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AMERICA’S DEMOCRACY INITIATIVE IN MIDDLE EAST

Paper No. 1052                                                                  09/07/2004

by K. Gajendra Singh

  Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall , US conservative think tanks have thought up many projects to mould the world to its will and control its resources .The project to reform and democratize the Middle East with its 60% of oil reserves, along with other Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Turkey , was first christened as the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI). Championed by the Bush administration and formulated without consulting the countries, it was to later add Indonesia, Bangladesh and central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. 

It was quite clear that the objective was to intensify strategic US control over many Muslim nations and furthering US interests in central Asia, by expanding military bases and control new oil and other resources.

  It was to be unveiled and discussed at the June, 2004 G-8 summit of industrial nations (USA, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Italy ,Canada and Russia) in Georgia , USA . But then the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat "leaked" out the plan on 19 February 2004.  It produced a flurry of complaints and outright hostility and rejection from many Arab governments already angered by the US invasion of Iraq. European members of G-8 also reacted negatively.

  Egypt's President Husni Mubarak asked US to play the role of partner and not enforcer of reforms. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that the U.S. proposals "include clear accusations against the Arab people and their governments that they are ignorant of their own affairs."  He said "those behind these plans ignore the fact that our Arab people have cultures rooted deep in history and that we are able to handle our own affairs." Syria's Bashar al-Asad, also criticised the plan as did Jordan's foreign minister, Marwan Muasher.

  Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa accused the GMEI of lacking "logic". He said "I do not think there is any logic in piling up Morocco and Bangladesh in a vision of that sort," It was illogical to speak of an initiative which requires the cooperation of the Arab states without consulting them on the nature and details of such ideas. It is an unacceptable attempt at dictating the developmental paths the people should take.

It was argued that GMEI was formulated on the basis and recommendations of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) - a US State Department plan launched in December 2002 - and from the UN Arab Human Development Reports of 2002 and 2003.

GMEI was unveiled during a speech by US President George Bush in November 2003 before the most influential neo-conservative think tank in Washington, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

  On the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), based at the AEI, borrowing the phrase "freedom deficit" in the Middle East from the UN report, Bush said: "Our commitment to democracy is tested in the Middle East, which is my focus today, and must be a focus of American policy for decades to come.

"In many nations of the Middle East, democracy has not yet taken root. And the questions arise! Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free."

In his state of the union address on 20 January 2004, Bush called for the expansion of NED's budget for 2005, with added funds of $40 million to be channeled entirely to the Middle East.

It is well known that the NED itself has sparked fierce criticism from governments and organisations around the world, who charged it with promoting favoured politicians, political parties and using money to influence domestic politics of foreign countries. Such an attempt by outside countries in US politics is considered illegal.

The usual suspects behind the plan reportedly were Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Under-Secretary of Defence Douglas Feith, Richard Perle (Defence Policy Board), David Wurmser (Vice-President Dick Cheney's adviser) and Danielle Pletka, (a vice-president of AEI)

  G-8 Summit:

  So President Bush invited some Arab leaders along with a few from Africa to the G-8 summit (8-10 June) held in the safety of Sea Island in Georgia, USA to avoid growing vehement protests from groups opposed to exploitation of poor countries and masses under the charade of “globalization.

  President Bush presented a watered down version of his Greater Middle East Initiative to stabilize, reform and democratize the region. Called the Broader Middle East and North Africa Project, it now covers reforms such as free elections, independent media and improved legal systems. It also includes training for judges and lawyers, loans to small businesses and campaigns to reduce illiteracy by 20 million people and sets a target for training 100,000 teachers. Sensitive to Arab critics, the statement noted that "successful reform depends on the countries of the region and change should not and cannot be imposed from outside".

Apart from Turkey, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan and Yemen attended the G-8 summit as "regional partners." Iraq's newly appointed Prime minister, Ayad Allawi, was praised by Bush for "having the courage to stand up and lead". Turkey and Jordan have been broadly supportive of the plan. But leading Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Egypt did not attend and view it as heavy-handed US attempt to impose western values on their cultures.

U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice while welcoming Turkey's decision to attend the summit said that the G-8 countries would listen to the success story of Turkey -- the majority of whose population is Muslim -- in its development as a secular democracy. But Turkish Prime minister Recep Erdogan said that reforms should not be imposed on countries by outside powers. Changing political system of countries and ignoring their inner dynamics, cultures and beliefs would not succeed.

