As I reported in my post unveiling US-Russia.org, there are going to be weekly discussion panels moderated by Vlad Sobell. This is the first one I participated in. It is on the topic of US-Russia Relations Against the Backdrop of Word-wide Muslim Protests. Is this a clash of civilizations? Should the US patch up ties with Russia and forget about New Cold War in order to free resources for the greater challenge from radical Islamists?
I think I will be reposting my contributions to these Panels on this blog for the foreseeable future, with a time delay of a few days so that US-Russia.org maxes out on traffic. Here is my first contribution:
The American democratization agenda for the Middle East appears to be based around two premises: (1) The Arabs want the strongmen out; (2) They desire a Western-style liberal democracy. Consequently, aggressively supporting the transition should ease the US into the Arabs’ good graces – with all its attendant, oily benefits.
The first point is largely true. The second is not. Although large majorities of Arabs support concepts such as “democracy” and “free speech” in opinion polls, they should not be taken at face value. That is because similar majorities also support stoning for adultery and the death penalty for apostasy. In these circumstances the very idea of a “liberal democracy” is a contradiction in terms. To paraphrase a relevant sentence from the Tsarist-era book Vekhi, “Thank God for the prisons and bayonets, which protect us from the people’s fury!”
This is because the “clash of civilizations” isn’t something that is “fomented” by radical Islamists (or Western Islamophobes, for that matter). It is an actually existing state of affairs and “democratization” will only fully disrobe it, not make it go away.
The Europeanized liberals who were the motor of the protests in Egypt only constitute about 5% of that country’s population. While removing the dictator – be he a relatively benign one like Mubarak, or a bloodthirsty one like Gaddafi – liberates not only the intelligentsia, but also the (far more numerous) Islamist opposition. Of the foreign jihadists fighting in Iraq, it was rumored that Benghazi – focal point of resistance against the Jamahiriya – contributed the most per capita. Now Libya is a chaotic jumble of heavily armed gangs and militias, many of them with Islamist sympathies. Despite promises not to field a Presidential candidate, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did precisely that and won the elections; since then, the old-regime generals have been replaced and the Brotherhood has consolidated its political dominance over the country. In the meantime, the economy has ground to a standstill.
Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad, Ben Ali, etc. may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but they did foster an adequate, if non-stellar pace of development; protected the rights of minorities such as the Coptic Christians; and typically maintained non-hostile, constructive relations with the West, Russia, and even Israel. It is unclear whether any of this will be preserved in the years ahead. They will certainly become more “democratic” – Iran, after all, is far more democratic now that it was under the Shah – but to what extent they will (or can) truly respect freedom of speech or worship is another question entirely. As strikingly shown in the past few days, there are problems even with honoring basic international norms like diplomatic immunity – and these are not without precedent (Chris Stephen’s ancestor by fate is Alexander Griboyedov, the poet diplomat killed and mutilated by a mullah-provoked Tehran mob in 1829).
But you can’t turn the clock back; we will have to learn to live with the new regimes emerging out of the Middle East unrest. One can hope for two things. First, that the West realizes that in terms of civilizational values, Russia and even China (all part of the “Functioning Core”, to borrow from Thomas P.M. Barnett) are far closer to it than most of the Muslim world, and adjusts policy accordingly. Second, that it takes a more balanced and realistic view towards these developments in the Arab world. For instance, it could recognize the Syrian conflict as a civil war, as opposed to a universal uprising against the dark lord Assad (and as such stop making unrealistic demands for him to step down as a precondition for talks).
Realistically, however, I suspect it will be a winter’s day in hell before the West’s infatuation with the Arab Spring is over.