Friday, January 14, 2005

No going back 

"After more than an hour of dissecting and analyzing the grim conflicts through the Arab world, foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman confessed to his audience.

" 'I'm an optimist,' he told a packed Chrysler Hall Tuesday night. He noted his Mid western roots. 'It's a Minnesota thing.'

"Despite the setbacks and difficulties encountered in the Middle East, Friedman maintained that the Iraq war could help change the context of the Arab world and allow Muslims to modernize their societies."
Coincidently, this something I have been thinking about quite a lot recently. I do believe that over time the situation in Iraq will continue to improve, but regardless of the short and medium term outcomes, it seems to me that the whole region has been shaken and stirred hard enough over the past three years - not just as a result of the intervention in Iraq, but also generally through the war on terror and America's increased political and military involvement - that the Middle East will never be the same again. To use the old local metaphor, the genie's out of the bottle now and the forces of reaction simply might not be able to put it back in and hammer in the cork. This is not to say that it's impossible for the proponents of the status quo and the guardians of various vested interests throughout the region to halt and turn back the push for reform, democracy, women's rights, freedom and peace - but that in this case a sort of a mental critical mass has been reached and the counter-revolution, despite momentary tactical successes, might prove to be too difficult to sustain.

Glenn Yago and Don McCarthy argue in the "Opinion Journal" that
the Middle East is undergoing an economic boom following the liberation of Iraq. This is not only good news for all the Arab people that might directly or indirectly benefit from the economic growth, but also a portent of a politically auspicious time - after all, the pressure for more political freedom has always historically been at its strongest not at the time of economic crisis but precisely when life is getting better (among other things, this is one of the great myths surrounding the French Revolution).

Will the January 30 election prove to be a panacea for all Iraq's ills? No, and neither of itself will greater freedom, political stability or economic reform. The problems of Iraq, and indeed of the whole region, are too serious and too ingrained for anyone to hope for quick solutions. But more democracy, more openness, more opportunities, and bigger growth would all be a good start.

Look at the experience of the Central and Eastern Europe, fifteen years after the fall of communism, and yet still mired in complex political, economic and social problems. Democracy and freedom, not living up to their reputation as magic wands, have been disappointing to some. For many, democratic politicians don't seem all that much different to former communist rulers; all of them self-centered demagogues more interested their own petty squabbles and in lining their own pockets than in advancing the public good. Yet for all the continuing problems there is no doubt that for most part the nations of the former Soviet empire are on the right track, better off, and getting more so every year. As the old Chinese proverb says, a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. It has been so for the post-Soviet states, and it has to be so for Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

Now the left is trying to create the straw man of the Iraqi elections as the breakthrough point. They, of course, know full well that life is more complex than that and neither the insurgency nor economic and social problems will magically disappear on the morning of January 31. Coincidentally, so do all those who are pushing for the poll to take place as schedule, but they do so without illusions and in the belief that, to paraphrase Churchill, the election will not be the end, not even the beginning of the end, but, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

By the way, two recent opinion pieces, one by
Amir Taheri about Algeria's experience over the last decade or so, and by John Lyons about El Salvador's experience in the 1990s, suggest that democratic election, however imperfect, can have a positive longer term effect on ending terror. In Iraq, it is one thing fighting against the "American occupier" or the "American puppets", but it's much more difficult to portray oneself as a freedom fighter when one is bombing the government elected by a majority of your compatriots.

Not surprisingly, over the next few weeks we're going to hear a lot of talk from various quarters that the Iraqi elections will not be quite legitimate if some areas of the country have problems participating. This makes for an interesting exercise - what sort of a turnout makes for a legitimate exercise of democratic rights: 80%? 50%? Less?

We don't know what the Iraqi turnout will be, but I would venture a guess that it will be over 50%, which will put it on par with most recent US presidential elections, and significantly more than mid-term congressional elections which generally
hover around 35%.

Ah, but the critics will say, it's not a simple matter of numbers; it's the fact that some areas of Iraq are so insecure that people will be actually physically prevented from voting. This is only partly true. A large proportion of those who won't cast their ballots on January 30 will do so because they don't believe in democracy, which will put them in a similar position to all those in America and elsewhere throughout the Western world who don't vote because they couldn't be bothered and because they think that their vote doesn't make any meaningful difference.

As for the problem of those who would want to vote but will not for the fear of terrorist violence, there are three answers: firstly, political purists aside, an election where 80% of the country votes is better than no election at all. As they say, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Secondly, as many have pointed out before, there are many historical precedents, including the elections following the American civil war. Thirdly, to say that election will not be valid because some people in some of the troublesome provinces will not be able to vote is tantamount to saying that one small section of the country can hold the rest of the country hostage; it's as if an insurgency in Iowa could indefinitely put on hold the presidential election.

The gates have been opened throughout the Arab world - and while I can't peer inside the minds of others, I have a distinct feeling that everyone, from the region's current rulers to fanatical jihadis knows that. The difference is that the former, the survivors and realists, are trying to ride the wave, while the latter think that only a giant conflagration might save the day for their dark vision.


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