Monday, April 10, 2006

Democracy retreats in the Mideast

Even as women gain voting rights in Kuwait, democracy elsewhere in the Middle East appears to be backsliding.

Analysts and officials say the political rise of Islamists, the chaos in Iraq, the newfound Shiite power in Iraq with its implication for growing Iranian influence, and the sense among some rulers that they can wait out the end of the Bush administration have put the brakes on democratization.

"It feels like everything is going back to the bad old days, as if we never went through any changes at all," said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, editor in chief of Forbes Arabia and a prominent Saudi columnist and advocate. "Everyone is convinced now that there was no serious or genuine belief in change from the governments. It was just a reaction to pressure by the international media and the U.S."

Follow-through has never been this administration's strong suit, but we can't even muster rhetorical outrage when Egypt delayed municipal elections for two years after a violent attempt to keep opposition supporters from voting. Apparently our committment to democracy doesn't apply when the opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Encouraging democracy in the Middle East is a generation-long project. There will be bumps in the road, but what is discouraging about these bumps is that they come not because of resistance to U.S. pressure but because of inconsistent application of that pressure. We talked the talk, but we've been reluctant to walk the walk.

Further, Bush should have realized that the long-term nature of such a policy requires bipartisan buy-in. That means working with Democrats to agree on a strategy and establish a strong and united front, so that we and the world could be reasonably sure that the pressure for reform won't end once Bush leaves power. Instead the rabid partisanship in our domestic politics have encouraged despots to simply wait for 2008.

Iraq, far from being a demonstration of our resolve and a wake-up call for the Middle East, is increasingly being seen as weak spot, with the assumption that once we withdraw we will not be eager to re-engage in the Middle East for a while. In short, the poorly reasoned and incompetently executed occupation has weakened the push for democracy, not strengthened it.

Regardless of what happens in Iraq, we need to keep up the push for democratization in the region. At a minimum it's simply the right thing to do: supporting some dictators while overthrowing others is simply untenable, both morally and politically. But unless we're willing to invade countries that we consider allies, it's also the only way to see democracy succeed on the regionwide scale necessary to tamp down the flames if Islamic extremism.

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