6.29.2005

In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How

Report of an Independent Task Force

In an important initiative, an independent task force issued a significant report “In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How” sponsored by the council on foreign relations. I endorse this report as a “general frame” considering that there are some points need to be elaborated. These points include but not limited to:

- The foreign policy and what means it has to promote democracy in the foreign states, in the current context of the international relations.

- The civil society in the Arab states, its role, the engagement with it, the possibility and the way of support.

- The prospects of constructing an international systemic effort of promoting democracy in the Middle East with full recognition in the international code.

I think that the democracy and human rights have the chance to replace the chaos of the post-cold war international order. This question needs to be reflected on.

The previous questions would be addressed in this blog in the future, and I invite the interested people to contribute.

Here is the executive summary of the report, which could be obtained from the council on foreign relations website.


Executive Summary

The Middle East will be a central focus of U.S. foreign policy for the next generation and beyond. While the list of challenges in the region is long, the Arab world also presents opportunities. In a region marked by a "democracy deficit" and limited economic prospects, there is also ferment. From Marrakesh to Cairo and Ramallah to Riyadh, Arabs are engaged in intense debate, self-reflection, and reassessment of their societies. Washington has a chance to help shape a more democratic Middle East. Whereas emphasis on stability was once the hallmark of U.S.-Middle East policy, democracy and freedom have become a priority. Indeed, U.S. policymakers concluded shortly after the September 11 attacks that the prevailing domestic political, economic, and social conditions within Arab countries were a serious national security concern.

Through a critical examination of regional developments and an assessment of U.S. options, the Task Force sought to answer two primary questions: First, does a policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East serve U.S. interests and foreign policy goals? Second, if so, how should the United States implement such a policy, taking into account the full range of its interests?

The Task Force’s answer to the first question is "yes." The United States should support democracy consistently and in all regions of the world. Although democracy entails certain inherent risks, the denial of freedom carries much more significant long-term dangers. If Arab citizens are able to express grievances freely and peacefully, they are less likely to turn to more extreme measures. They are also more likely to build open and prosperous societies with respect for human rights and the rule of law.

In answer to the second question, the United States should promote the development of democratic institutions and practices over the long term, mindful that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside and that sudden, traumatic change is neither necessary nor desirable. America’s goal in the Middle East should be to encourage democratic evolution, not revolution. Policymakers should take into account the region’s political and economic diversity, its lack of a strong democratic tradition, and the challenge of moving beyond the relatively simple process of holding elections to the construction of independent and sustainable democracies. America’s goal should be to support the development of democratic systems that are open to participation across the ideological spectrum, excluding only those who refuse to commit to peaceful procedures.

Findings and Recommendations

• Promoting political, economic, and social change in the Arab world requires a country-by-country strategy. Nevertheless, a number of basic principles should be emphasized across the region, including human rights, political representation, constitutional checks and balances, tolerance, rule of law, women’s rights, and transparency of decision-making.
Despite its recent emphasis on democracy in the Middle East, Washington has yet to speak in a consistent manner to various Arab countries on these important issues.

• The Bush administration should encourage Arab leaders to develop public, detailed "pathways to reform" that respond to the specific demands for change made by citizens within their countries. The public nature of these plans would help Arab citizens hold their leaders accountable to specific political, economic, and social benchmarks.

• This report is not about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but U.S. policy on that subject is relevant to America’s credibility in the region. The Task Force believes the United States should continue its renewed diplomatic engagement to help ensure that Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip proceeds smoothly and the two parties uphold their commitment to the "Roadmap for Peace." Washington’s engagement will also help ameliorate Arab mistrust of U.S. intentions in the region. The United States should not accept the argument made by some Arab leaders that progress toward democracy is not possible until the Palestinian question is settled; nor should the United States accept the view espoused by some Israelis that peace negotiations should not resume until the Palestinian Authority is fully democratic. The United States should support democratic reform in the Middle East whether or not there is progress toward peace, as well as progress toward peace whether or not there is significant democratic reform.

• For better or worse, Islamist movements and political parties are likely to play a prominent role in a more democratic Middle East. The United States must remain vigilant in opposing terrorist organizations. That being said, it should not allow Middle Eastern leaders to use national security as an excuse to suppress nonviolent Islamist organizations. Washington should support the political participation of any group or party committed to abide by the rules and norms of the democratic process. To reduce the possibility that Islamist movements will overwhelm more open Middle Eastern political systems, Washington should promote constitutional arrangements that would restrain the power of majorities to trample the rights of minorities. Most democracies have mechanisms such as an upper chamber of the legislature chosen on a specialized basis and/or a supreme court that guards against the "tyranny of the majority."

• Washington should promote economic and political reform simultaneously. All the available data indicate that economic growth is crucial for the durability of democracies but does not directly cause democracy. Favoring economic reform at the expense of political reform would ignore the democratic rights and political demands of Arab citizens.

• One of the most important factors hindering foreign direct investment in the Arab world is the fragmented and small size—in terms of capitalization—of the Middle Eastern market. Along with bilateral initiatives such as qualified industrial zones, trade and investment framework agreements, bilateral investment treaties, and free trade agreements, Washington should provide assistance to improve regulatory environments, reform tax codes, and, most importantly, remove barriers to intraregional trade in an effort to promote regional economic integration.

