Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A day in the life of the Middle East

(Is Lewis Black hilarious, or what? Tonight: Rippin' on Cameron Diaz's Trippin'.)

Here are three of the lead international stories at The New York Times online:

"In a striking display of the divisions that have plagued Iraq's fledgling government, the new cabinet was sworn into office on Tuesday with at least six positions still undecided after days of polarizing negotiations. In a protest over the stalled talks, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, one of two vice presidents, refused to attend the ceremony. He has been leading efforts to name candidates for the Defense Ministry and two other vacant positions allotted to Sunni Arabs and had threatened to boycott the ceremony if Shiite leaders continued to block Sunni nominees to the Defense Ministry, a key post. On Tuesday Sheik Yawar, the government's top-ranking Sunni and a member of its three-member presidency council, carried out his threat, and his seat remained conspicuously empty as the other cabinet ministers swore the oath of office with their hands on a Koran... The persistent failure to fill the cabinet - and the public protest by one of the government's only Sunni Arabs - was a serious embarrassment for the effort to build a government of national unity. [Prime Minister Ibrahim] Jaafari made similar assurances of a speedy finale after the partial cabinet was approved on Thursday. Instead, Iraq's first fully and freely elected government remains hobbled by sectarian divisions more than three months after January elections. In recent days, tensions appear to have worsened between the Shiite alliance that dominates the new government and the minority Sunni Arabs. Violence, too, has risen along with the discontent." (Click here for full story.)

"Iran declared Tuesday that it would soon resume some of the nuclear activities it had suspended during negotiations with Europe, and it used a conference here to accuse the United States and other nations of using the fear of nuclear weapons proliferation to deny peaceful nuclear technology to developing nations... Iran did not repeat its threat during its formal presentation in the hall of the [United Nations] General Assembly, where the monthlong meeting is taking place. But the foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, told the [United Nations] conference [reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] that the United States and Europe were trying to keep an exclusive hold on technological advancement, and he said Iran was determined to defy that effort." (Click here for full story.)

"Conservative lawmakers in Kuwait's Parliament on Tuesday created a constitutional roadblock that effectively killed a measure that would have allowed women to participate in city council elections for the first time. Hours later, the elections were called for June 2. The action eliminates any chance that women will be able to take part in elections for another four years, when city council seats are again up for grabs. The legislation initially was passed by Kuwait's 64-member National Assembly on April 19, but in accordance with Kuwaiti law faced a second vote for ratification on Monday. But Parliament ended in deadlock on Monday when 29 members abstained and only 29 voted for it, leaving the legislation just shy of the 33 votes needed. Efforts to resume voting on the measure on Tuesday failed when opponents argued that it had already been rejected and that any new vote would therefore be unconstitutional... While the city council holds little political significance, winning the right for women to run for office there was seen as a first step in gaining the right to run for Parliament." (Click here for full story.)


I want democracy to work in Iraq -- since the start of the Iraq War, that's been the constant in my thinking, and, however much I may disagree with Bush's handling of the occupation (which is what it is, justified or not, euphemisms to the contrary), there's no good reason to hope that these democratic efforts fail (or do you want Saddam back? or the theocrats to tyrannize? or the terrorists to win?). But things don't look so good, and the instant euphoria that followed the Iraqi election has long since dissipated. This now requires statesmanship of the highest order. The U.S. doesn't have it, and I'm not sure Iraq does either.

Iran is a serious situation that the Bush Administration doesn't seem to grasp. For Fred Kaplan's take on the NPT, click here. European diplomatic efforts should be applauded, but, ultimately, Iran will only back down under U.S. pressure. And that doesn't necessarily mean military pressure. Bush's idealism prevents him from negotiating with undemocratic regimes like Iran and North Korea (but not Saudi Arabia and Pakistan), but a dose of realism would work better than high-falutin' rhetoric about the virtues of democracy. See also Kaplan's take on Iraq and North Korea (well, on Bush's failure to understand what's really going on in those two countries).

Kuwait is another of America's undemocratic allies, but at least the prime minister, Sheik Sabah al-Jaber al-Sabah has promised full political rights for women and may appoint a woman to a cabinet post once women get the right to vote. That's something.

Bush's vision of a democratic Middle East is a noble one -- one that liberals should applaud. But it takes more than a vision to change the course of history, and that's where Bush -- despite recent events (such as Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon) that may in part be attributable to his aggressive, unilateral foreign policy -- is the wrong man for the job. He's got the vision-thing his father lacked, but his accidental successes don't make up for inconsistency, foolishness, and, worst of all, recklessness.

Despite all the bad news, day after day, there is a glimmer of hope in the Middle East. It's too bad there's a statesmanship vacuum in the White House.

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  • Questions: The word "promoting" means outside intervention, so what kind of intervention is needed? Is Washington viewed as a legitimate promoter of democracy in the region? What about Europe? What about women's rights and democratization? What are the links between economic opportunities and political reform? Does promotion of civil-society organizations bring change? Could such efforts be co-opted or controlled by existing governments?

    The US brings its own problems to its relationship with the Middle East: the narrow range of organizations with which Washington typically engages, popular antipathy to Washington's policies in the region, and the challenge of designing effective assistance programs.

    US plan for Iraq was adapted from the 1975 Helsinki pact that was used by the West to push for greater freedom and human rights in the former Soviet Union and Bloc countries. There are significant differences between former USSR and the Arab countries: history, religion, politics, culture, government…
    The Western view of the Middle East as a kind of geo-political entity is largely an invention by the West, termed over 200 years ago as a security concept for the protection of British colonial interests in India. As a region, it exists mainly in the minds of Western strategic planners
    The US plan ignores the underlying problems: why is press freedom restricted, why is government not transparent, why do women lack rights? What are the obstacles? Why has democracy in the Middle East not progressed further than it has? In the minds of President Bush and the US Gov’t, is tyranny; "bad guys" like Saddam Hussein or fanatical Iranian clerics who trample over people's freedom, but once disposed of, everything will be fine.

    In countries that have had grappled with war and civil unrest e.g. Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran there are the immediate issues of security, disaster relief and support in combating illegal trade in drugs and weapons. These immediate needs must be dealt with before tackling the ideas of supporting the ideas of economic, political, educational reform, and empowerment of women.

    Three main conditions for democratic political change: autonomy from regimes, a pro-democracy agenda, and the ability to build coalitions.

    There are four particular barriers to democracy in the Middle East: the imperial legacy, oil wealth, the Arab-Israeli conflict and what is usually called militant Islam or backward-looking Islam.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:30 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:14 AM  

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