Debate
Does external pressure help or hinder democratisation in the Middle East?
Jana Hybaskova versus Toby Dodge
Jana Hybaskova is an Arabist and former Czech Ambassador to Kuwait. She was a signatory of Charter 77 and is now a member of the European Parliament.
Toby Dodge is consulting senior fellow for the Middle East at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and a lecturer at Queen Mary College, University of London. His most recent work includes Inventing Iraq: the failure of nation building and a history denied (Columbia University Press, 2005) and Iraq’s future, the aftermath of regime change (Routledge, 2005).
YES                  NO

Dear Toby,

If the aim behind the 2003 military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq was to spread democracy both there and elsewhere in the Middle East, the record is at best mixed. It may, therefore, be tempting to conclude that intervention in the name of building democracy is doomed to failure and that the international community, and especially the United States, should simply withdraw, leaving Iraqis to get on with the task of rebuilding their country on their own. But that would be wrong. External support and, at times, pressure is very much needed both in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, if this region is to move towards democracy.

History is clear. The system of government and property ownership in the Ottoman Empire, which stretched from the Balkans to the Middle East, failed to build conditions conducive to the development of civil society and democracy. Moreover, as the Ottoman Empire declined, the Middle East stagnated with the result that much of the momentum for reform, modernity and ultimately democracy in the intervening centuries has come from outside. Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, was instrumental in introducing printing and with it newspapers into the region. Subsequently, as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, the European colonial powers, France and the United Kingdom in particular, filled the void and used the years they governed the region to initiate some modernising reforms.

In the wake of the Second World War, however, the colonial powers moved out of the Middle East abruptly, leaving behind a security vacuum. The elites who subsequently took power generally had limited qualification for government and little if any democratic credentials. As a result, they created authoritarian systems to preside over countries that lacked an industrial base and suffered from mass unemployment or rather underemployment and low literacy levels. Moreover, during the Cold War, they succumbed to the influence of one or other of the superpowers. The Gulf States, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia looked to the United States and the West. Algeria, Egypt (until the 1970s), Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen turned to the Soviet Union.

While both Western and especially Eastern Europeans have benefited greatly from the end of the Cold War, much of the Arab world appears caught in a time warp. The Cold-War mechanisms for controlling society that we in Eastern Europe grew up with remain in place: bloated security establishments; all-powerful police and military intelligence; state control of media; severe restrictions on public gatherings; insurmountable obstacles to the registration of political parties or secular non-governmental organisations; 48-hour detention for anyone deemed a “dissident” on the most dubious legal grounds; expulsions and imprisonment of political opponents. Indeed, in many ways, conditions are akin to those prevailing under martial law in Poland in the 1980s. There is one great difference, of course. General Wojciech Jaruzelski did not benefit from oil revenues to subsidise incomes and prop up his regime.

Given the lack of opportunity for free expression in many Arab countries, people, quite naturally, turn to the only other outlet available to them, which is Islam. Even the most authoritarian Arab regimes allow the formation of Islamist non-governmental organisations and charities and tolerate their activities. In this way, these groups carry out many important social functions, including running schools and hospitals and helping the vulnerable, including widows and orphans. Some of them, however, have also developed an extreme Islamist political agenda with the ultimate goal of creating a fundamentalist caliphate in tune with the philosophy of Osama bin Laden and al Qaida. Moreover, since these groups provide the only alternative to the current regimes, their popularity is growing as they present themselves as able to combat corruption, end nepotism, and create jobs and social opportunities.

Concerning Iraq, the way the peace process has been managed – the lack of planning for the post-war situation, the haste with which the existing security apparatus was dissolved, thereby leaving open thousands of kilometres of border, and indecision over the future division of oil revenues – has been a disaster and has contributed to the disintegration of Iraqi society. But whereas it was irresponsible to intervene having only devised a military solution, it would now be criminal to abandon the region, as the colonial powers did after the Second World War.