Except for ever faithful Tony Blair, other G-8 leaders were not enthusiastic .French president Jacque  Chirac dismissed the initiative by saying that  "There is no ready-made formula for democracy readily transposable from one country to another. Democracy is not a method, it is a culture. For democracy to take root solidly and durably in the Arab world, it must be an Arab democracy before all else."

Referring to the Palestine problem and stepped up violence as a major problem in the region Chirac suggested; "We must steer the parties back without delay on to the road to political settlement, and halt the escalation of violence." Only by doing so would the G-8 "be able to dispel the hostility towards the west which is so widespread in the Middle East".

  It may be recalled that the “road  map “ to peace in Middle East proclaimed with such fanfare by President Bush some months ago now lies in shambles .After Bush’s unstinted support to Ariel Sharon’ s  brutal policies Egyptian president Mubarak was forced to proclaim that America was never so much hated in the region.

Karzai at White House:

With President Hamid Karzai at his side on White House lawns on 15 June, George W. Bush was reduced to lauding Afghanistan as a model for Iraq. Bush cited progress in child health care, women's rights and education as signs Afghanistan had risen "from the ashes of two decades of war and oppression.".  President Karzai was in USA to attend the G-8 summit.

An international peacekeeping force provides security for Karzai's fragile government in Kabul, but his control outside the capital is limited, with parts of the country in the grip of regional warlords and militant fighters, with some of whom Karzai has been accused of making deals. In a US TV interview, Karzai twice sidestepped charges of rampant corruption against his regime.

Even the re-scheduled September presidential elections in Afghanistan have been postponed to October because of worsening provincial violence and threats from the Taliban and allied Islamic militants. Many Afghans believe that the only reason to rush elections is to provide Washington with an exit strategy. After the U.S. and Afghan elections, they believe, Washington could declare victory in Afghanistan and focus on Iraq.

Islam and democracy:

In its social aspects, Islam is one of the most and earliest egalitarian religions, with built in equity and frame work for justice.  If it has been distorted, so have been other religious .Look at the rapacity of neo-cons, extreme rightists in Israel or even Buddhists in Sri Lanka taking to violence. It is common in the West to glibly recommend that western style democracy should be adopted in Muslim states.

The 57-year old Iranian jurist Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights efforts during a recent tour of the United States and Canada said that Islam and democracy were compatible but the United States cannot impose a pluralistic society on Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East. At the same time she also said that too many Islamic nations hid behind religion to justify human rights violations.

Democracy was a historical process that could not be imposed from the outside, Ebadi said. "Democracy is not a present to offer a nation. Democracy cannot be imposed when people are dropping bombs on them… Therefore if the United States or any other country decides to contribute to the process of democracy, the way to do so is not through a military attack," she added.

Burma's military Junta retort:

  Even in faraway Burma, its military junta in a statement retorted that the developments in Afghanistan and Iraq showed the dangers of imposing change on a country from the outside. It said it was committed to restoring democracy, but at its own pace.

"The recent developments in Iraq and Afghanistan are... classic examples of how wrong things could end up when the respective political histories, cultures, and security needs of a country are ... ignored in making a transition to democracy by forces from outside," said the statement.

  It also criticised a recent US statement which described Burma as an "unusual and extraordinary threat to American national security". Burma "has no weapons of mass destruction, no terrorist organisations, no missile programmes, no expansionist ambitions and no animosity towards the United States," the statement added.

  USA and democracy:

 The American record, which used to criticise the British and other European nations for their colonial policies before 2nd world war , is poor in promoting democracy. Let us look at their earlier attempts in Liberia and the Philippines, US colonies in Africa and Asia.

USA started in Liberia well before 1843 by sending freed slaves there as one of the "solutions," to resolve its slavery problem. Liberia became a U.S. colony in every sense of the word and its experimentation in constructing democracy .The name "Liberia" was given by USA. Its capital, Monrovia, and the great port city, Buchanan, were both named after U.S. presidents.  The  government was organized and put in place directly by the United States, but it would be difficult, even in Africa, to find a people more tormented and endangered and impoverished than Liberia's.

The story of the Philippines is no different. It was conquered during the Philippine-American War – the so called the Spanish-American War. More than a million Filipinos died during that war from violence and dengue fever, a byproduct of war (as in Iraq now ).