• Corruption remains a significant impediment to Arab economic development. One of the surest ways to reduce corruption is through deregulation and greater integration with the international business community. With less regulation there are usually fewer opportunities for bureaucrats and others close to the state to demand kickbacks, payoffs, or commissions. As in other regions, greater integration with global businesses will allow Arab companies and entrepreneurs to gain access to capital based on what they do, not whom they know. Another important instrument in the fight to control corruption would be the establishment of truly independent and resourceful counter-corruption commissions.

• The Task Force recognizes that there are problems with the way U.S. foreign policy is portrayed by Arab news networks and newspapers. While it is appropriate for Americans and U.S. policymakers to criticize what they regard as inaccurate and biased coverage on Arab satellite news networks, Washington’s message about democracy and freedom is damaged when policymakers exert pressure on Arab governments to alter the content broadcast on these stations.

• Overall, the development of alternative Arab media outlets is a positive development. The United States should promote the expansion of the private media market in the Middle East. A more democratic environment will provide Arab media consumers with more choice and better quality. Concomitant with Washington’s push for privatization of Arab media should be an emphasis on improving laws that protect freedom of speech.

• The United States has done a poor job explaining its policies in the region and spreading its message about democracy and freedom. Washington’s public diplomacy strategy needs to be changed. The Voice of America’s (VOA) Arabic service, which was previously the U.S. government’s means of broadcasting news and information to the Arab world, should be funded and become an integral component of Washington’s public diplomacy strategy, emphasizing reform issues in addition to news and information about the United States. Washington should also alter the content of its own Arabic satellite channel, al-Hurra. Because the channel is operated by the U.S. government, the suspicion is strong within the region that it is merely a conveyor of propaganda. To correct this, some of al-Hurra’s programming should be shifted to a C-SPAN-style format. Broadcasting the practices of the U.S. and other democratic governments, including congressional and parliamentary hearings, political rallies and debates, would expose Arabs to the spectacle of free political systems in action.

• Arab educational systems have generally done an inadequate job of preparing students for the global economy. Although Washington’s involvement with Arab education reform is fraught with political and cultural hazards, the U.S. government should seek the partnership of Arab, American, European, and Asian educational institutions, foundations, the private sector, and multilateral organizations to develop teacher-training programs, provide technical assistance to decentralize Arab educational systems, help further expand English language instruction, and help establish lifelong learning through adult education. Given Washington’s goal of promoting economic and scientific development in the Middle East, Washington should also promote partnerships between U.S. business and engineering schools, and Arab educational institutions.

• The prevailing visa policy of the United States is a significant barrier to worthy cultural, educational, and scientific exchanges. While recognizing the delicate balance the Department of Homeland Security must strike between protecting the country and maintaining its traditional openness to foreign students, Washington must improve procedures for allowing students from the Arab world to enter the United States.

• The Task Force believes that the policy and diplomatic components of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) should remain within the State Department, but the bulk of MEPI’s funds should be shifted to an outside independent organization
such as the National Endowment for Democracy or a newly created Middle East foundation. Many Middle Eastern nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are reluctant to accept direct transfers from an arm of the U.S. government.

• The United States currently provides approximately $5.5 billion annually in economic and military assistance to the Arab world, excluding reconstruction assistance for Iraq. As a general principle, the United States should use the promise of additional financial support as an incentive for reform. Although it has yet to dispense aid, the United States already has a program that would condition aid in this way to developing countries—mostly in Africa and Asia—called the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). The funds will be distributed to those countries that have income per capita below a certain level (in 2005 below $1,465) and are best able to use them based on sixteen specific reform-related criteria including accountability, rule of law, education reform, and economic freedom. Currently, only four Arab countries—Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and Morocco—qualify for participation in the MCA based on income. Of these only Morocco is currently eligible to apply for MCA funds based on its good indicators. (If the income cap is raised in 2006, as has been foreseen, Jordan could also qualify.) The United States must work with other Arab countries to undertake the reforms necessary that would make them eligible for MCA funds. In addition, notwithstanding chronic budget deficits, Washington should devote additional resources for democracy initiatives in the Arab world.

• Arab leaders should understand that a failure to make progress toward democracy will have consequences for their relations with the United States. The United States must convey the message that the general quality of bilateral relations will be contingent, in part, upon reform. In other words, those countries demonstrating democratic progress will benefit from close relations with the United States through expansion of trade relations, military ties, and diplomatic support. Washington should not go so far as to break relations with countries that lag behind, but it should take steps to distance itself from governments that refuse over time to recognize the political rights of their citizens.

In years to come, the world can expect to see both dramatic advances and discouraging reversals in the process of political, economic, and social change in the Middle East. This does not make the Arab world unique. After all, the evolution of American democracy includes not only the majesty of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but also the blight of slavery, a civil war, denial of women’s suffrage for well over a century, and the exclusion of African-Americans from formal participation until the enactment of landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s. The fits and starts of development in the Middle East are a function of ongoing Arab debates about the appropriate vision for their respective societies. While it is clear that Washington has both compelling interests and a role to play encouraging change in the Middle East, the emergence of more open polities, greater economic opportunities, and social reform is primarily an Arab project in which Washington can and should play an important supporting role.




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