We simply cannot afford to leave the Middle East and its oil wealth in the hands of Islamic extremists. As a result, we are obliged to help the region develop democratic and transparent institutions. Given the links that already exist between the Arab world, on the one hand, and Europe and the West, on the other, this should be possible with well thought-out strategies focusing on local ownership. It is, after all, in all our interests.

Yours,
Jana


Dear Jana,

Thank you for your thoughtful and wide-ranging letter. I agree with you that the Middle East was not transformed by the wave of political liberalisation and foreign direct investment that reached its peak after the Cold War. However, I am in complete disagreement with both your analysis of the region’s history and the conclusions you draw from it.

Let us take Iraq as a case study, albeit an extreme one. Far from stagnating under Ottoman rule, it was Sublime Porte policy, epitomised by the Tanzimat reforms of 1839, which began transforming both society and economy. In Iraq, political and economic change reached its peak in 1869 when Midhat Pasha became Governor of Baghdad. He was the first to impose modern land tenure and build centralised government.

If one were forced to identify the font of Iraq’s problems, admittedly a difficult task, it would not be Ottoman rule but the incompetent and slap-dash attempts by the British to build a state between 1920 and 1932. British influence, as much as the present US occupation, epitomises the perils of external intervention. It failed because of a familiar combination of imperial hubris, ignorance and a British public that quickly tired of the expense. Successive British governments came to realise the electoral peril of involvement in Iraq. State-building overseas was sacrificed for electoral gain at home. The legacy left by foreign intervention was an unstable and unpopular government deploying increasing violence to stay in power.

This system collapsed in the bloody coup of 1958 and its violent aftermath culminated in the Baath Party’s seizure of power in 1968. US Cold War foreign policy in the Middle East long supported the Baathists in Baghdad. This support ranged from aiding the coup to bolstering Baathist rule in the face of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Saddam Hussein ended this cosy relationship by invading Kuwait in 1990. In a lesson for the future, George Bush senior draped the war to liberate Kuwait in the cloth of democracy and a new world order. However, it was the breaking of the Westphalian taboo, that is the invasion and annexation of a sovereign state, and the threat posed by the Iraqi army to Saudi oil fields that drove the war. When the fighting was over, blood and treasure triumphed over the lofty talk of democracy and human rights.

George Bush senior’s new world order placed Iraq under 13 years of the most draconian sanctions ever imposed. Sanctions are the perfect example of the negative, if unintended consequences, of international intervention. The embargo taught Saddam Hussein to be a much more efficient dictator, shrinking his government to the minimum needed to stay in power. While he and his family enriched themselves, the Iraqi population was caught between a brutal, corrupt ruling elite and an indifferent international community. As diplomats engaged in shadow boxing in New York, Iraqi society was ripped apart, traumatised and brutalised by a poorly thought-out policy maintained in spite of failure to save face in the Security Council.

Finally, Iraq was invaded in 2003 for a number of reasons: the US desire to transform international relations after 9/11, the humiliation of Saddam’s defiance, genuine fears about proliferation and yes a desire to democratise the Middle East. However, the cataclysmic aftermath of an ill-planned and ideologically driven invasion epitomises the grave dangers of intervention. The Iraqi population did not welcome their liberators, instead viewing them with deep suspicion. The invasion triggered a militant Iraqi nationalism that has merged with a radical and increasingly transnational Islamism. The level of US ignorance about the country was only matched by Washington’s short-termism. The signing of the 15 November agreement with long-exiled politicians in 2003 committed the United States to handing sovereignty back to these unpopular politicians by June 2004. Britain failed to build a viable Iraqi state in 12 years but the US President decided the United States could reconstruct the country in 13 months. Yet again, promises given to the Iraqi population have been betrayed to meet the demands of an electoral cycle at home.

The lessons of Iraq carry a stark message for those advocating the exogenous transformation of the region. The first is the astonishing lack of knowledge that interveners carry into the region. The Middle East is understood in terms that suit those who seek to intercede, not the targets of intervention. Secondly, those who are to be saved from themselves, the people of the Middle East, resent the interventions foisted upon them, seeing them as at best misguided and at worst neo-imperial. In spite of the rhetoric and promises, international ignorance and indigenous resentment combine with a chronic lack of staying power. Realpolitik and domestic electoral politics end interventions long before they deliver on their idealistic promises. The result is to leave a region traumatised by numerous, half-hearted, sometimes cynical and always badly thought-out interventions.

