April 15, 2009

What the Neoconservatives Got Right

I met up with an old commander of mine last night for a beer, and while I was waiting at the bar, I got caught up on some of the reading I had missed over the weekend. Included in that reading was this article in the Financial Times on Islam, the Middle East and democracy. For those of you who have read Hourani's classic, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939,this article offers little new by way of intellectual history. The first part is basically a quick tour through the life and thought of Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, Mohammad Abduh, Rachid Rida, etc. (I am not sure about the declarative statements the author makes about al-Afghani and Abduh, though. al-Afghani in particular did not leave much of a written record of his thought, so I have never really been able to get a clear handle on his thought or that of his student, Abduh. Which, granted, may just be because I am not a specialist in 19th-Century Arabic thought but -- assuming it's not just me -- might also be why the inheritors of the legacy of al-Afghani and Abduh include everyone from Arab secularists to radical Islamists.)

But the article asks a key question -- the key question, perhaps.

Unless the Arab countries and the broader Middle East can find a way out of this pit of autocracy, their people – more than half of them under 25 – will be condemned to bleak lives of despair, humiliation and rage. Western support for autocracy and indulgence of corruption in this region, far from securing stability, breeds extremism and, in extremis, failed states. It will, of course, be primarily up to the citizens of these countries to claw their way out of that pit. But the least they can expect from the west is not to keep stamping on their fingers.

One of the tragedies of the neo-conservative era (2001-2006) is that it got the ends right and the means so very, very wrong -- thus discrediting the ends in both the Arabic-speaking world and in domestic U.S. politics. How the hell we Americans managed to discredit the idea of democracy promotion at home and abroad is anyone's guess.

Any sane policy would be devoted to preventing the evolution of a lethal form of radical Islam, in no small part by finding space for a thoughtful Islamism to emerge.

That is no longer easy. The freedom agenda proclaimed by George W. Bush has been discredited. Yet the insight brought to the west so violently by al-Qaeda on September 11 2001 and subsequently – that tyranny breeds terrorism and instability, infantilises politics and holds back development – is no less valid. Not the least of the challenges facing Barack Obama is to rescue that insight before it is too late.

I very seriously doubt that the United States -- facing the problems it faces in the Arabic-speaking world and the initiatives with which it needs regional help (the Iranian nuclear program, Iraqi reconciliation, the Middle East Peace Process) -- has democracy promotion anywhere on its list of priorities.

That is understandable. But sad nonetheless.