Iran is a recent example where the US overthrew its democratically elected government and installed  Shah Reza Pehlavi of Iran. For twenty-five years, Iran was the US policeman in the Middle East. CIA chief William Colby called installing the Shah CIA's proudest achievement and said, "You may think he failed, but for twenty-five years, he served us well." But after he fled Tehran, the Shah was not even granted asylum in USA and found shelter with Anwar Sadat of Egypt.

Being an ally of U.S. brought poverty, anger, hurt and suffering for the majority of Iranians. The canal systems that had supported enough agriculture to feed the populations for a couple of millennia fell into decay forcing it to import most of its food .USA sold it more than $22 billion in arms between 1972 and 1977 - everything, except nuclear weapons. But finally Shah’s military machine collapsed. Now a policy of vengeance has kept democracy throttled and Iran’s radicals in power.

US occupation of Iraq a bad example:

During the Cold war there were some constraints on US capacity for arbitrary military action - but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, US has acquired a headier sense of what it can get away with.

According to reports the Bush administration routinely bypassed or overruled Pentagon experts on international law and the Geneva convention to construct a sweeping legal justification for harsh tactics in the war on terror. As an example , Bush's military order of November 13 2001, denying prisoner-of-war status to captives from Afghanistan and allowing their detention without charge or access to a lawyer at Guantánamo, was issued without any consultations with Pentagon lawyers, a former Pentagon official leaked to the media . A Pentagon memo reportedly argued that president Bush was not bound by laws against torture, and that interrogators who torture detainees at Guantánamo could not be prosecuted.

The Pentagon said that Mr. Rumsfeld's famous declaration that the Geneva Conventions did not apply in Afghanistan was not a sanction of illegal interrogations and that everyone knew different rules applied in Iraq. But Mr. Rumsfeld, his top deputies and the highest-ranking generals could not explain to the Senate during recent hearings what the rules were, or even who was in charge of the prisons in Iraq.

Reports make it clear that beginning November, a small unit of interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison began reporting to superiors allegations of prisoner abuse, including the beatings of five blindfolded Iraqi generals. The disclosure of the documents raises new questions about whether senior officers in Iraq were alerted about serious abuses at the prison before January. The Red Cross has said it alerted U.S. military commanders in Iraq to abuses at Abu Ghraib in November.

  No Moral Right to Preach:

 Prof.  Lawrence Freidman recently wrote in the Financial Times of London that a turning-point was reached in international politics after President Bush was widely seen to have gambled in Iraq and lost. The impact of that loss went well beyond Iraq. The US was not defeated in battle and was unlikely to be, but it could no longer impose its will on Iraq because it lacked the moral authority to do so. The arrogance and hubris with which the Bush administration embarked on this war in the first place used up much moral capital. Nonetheless this might have been replenished by the overthrow of the Ba'athist regime in Iraq, which could have been presented as a noble cause. – if the US-led coalition had established that it was truly the liberator, acting on behalf of the Iraqi people .” Unfortunately, while much of the opprobrium heaped upon the Bush administration in the past was unfair, it now seems to be well deserved.” Policy since April 2003 has been crudely and inconsistently improvised and troops have behaved as occupiers.

Speaking at the Harvard University on 10 June , U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said that the war in Iraq has sparked a global crisis that must be resolved through international cooperation. He also criticized the U.S. decision to attack Iraq without authorization from the U.N. Security Council. ``What kind of world would it be, and who would want to live in it, if every country was allowed to use force, without collective agreement, simply because it thought there might be a threat?'' he said

Situation in the Middle East:

The 2002 joint report of the UN development program and the Arab fund for economic and social development makes for a depressing reading. Written by a group of Arab intellectuals, its findings are bleak. All 22 Arab states combined, oozing as they do with natural resources , specially oil and gas still have a GDP smaller than Spain's and less than half that of California. Education is in a bad way. The whole Arab world translates around 300 books annually, one fifth the number translated by Greece alone. Rates of internet connections were less than those in sub-Saharan Africa.

What's more, the Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza are not the only Arabs to be denied fundamental democratic rights. Using the widely accepted freedom index - which assesses everything from civil liberties to government accountability and a free press - the Arab states come at the foot of the global league table. The report was especially damning on the exclusion of women, often denied the vote and access to a basic education: "Sadly the Arab world is largely depriving itself of the productivity and creativity of half its citizens."