Yours,
Toby


Dear Toby,

We both recognise that change in the Middle East requires local ownership and that, therefore, outsiders cannot be masters of the process. We also agree that understanding of the region’s culture, customs, manners, religious background, social patterns, structures and power relationships is poor with the result that “clash-of-civilisation” attitudes remain prevalent.

Indeed, US fear of Islamic influence has hampered the process of national reconciliation in Iraq and this, in turn, has played into the hands of Shiite clerics. The security and political vacuum that has emerged as a consequence has contributed to the chaos and may have cost thousands of lives. The lesson to be learned is that not every Islamic leader is part of the problem. Moderate Islamic parties can become essential interlocutors to help us avoid potential pitfalls and failures.

Sure, much outside influence in the Middle East has been counter-productive. For decades, European policy towards the Middle East has effectively promoted socialist values, which has contributed to the dismal state of affairs in those countries which followed suit. This imbalance is now difficult to correct, and efforts to develop a more market-oriented European policy for the region suffer from a lack of clarity and coordination. However, such an alternative is necessary to encourage real change in the economic and political structures in the region. What is needed in the Middle East are open and pluralist structures as well as functioning social systems. We can help achieve this via long-term engagement reinforced by short-term, targeted interventions to encourage fundamental reform.

True, the former British presence in Iraq contributed to decades of rule by unstable and cruel regimes and ultimately Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. However, it was not George Bush senior who imposed sanctions on Iraq. It was Saddam Hussein’s Baathist system. And it was not the United States acting as a globocop or talk of a new world order that built the democratic coalition to liberate Kuwait. International intervention was a response to the ransacking of a country that included the disappearance or rape of hundreds of Kuwaiti women, the deaths or disappearance of thousands of Kuwaiti men, the devastation of Kuwait City and burning oil fields.

Despite setbacks, we have to face up to our responsibility and help bring democracy, equality, law and peace to the region. The road is long, but time will be on our side as long as we are willing to stay the course.

Yours,
Jana


Dear Jana,

You are right to stress that meaningful and sustained change in the Middle East will only come with “local ownership” of the process. However, given your earlier statement that much of the previous momentum for change was external, I am having difficulty understanding how you understand the interface between agents for indigenous change and international intervention? Two aspects of your response highlight this tension. In your first letter you identify the politicisation of Islam as a response to authoritarianism and secondly you stress that “moderate” Islamists are essential interlocutors for intervention. Certainly the genesis of radical Islam partly lies in the lack of democracy in the Middle East. But Islamists involved in politics have also developed a powerful critique of direct and indirect Western influence. The first part of this denunciation focuses on the very overt intervention that you are advocating. The second part, deployed by both moderates and radicals, is a telling critique of the social transformation wrought by the “market-oriented” policy at the centre of your agenda. The appeal of those deploying Islam in Middle East politics is the indigenous policy platform they are trying to develop. It offers an alternative to the neo-liberal prescriptions in which you have invested such hope. In the Middle East, as in some parts of Central and Eastern Europe, these policies are seen as responsible for destroying the moral and social structures that give coherence and stability to the lives of ordinary people.

This brings me to the larger philosophical point at the heart of our debate. Those advocating intervention in the Middle East, not only deploy a partial understanding of the region’s history but also of their own states, societies and economies. The market-based societies that now thrive in Europe arose not through the absence or weakness of the state but were instead pioneered by the state’s capacity to guarantee property rights and impose market relations. It is telling that key advisers involved in the first wave of privatisation in the former Soviet Union have now recanted, wishing they had focused on the state guaranteed rule of law, rather than the wisdom of market reliance.

This all goes to show that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to transformation is as dangerous as the celebration of the status quo in the name of Realpolitik. Indigenous reform should be encouraged and fêted when and if it happens. But interventions to trigger it, however well meaning, are misguided and counter-productive. They usually encourage or at the least excuse a backlash from either the ruling elite or societal forces with diametrically opposed agendas.

