David D Newsom
Amid the euphoria currently generated by moves toward democratic change in the Middle East, it is well to remember that expectations of the results may vary between Washington and the targeted countries of the region.
US policymakers, who declare democracy and freedom to be the keys to peace and reform in the region, view the opportunity to vote and elect leaders as a path to improve these peopleâ€™s daily lives, release them from oppressive rule, and forward the achievement of goals often denied by their rulers.
The two sets of perceptions may not be incompatible, yet true democracy can be unpredictable. Sceptics who suggest that democracy cannot function in the largely Muslim Middle East are wrong, but that does not mean that entrenched regimes will willingly yield power or that elections will produce governments fully compatible with US expectations. Acceptable outcomes for the US would include advances in the position of women, broader recognition of Israel and support for Israeli-Palestinian peace, a renunciation of terrorism and WMD, and a greater acceptance of the role of the US in the region.
It is probably too soon to tell how deep and lasting the current expressions of appreciation may be in Lebanon and elsewhere for Washingtonâ€™s pressures for democracy. Many of those in Middle Eastern countries who seek the ouster of autocratic regimes oppose such regimes precisely because they consider them too close to the US. Osama bin Ladenâ€™s attacks on the Saudi regime are an extreme example. It cannot be assumed that democratic regimes in the region would renounce all the policies of autocratic predecessors. A reformed Iran might still continue a nuclear programme. Democratic Arab regimes, to appeal to the popular will, might be even less ready to compromise with Israel. Democratic change can also bring a welcome release from strict state controls. But such release can have unintended consequences. Crime and increased opium poppy production are already serious problems for the newly elected government in Kabul.
As political change takes place in the Middle East, it will do so under the harsh spotlight of international media attention. The US will work to put the best face on developments, but less favo-urable pictures will inevitably emerge. Lobbyists will be active in Congress and the public-pressures will mount.
But Washingtonâ€™s options in furthering democracy may be limited. Although encouraging freedom may have improved American standing, resentments and suspicions of America remain deep. The beliefs that Washington has an agenda of its own and seeks to manipulate events through a â€œhidden handâ€ will not quickly disappear.
Overt American attempts to influence political trends and official rhetoric in support of parties and candidates could backfire. What will be important is the reestablishment of US credibility in the region so that Washingtonâ€™s voice will be influential on those issues that directly affect basic US interests. A realistic understanding of both the limitations and the opportunities of Middle East democracy should, however, minimise the possibilities of disappointments that so often accompany US initiatives in this region. â€” The Christian Science Monitor