16 June 2011

Democracy promotion and the 'Jasmine Revolution'

      The 'Arab Spring' seems to have taken the Middle East, and everyone else, a bit by surprise.  While the Pentagon sweats at the thought of a North Africa full of little Irans, the State Department clicks its heels and throws on its apron, anxious to get in the kitchen and start cookin' up some democracy:

In the wake of the democratic revolutions sweeping the region, the State Department is rapidly trying to reevaluate its approach to Middle East democracy promotion. But without a budget for fiscal 2011, and with no idea of what awaits their budget in fiscal 2012, State is being forced to move money around to speed funds to the Arab countries that are trying to make the difficult transition to democracy.

'Democracy' is what they have now.  'Some other kind of democracy' is what the author maybe meant, but perhaps he had a word limit.

In any case fear not, brave tax-payer, you'll do your bit to help the Arabs get 'some other kind of democracy.'  In fact, you already are:

Three weeks ago, the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative sent Congress what's known as a "congressional notification," requesting permission to shift $29 million in funds from other programs in the region. State wants to shift $20 million to democracy promotion efforts in Tunisia and around the region. Another $7 million would go supporting rule of law and political development programs in the Middle East. $1 million would go to youth councils in Yemen.

In order to fund these initiatives, $10 million would be taken away from the "Tomorrow's Leaders" program, which provides scholarships for Arab youth to attend college at three U.S.-accredited universities in the Middle East.

$20 million here, $29 million there, and before you know it you'll see Switzerland on the Sahara, Norway on the Nile, Luxembourg on the Levant.  Why?  Because some values are universal, that's why:

The Advance Democracy Act of 2005 is the most important bill to come out of Congress on democracy promotion since the 1983 initiative to establish the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). [...] The bill's introductory observation is that the continued lack of democracy in some countries is inconsistent with the universal values on which the U.S. is based, and that this situation poses a national security threat to the U.S. and its friends.

Foggy Bottom says so.

Raphael Patai disagrees.  He gives two defining traits of the Middle East, of which the first will come as no surprise (all emphasis ours):

Religionism can be defined as the domination by religion of life as a whole, on all levels, individual, familial, social, cultural, and even national and political.

Not necessarily fatal to democracy.  But the other?

Familism can be defined as the centrality of the family in social organization, its primacy in the loyalty scale, and its supremacy over individual life.

So what's wrong with caring about your family?

Negative and in the larger sense disruptive correlates of this type of 'familism' are interfamilial tension, competition, and enmity which, in the centuries of Arab and Muslim history, have repeatedly caused protracted and far-flung blood feuds, and have occasionally developed or, if you will, degenerated, into large-scale bloody internecine wars sapping the strength of the people in many a part of the Middle East. (1)


But so did the Hatfields and the McCoys, really, and in any case, today these people drive SUVs and talk on iPhones and eat pizza.  Aren't they, as Thomas Friedman promises, just like us?

David Pryce-Jones (having long sojourned in the Middle East, unlike Mr. Friedman) sums up Arabs:

Honor is what makes life worthwhile: shame is a living death.

(Mansour Khalid:)  'There is a strong correlation between honor and group cohesion and group survival.  Honorable behaviour is that which strengthens the group...while shameful is that which tends to disrupt, endanger, impair, or weaken it.'  (2)

'Shame' and 'honor,' then, are the only things that count?  Ever?

A woman's immodesty or unfaithfulness forfeits her honor and shames the men in the family in whose keeping this honor is vested.  Men must put the lapse right at all costs, if need be killing the dishonored woman. A man who kills his wife or daughter for her unfaithfulness, real or supposed, goes to prison glad to have preserved his family's honor. [...]  His only alternatives are to be dishonored himself or to leave the community altogether.  The community thinks well of him as he pays whatever the penalty may be.  (2)

Western democracy, we've been told for centuries, is based on the notion of contract.  And for Arabs?

Shame-honor ranking effectively prohibits the development of wider, more socialized types of human relationship. Status considerations of the kind are impervious to Western concepts of contractual relationships.

Pierre Bourdieu, the French social anthropologist, has pointed out that no dishonor attaches to such primary transactions as selling short weight, deceiving anyone about quality, quantity or kind of goods, cheating at gambling, and bearing false witness.  The doer of these things is merely quicker off the mark than the next fellow; owing him nothing, he is not to be blamed for taking what he can.  (2)

And for the larger society?

