Can democracy take root in the Arab countries? If it does, will it cure the ailments afflicting those states, or make them worse? Foreigners and Arabs have asked these questions for years, the crisis in Iraq has brought them forward again, and George W. Bush gave them articulate definition in the forceful and highly intelligent speech he delivered on Nov. 6 to the National Endowment for Democracy.
Bush denounced the racist notion that Arabs aren't ready for freedom (the same was said of Japan in the 1940s), and argued that Arab states should join the world-wide movement toward democracy. By his count there were 40 democracies in the early 1970s and today there are about 120.
"We've witnessed, in little over a generation, the swiftest advance of freedom in the 2,500-year story of democracy." But the Arabs (despite a few hopeful signs in places like Morocco and Jordan) are left behind. Bush argued that religion can't be blamed, since more than half of all the world's Muslims now live under democratically constituted governments.
Is it the West's fault? Partly. Like the British and French in the past, the Americans have supported even the most obnoxious dictatorships, such as Saudi Arabia's. But as Bush acknowledged, events have discredited this policy:
"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," he said.
In the long run, he now thinks, you can't purchase stability at the expense of liberty. "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."
Fareed Zakaria, in Newsweek, called Bush's speech one of the most eloquent presidential statements in recent memory and predicted that it will be considered his most important -- if indeed his government follows the principles he set forth. Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch praised Bush for identifying by name (as the Clinton administration refused to do) the Middle East nations that refuse to liberalize.
In the Middle East, where it's easy to change the subject as long as you change it to Israel, response to Bush focused on American support for Zionism. Arabs use Israel as a handy, all-purpose rhetorical device. If you ask someone friendly to Egypt why it's been an economic wasteland for generations, he almost immediately brings forth the absurd notion that the necessity to fight Zionism has sapped Egypt's strength. Barry Rubin, in The Tragedy of the Middle East, says that Israel has become the excuse for the sins of every authoritarian regime across the region. Dictators can't feed their people or allow them even a little freedom but claim to be virtuous because they are fighting the real enemy, Israel.
Even academics and journalists like this argument. Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a political analyst at Damascus University, said: "How can we believe that Mr. George Bush wants us to enter the era of democracy ...when he remains biased toward Israel?" Sahar Baasiri, who writes in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, responded in the same way: "What is needed is a realization that the fundamental problem remains that of Palestine."
It's like a tape loop that runs forever, and it's pathetically inadequate. It grotesquely overstates the power of Israel, that tiny sliver of land. Among Arab opinion-leaders, including many who are otherwise sophisticated, Israel is an obsession that paralyzes thought and distorts emotion. If Israel were in fact seeking the destruction of the Arab people, the defeatist words of these neurotic commentators would assist in the process.
Meanwhile, Arabs suffer, by the millions. The world will likely be debating these issues for a long time, but in the course of these arguments we shouldn't ignore the most practical effect of despotism on the lives of the people. Economic failure, for most Arabs, is the real issue. Freedom of speech is a glorious thing, but so is supper. Inside and outside Arabia, that point is often forgotten, because it seems less significant than the oppression of women, the lack of independent judges, and the outlawing or neutering of political parties. But the economic stagnation of Arab countries means starvation for many and poverty for many more.
In economic achievement the Arabs are far, far behind most of the world, and are still losing ground. The Gross Domestic Product of all Arab countries, taken together, doesn't equal that of one former Arab colony, Spain. Almost no one except oil companies wants to invest in Arabia, because the returns are usually terrible. The capital markets are restricted, business remains in the hands of cliques connected to governments, and economic co-operation across the regional barely exists.
These are problems that will never be solved by imposing World-Bank-approved structures. Fixing the Arab economies will require a lengthy process grounded in reliable courts, honest financial markets, and, above all, open criticism. Solving the desperate economic problems of the region will require, first, the solution of its desperate political problems.