Yours,
Toby


Dear Toby,

It might seem contradictory to advocate both external pressure and local ownership as pre-conditions for sustained change in the Middle East. But the two approaches are perfectly compatible and both are necessary. The West can exert pressure on Middle Eastern regimes to encourage change, and may even intervene in extreme cases when justified by serious human rights violations or on security grounds. But the West can hardly expect to bring about sustained reform if it fails to involve local interlocutors. Only they can translate external pressure into concrete programmes for change through engagement with the wider public.

Central and Eastern Europeans do not yearn for the communist policies which, you claim, brought “coherence and stability” to the lives of ordinary people. Nowhere today does a majority of the population wish to see a return to the communist era and the “stability” and “moral structures” that the communist system claimed to provide. Political and economic change may have brought hardship to a proportion of the region’s population, but even this group does not object to the change per se, but to the way in which it has come about. Moreover, the vast majority of Central and Eastern Europeans welcomed external pressure for change in communism’s twilight years, and they continue to advocate similar approaches in the rest of the world, including the Middle East.

The difference between Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East is in the nature and capacity of local ownership. Secular political parties and civil-society organisations developed relatively rapidly in Central and Eastern Europe, helping drive the political and social reform process. By contrast, in the Middle East Islamic groups and charities form the alternative to the inefficient and corrupt state structures. Since Islam and its Sharia system of law has at times been used to undermine reform and prop up the status quo, this makes the transformational challenge especially formidable. Nevertheless, local ownership in the Middle East must include Islamic groups as interlocutors, given the important role they play. Any other approach risks alienating the vast majority of Muslims, thereby ensuring that external pressure proves counter-productive. It may also jeopardise the emergence of a more modern version of Islamic law consistent with contemporary standards of human rights.

Clearly there are great differences between our experience in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East today and no “one-size-fits-all” approach to transformation. Indeed, every societal transformation is essentially a unique experience, requiring tailored and specific policies. Nevertheless, there are also similarities, including the possibility of harnessing external pressure as a catalyst for change. Our task is to encourage local actors to transform external pressure into policies and instruments with which to push through reform. No matter how challenging the task, whether in Iraq or in the wider Middle East, leaving the region to its own devices is not an alternative.

Yours,
Jana


Dear Jana,

If our debate and the issues it has raised have taught us anything, it is that precision and clarity are crucial for the analysis that good policy should be built upon. The “moral and social structures” I referred to when comparing Central and Eastern Europe to the Middle East were obviously societal, not those of the former communist regimes. This crucial point sadly did not survive your critique. It is indigenous culture, society and history that Middle Easterners are seeking to protect, when they mobilise against direct and indirect external intervention. This suspicion and hostility means that the “local interlocutors” you hold in such high regard are few and far between. In the case of Iraq, it was their extreme scarcity that led US forces to import their own Iraqis as the new governing elite.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 may mark the high point of international intervention across the developing world. Born of the celebratory hubris that marked the end of the Cold War, this universalistic creed of neo-liberalism, was pioneered by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The Bretton Woods institutions could afford to revise their policy prescriptions when they failed to deliver the desired results. Structural Adjustment mutated into Good Governance, with lofty ideals and aggressive interventionism finally dropped in favour of closer collaboration with target governments. Tragically for the Iraqi people, the US government did not have the time to refine its own gaff-ladened approach, before the American public began to demand a swift curtailment of commitment. The failure of regime change to deliver stability, let alone the democratic and free market prosperity that George Bush promised on the eve of invasion, will have far-reaching consequences. Iraq is now a collapsed state; increasingly dominated by Islamic Radicals in government and in the insurgency, with both deploying violence in a struggle for supremacy. The reasons for this tragic failure are not hard to detect, the same hubris, ideological arrogance and the militant application of universalistic policy prescriptions. If the Iraqi debacle teaches us anything, it is to be deeply sceptical of those who claim that external intervention holds the key to long-term transformation.

Yours
Toby