The American military presence in Iraq also attracted as a magnet for al-Qaeda operatives in the wider Arab world. Possibly, but it is nothing more than speculation, had the occupation been handled more humanely and effectively, with far greater deference to Iraqi dynamics of self-determination, this anti-democratizing backlash might have been avoided, or at least minimized.

But the notion that an Iraqi living in exile, Ahmed Chalabi, with no political base in the country, could be groomed in Washington to take over the government was never more than an American fantasy, and a costly one when an early attempt was made to endow it with reality.

In an opposite sense in Turkey’s case, to the extent that democratic reforms were prompted by Ankara’s efforts to qualify for membership in the European Union there were elements of democratization-from-without in the period between 2002 and 2007. It is important, however, to note that the EU influence was always persuasive, never coercive, and that the Turkish accommodation to EU pressures was entirely voluntary at every stage. It may even be that the AKP leadership exaggerated the EU pressures for reforms, especially those involving the civilianization of government and some limitations placed on the political role of the military, so as not to be perceived in Turkey as itself directly challenging the privileged position of the Turkish Armed Forces.

This American effort to react to the 9/11 attacks by coercively promoting democratization around the world, but especially in the Middle East, was articulated by its leaders as the cornerstone of American counter-terrorist policy. It was given its most conceptual expression in a book by two leading neoconservatives, Richard Perle and David Frum, An End to Evil: How to Win the War Against Terror (2003), who were very influential in shaping the foreign policy of the Bush presidency.

It was certainly true that prior to Bush and 9/11, Bill Clinton supported the ideological promotion of democracy in the aftermath of the Cold War, but he did so without challenging the self-determination of sovereign states and without adopting a grand strategy built around the attainment of American hegemony in the Middle East. What distinguished the Bush approach was its resolve to militarize the promotion of democracy to the extent necessary, and its unabashed, although unacknowledged, pursuit of undisclosed geopolitical goals such as oil, counter-proliferation, military bases.

It was these undisclosed goals that accounted for the upsurge of suspicion and opposition around the world directed at American foreign policy. This upsurge became so prevalent that respected opinion polls in recent years have registered the astonishing results that George W. Bush was less popular than Osama Bin Laden in the Middle East, or that the United States was more feared in Europe and elsewhere than al-Qaeda.

On an abstract level there was nothing objectionable about the ideas being endorsed by American leaders. In his Second Inaugural Address given after being reelected in 2004, President Bush stressed the theme of democratization as if it were purely an expression of American idealism. He explained that in a post-9/11 world, “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth.” From this Bush concluded that “ is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

He even went on to utter reassuring words about self-determination and national sovereignty: “This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen…And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.”

Such a perspective was given regional expression most clearly in a June 2005 speech given by the American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Cairo. In a passage frequently quoted, Rice said on that occasion, “[f]or sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” Although her emphasis was regional, the underlying vision was universal: “We should all look to a future when every government respects the will of its citizens—because the ideal of democracy is universal.”

What was left unsaid by both Bush and Rice, but vital to an appreciation of what was being proposed and acted upon, was that support for democratization was conditional on its compatibility with American strategic goals, and when these strategic goals were strong enough, then respect for self-determination would be overridden by military intervention as in Iraq. Perhaps, no circumstance more clearly revealed the disconnect between the abstract championship of democracy and the unwillingness to live with its results than the reaction of Washington to the stunning victory of Hamas in 2006 elections declared completely free by a highly respected international team of monitors.

Such diplomatic maneuvering is deceptive and dangerous. It tends toward failure because it overestimates the capacity of military superiority to impose a political solution on an unwilling society. The United States should have learned this lesson decades ago in Vietnam when its total battlefield dominance still produced a costly defeat due to the resilient nationalism of the Vietnamese people who wanted self-determination far more than they wanted American-style democracy, particularly democracy-from-without.

In the Middle East, and elsewhere in the Third World, there exists a deep historically conditioned distrust of foreigners that derives from memories of colonial rule, and it rises up whenever the advocates of military intervention purport to be engaged in a benevolent effort to rescue a people from oppressive rule. Almost every government, including those with a genuine democratic outlook, are led by ‘realists’ who are extremely reluctant to spill the blood of their citizens or expend major resources unless the self-interest of their own country is strongly at stake.

