What about democracy?


WASHINGTON - William Rees-Mogg, a former editor of The Times of London, raised a very important question in an essay he wrote after watching the recent, massive antiwar demonstrations in Europe. Referring to the various banners carried by protesters, he noted: "There was, I thought, one slogan which was missing. There were quite a number which called for 'Freedom for Palestine,' but I looked in vain for one which called for 'Freedom for Iraq.' ... None of the speakers expressed any wish to free Iraq."

Mr. Rees-Mogg is quite right. When it comes to the Middle East, the whole issue of democratization and better governance simply is not part of the debate over the future. To the extent that it is, it is used as a tool to beat up on enemies, not a supreme value to be promoted for everyone.

Let's start with the Europeans. There is only one group of Arabs for whom Europeans have consistently spoken out in favor of their liberation - and that is those Arabs living under Israeli occupation, the Palestinians. Those Arabs who have been living under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein or other Arab dictators are of no concern to President Jacques Chirac of France and his fellow travelers.

We all know what this is about: the Jewish question. "For too many Europeans, Arabs are of no moral interest in and of themselves," observes Middle East analyst Stephen P. Cohen. "They only become of interest if they are fighting Jews or being manhandled by Jews. Then their liberation becomes paramount, because calling for it is a way to stick it to the Jews. Europeans' demonstrations for a free Palestine - and not for a free Iraq or any other Arab country - smell too much like a politically correct form of anti-Semitism, part of a very old story."

The truth is, France is not interested in promoting libertM-i, M-igalitM-i and fraternitM-i in the Middle East. It is primarily interested today in managing American power. It is primarily interested in positioning France to become the world's next great "Uncola," the leader of the alternative coalition to American power.

In fairness, though, before now the United States has never shown much interest in Arab democracy either. It treated the Arab states like big, dumb gas stations, and all America cared about was that they kept their pumps open and their prices low. Otherwise they could do whatever they wanted to their own people at home or out back.

Only after 9/11, as we realized that what was going on out back in these countries threatened us, did the United States begin to call for democracy in the Arab world - but only to get rid of Yasser Arafat and to punish those Arab regimes it did not like, namely Saddam Hussein's. You still have not seen any serious democratization effort being directed at Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Kuwait. For America, government of the people, by the people and for the people is only for our enemies, not our friends.

But then, other than a few courageous Arab liberals, Arab intellectuals have not made democracy promotion a supreme value either. In part it's because liberating Palestine has always been treated by them as a more important political value. And in part it's because many Arab societies are still so tribalized, and have such a weak sense of citizenship, they fear that democracy could bring forth fundamentalists, a rival tribe or anarchy. Hence the Arab saying: "Better 100 years of tyranny than one day of anarchy."

Ironically, 9/11 began to change this view. You can see it in the lack of Arab support for Mr. Hussein. There is a much deeper awareness that leaders like Mr. Hussein are what have retarded Arab development. "But because Arab peoples and systems have never developed their own way of getting rid of bad leaders, they can only look to outsiders to do it - and that evokes the worst memories of imperialism and colonialism," notes Mr. Cohen. "They don't want to get rid of Saddam at the cost of being controlled by Americans." So they are paralyzed - wanting their Saddams removed, but deeply afraid of who will do it and what will come next.

What all this means is that when it comes to building democracy in Iraq, the Europeans are uninterested, the Americans are hypocritical and the Arabs are ambivalent. Therefore, undertaking a successful democratization project there, in a way that will stimulate positive reform throughout the region, will require a real revolution in thinking all around - among Americans, Arabs and Europeans. If done right, the Middle East will never be the same. If done wrong, the world will never be the same.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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