Living in a fool's paradise

The US should realise that most Arabs do not see it as the upholder of democracy.

Gulf News

Promoting democracy in the "Arab world" is all the rage in the US these days.

It has become a veritable cottage industry with serious and not-so serious analysts and ideologues, all getting into the act. Not a week goes by without a forum held or a paper published on the topic.

This is the one foreign policy issue on which the Bush Administration and its critics agree. It is also a subject on which both sides are, all too often, dead wrong.

While advancing citizen rights and expanding participation in governance are positive goals worth embracing, there are fundamental flaws in the assumptions and intentions that form the underpinnings of the current US discussion about democracy promotion in the Arab world.

They need to be explored.

First, there is the persistent belief that the US, itself, can be the agent of a democratic transformation of the Arab world. Unfortunately, quite the opposite defines Arab attitudes towards the US today.

Zogby International's polling in the Arab world demonstrates that while public opinion still has a somewhat favourable view of American values (although they appear to be declining over time), the strong negatives attached to American policy in the Middle East, put the US and those who associate with it in a sometimes precarious position.

In fact, when we specifically ask "how helpful can the US be in supporting democracy in your country," we get an overwhelmingly negative response.

As a result, the public US embrace of Arabs deemed "moderate" can at times prove costly.

This was the case with the ill-fated support the US gave to Fatah in the recent Palestinian legislative election.

The revelation, in the last week of campaigning, that the US had provided funding indirectly used to support Fatah candidates was exploited by Hamas to their advantage.

Flawed assumption

A further extension of this same flawed assumption is the belief that anti-US sentiment is a fabrication created by Arab regimes as a diversion from their autocratic rule.

It is further posited that extremism, born of the denial of political freedom in Arab countries, strikes out against the US because of the support the US has given to some Arab governments.

It was this thinking that led to the famous Bush Administration apology last year for "60 years of misguided policy" in the Middle East.

Another neo-conservative ideological non-empirical assumption that has sometimes been posited as a reason to support Arab democracy is the notion that democracies don't make wars.

This is a tough sell in the Arab world which lived through the 1956 and 1967 wars and in the wake of the US "war of choice" in Iraq.

Having said all of this, however, in no way negates the importance of expanding freedom and opportunity in the Arab world.

Arab academics, professionals and the business community have shown that they can provide significant input in decision-making, if they are given the chance.

Arab youth need to know that opportunities exist for their ideas and aspirations. And citizens and non-citizens alike need to know that their rights will be protected and their views respected.

These are important ends in themselves and they should be supported by all who care to see the Arab world progress.

What I am suggesting here is that in pursuing these goals (and they should be pursued) it is important to recognise that democratic transformation is a process grounded in history, requiring social and cultural predicates.

What I am also suggesting is that if the US wants to be an agent of such positive change in the region, we must understand how we are viewed by Arab opinion and the impact our policies have on the Arab polity.

When we change course in Iraq, pursue justice in Palestine and demonstrate an understanding and concern for Arab needs and aspirations, then we will be in a position to be respected as partners in the pursuit of reform.

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.