The ratio of forces in the post-colonial world is such that the internal political strength of nationalism can after prolonged struggle generally prevail over even a vastly superior invading force. There is no doubt that the invading force can inflict great damage, cause mass death and devastation, a gigantic outflow of refugees, but it is unable to establish the conditions for stable government, much less democracy. Iraq exemplifies this pattern, and should operate as a definitive demonstration that the military promotion of democracy-from-without, if not a living contradiction, is certainly a tragically flawed political project.

In sharp contrast is the approach taken to democratization in Turkey over the last several years. As suggested, Turkish governmental initiatives, while certainly motivated in part by external goals, enjoyed grassroots credibility because they seemed entirely driven by internal forces and of benefit to the country. The credibility of the AKP leadership was undoubtedly enhanced by its pragmatic style of not pushing too hard on sensitive issues, by its remarkable success in encouraging robust private sector capitalism, by its creative approach to solving long smoldering problems (Kurdish rights, Cyprus conflict), by its strong rapport with ordinary Turkish citizens throughout the country, and possibly most important, by its commitment to realizing the full potential of Turkey as an independent, sovereign state.

From the perspective of deepening Turkish democracy this meant making the benefits of citizenship more available to religiously observant women who wear headscarves and to national minorities and the Eastern region of the country, as well as to improve the overall protection of human rights for all Turks. Such a program of democratization, although embittering to those who had run the country for decades under a banner of secularism that was in practice constrictive and anti-democratic, was extremely well-received by the overwhelming majority of people as the July 22nd elections showed.

The election of Abdullah Gul as president, in the face of determined opposition by the army and CHP, is a symbolic climax of this process. These political developments are far from both the death of secularism and the rise of political Islam. Rather they represent a promising victory for a more inclusive secularism that reaches out to the entire society while retaining full respect for the principles of the republic as set forth by Kemal Ataturk.

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These moves to deepen democracy and widen secularism in Turkey continue to face obstacles. Adherents of the old exclusivist secularism have not given up their struggle to reacquire control of the Turkish state, and their most extreme voices appear ready to sacrifice democratic principles to reinstate their hold on power. The Turkish Armed Forces remains a potent force. They threatened to take over the government back in April of 2007, and have issued warnings subsequent to the July elections.

There are also related dangers that the Turkish military will reassert its autonomy by staging various cross-border operations directed at the PKK in northern Iraq. Accommodation with the large resident Kurdish minority has not been achieved, and will not be easily achievable. Securing the wellbeing of the poor and unemployed remains largely an unmet challenge. The publicity arising from the Turkish continuing refusal to address Armenian grievances harms the international reputation of the government, and is not likely to change anytime soon. The unresolved conflict over the future of Cyprus remains a thorn in Turkey’s side, and this despite the Turkish willingness to go along with the UN plan for Cyprus.

Disturbingly, it is Turkey that is being unfairly punished by the EU, not Greece or Greek Cyprus, for the failure by the parties to find a solution. Along the same lines, no matter how good the Turkish record is for democratization and economic success, current prospects for EU membership seem totally blocked by the rise of European Islamophobia. And finally, the Turkish economic success story is unavoidably embedded in the dynamics of globalization, and may at some point become vulnerable to wider patterns in the world economy that could cause instability at home. The ongoing debate associated with the drafting of a new constitution is posing a crucial test as to whether, and at what pace, the elected leadership can move the country further ahead in a democratizing direction.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from this overall argument. First and foremost, attempts to export of democracy, especially by way of military intervention, produce costly failures. The situation that has evolved in Iraq since 2003 is textbook proof that democracy-from-without does not work in today’s world, if it ever did. Part of the explanation is that democracy promotion, even if sincere, is usually coupled with the strategic goals of the intervening state that unavoidably challenge the sovereignty of the country.

Secondly, domestic democratizing movements that take account of the country’s history, traditions, and power structures will win popular support and have success in neutralizing resistance by anti-democratic forces that had previously administered the state, and especially if the reformers can produce positive economic outcomes. The recent experience of Turkey is a model of how democracy-from-within can achieve transformative results in a short period of time.

Thirdly, the struggle over the meaning of secularism and the scope of democracy in Turkey remains vulnerable to wider political and economic developments within and beyond its borders, which necessarily brings uncertainty about what the future holds. What can be said with confidence is that Turkey offers the Middle East the only viable path to democracy, although it is an extremely broad path with many options along the way.

In this respect recent Turkish experience reinforces the important message of the Arab Human Development Report of 2004 that insisted that democracy was vital for the region, that it could only come about from within, and that among the main regional obstacles to democracy from within were the suppression of Palestinian rights of self-determination and the American occupation of Iraq.



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