It is difficult to reconcile what US does and what it says. Bush told the Palestinians two years ago that if they wanted American support and economic assistance, they had better elect someone other than Yasser Arafat. Today, Arafat - a democratically elected leader of the Palestinian people - is under virtual house arrest under the regime of Ariel Sharon. But it has yet to produce another legitimate leader in the occupied territory. President Jacques Chirac of France said  at the Istanbul Nato summit, "People can have whatever opinion they like of President Arafat or any other president. But legitimacy cannot be contested if a different legitimacy is not proposed."

Unfortunately in the Middle East it is the rulers, most of whom are the US's long-time friends and allies, who are afraid of democracy.

With over 90 % Turks opposing US invasion of Iraq , in March 2003, the Turkish parliament refused to allow USA use of its territory to open a second front against Iraq. Finally it was left to Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a former head of the Constitutional Court, who during his recent talks in Ankara with U.S. President George W. Bush, corrected the latter whether Turkey could become a model for Islamic countries. Sezer said that the majority of the population in Turkey consisted of Muslims but stressed that Turkey was a secular country. "Religious and state affairs are definitely separate from one another. Islamic countries can analyze Turkey but it is wrong to launch Turkey as a Pan Islamic state," said the president. Bush had repeatedly cited Turkey as a model for Islamic states.

Bush agreed with Sezer and said that he was aware of Turkey's secular structure.  Bush added, "Your country, with 150 years of democratic and social reform, stands as a model to others, and as Europe's bridge to the wider world. Your success is vital to a future of progress and peace in Europe and in the broader Middle East "

With its location, ethnic composition, history, culture and civilisation, with modernising and westernising measures during the last century of the Ottoman rule and 70 years after Ataturk’s sweeping reforms; could Turkey, with perhaps the most moderate Islamic party- certainly when compared to Jihadis and other organisations struggling to come to terms with themselves, their history and environment - be the place where Islam could be reconciled to the expectations and demands of the times as perceived in the West.

Turkey with a secular constitution in place in 1923, is still vulnerable politically. The ramifications of recent constitutional amendments by which the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which has Islamic roots, by almost making the powerful armed forces politically impotent, carry with them the seeds of political turmoil later. Should the AKP and the armed forces not take extreme positions, it is possible that democracy could further evolve in the country. But it is the military that has kept Turkey on an even keel, the politicians have a habit of being carried away.  Only the grave situation across in Iraq has kept an uneasy truce between the military and the Islam oriented party.

Pakistan, too, cannot shake the influence of the military, despite the apparent return to democratic elections in October last year. Indeed, Pakistan's army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, also the president, has created a national security council on the Turkish model, and which is now enshrined in the constitution. Religious parties fared exceptionally well in October's elections last year, and effectively control two provinces and constitute the main opposition in the national parliament. They are agitating for Musharraf to quit as chief of the armed forces. How ever,Gen Musharraf, sure of continued US support is already talking of not taking off his military uniform he had agreed to with the Pakistani politicians.

Conclusion

During the cold war, to counteract communism, socialism and Arab nationalism , US led West encouraged conservative regimes, religious parties and obscurantist groups which culminated in financing and training of Jihadi and fanatic groups in Afghanistan against USSR . USA still continues to support some of the worst Islamic regimes and dictatorships in Central Asia and elsewhere. Simply putting into place a "democratic" constitution in a Muslim country does not usher in democracy.

And do not forget that most of the reformers in the Middle East in recent years have been Islamist, and sometimes the Islamic fundamentalists. It is they who have often demanded democratic elections and honest governments. They also provided social services the government neglected. Turkey’s AKP built up its support by such work,

earlier done by communist and socialist parties. Now by adopting transparent governance it has consolidated its position further.

In Algeria, for example, an Islamist party was on the verge of sweeping the board in a free elections. The army stepped in and cancelled the elections. The United States backed the army rather than democracy and the Islamists. A bloody civil war was the result. In Afghanistan, the Taliban came to power as reformers, driving out the warlords, who were corrupt and brutal. Now the warlords are back and Afghanistan is once again one of the world's greatest sources for opium.

If there were truly free elections in the Middle East religious parties were likely to win . After that, USA might not have one single friend in the region.

 (K Gajendra Singh, served as Indian Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan in 1992-96. Prior to that, he served as ambassador to Jordan (during the 1990-91 Gulf war), Romania and Senegal.  He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies.  The views expressed here are his own.- Email-Gajendrak@hotmail.com)

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