Shame-honor considerations reinforce power challenging from the top to the bottom of Arab society.  To take the everyday matter of wanting to obtain a job, a young man approaches the head of his family or clan, his patron.  The head of the family is under obligation to do his very best to make sure that his kinsman is given what he asks for.  The honor of the whole family is at stake. [...]  In the event  of the job going to someone else, the patron becomes the object of shame, and his standing is under threat [...] Whether or not the young man deserved the job is no kind of consideration.  Civic spirit, the good of the community, or mere consideration of who could best perform the job in hand has no part in these proceedings. (2)

A modern pump, some ambitious local leader thinks will improve agriculture in his village. Money will flow in, and the credit will be his, he will earn a reputation as a patron.  Warning him of technical obstacles, a consultant succeeds only in making the local leader feel ignorant, provoking a shame reaction that makes him dig in his heels.  ... Installed, the pump [...] precipitates the ruin of the village agriculture.  Instead of being blamed for promoting an imperfectly analyzed project, the local leader will be honored for knowing how to get his way.  (2)

Norvell de Atkine, military adviser to many an Arab army, confirms it:

American military instructors dealing with Middle Eastern students learn to ensure that, before directing any question to a student in a classroom situation, particularly if he is an officer, the student does possess the correct answer. If this is not assured, the officer may feel he has been deliberately set up for public humiliation. In the often-paranoid environment of Arab political culture, he may then become an enemy of the instructor, and his classmates will become apprehensive about their also being singled out for humiliation — and learning becomes impossible.  (3)

Corruption, that scourge of the modern democracy...Can it be snuffed out in the Middle East?

Corruption among Arabs is nothing more nor less than the daily functioning among everyone of the power-challenge dialectic, and it is registering individual advances and retreats everywhere and at all times. Corruption plays a role approximating to competition in a democracy.

The well-connected Arab not in high office would be the cause for scandal and shame to his family.  Public examinations for admission to universities, government departments, the armed forces and particularly officer training colleges, the law, and institutions in general are therefore less meritocratic matters than a vast jockeying for place and influence.  (2)

Where suspicion and status-obsession reign, the simplest tasks become a labyrinth:

In Western societies, licenses, passports, certificates of import and export, tax returns, legal judgments, bureaucratic documentation of every type represent contractual or defined dealings between the state and the individual and are negotiable only to the extent that the relevant law is imprecisely worded. [...]  In Arab countries, every one of the signatures on those indispensable bureacratic pieces of paper represents power to some particular holder.  The decision to dispense or to withhold the signature vitally adjusts power between one person and the next and must be treated accordingly, well prepared, and paid for.  (2)

De Atkine has witnessed this almost comical obsession with prestige:

On one occasion, an American mobile [military] training team working with armor in Egypt at long last received the operators’ manuals that had laboriously been translated into Arabic. The American trainers took the newly minted manuals and distributed them to the tank crews. Right behind them, the company commander promptly collected the manuals from those crews. Questioned why he did this, the commander said that there was no point in giving them to the drivers because enlisted men could not read. In point of fact, he did not want enlisted men to have an independent source of knowledge. Being the only person who could explain the fire control instrumentation or bore sight artillery weapons brought prestige and attention.  (3)

And what of democracy, its healthy competition?

Head-to-head competition among individuals is generally avoided, at least openly, for it means that someone wins and someone else loses, with the loser humiliated. This taboo has particular import when a [military school] class contains mixed ranks. Education is in good part sought as a matter of personal prestige, so Arabs in U.S. military schools take pains to ensure that the ranking member, according to military position or social class, scores the highest marks in the class.  (3)

In the Middle East, all honor goes to the victor; the vanquished is dishonored.  There is no honor in "playing fairly," "doing your best," or "upholding the rules." [...]  Applied to state governance, this spirit advises monopoly of power, ruthless suppression of opponents, and accumulation of benefits.  In short, it is a recipe for despotism, for tyranny.  (4)

Its notion of serving the public good?

Western vocabularies of appeals to public opinion and national rights of course have no foundation in a power-challenging society. [...]  The spoils for the successful careerist are irresistible.  'Public welfare' is a concept without meaningful application; there is no common good.  Generosity is suspect as a ploy for advantage.  Idealism and sincerity are penalized.  Self-sacrifice is akin to lunacy or martyrdom.  (2)

Its egalitarian spirit?

'The Egyptian mercilessly tyrannizes over those below him in station, he is arrogant towards those equal to him, while towards those above him he is submissive and humiliates himself to the very limit of abasement.'   (2)

The show-and-tell aspects of [military] training are frequently missing because officers refuse to get their hands dirty and prefer to ignore the more practical aspects of their subject matter, believing this below their social station. A dramatic example of this occurred during the Gulf War when a severe windstorm blew down the tents of Iraqi officer prisoners of war. For three days they stayed in the wind and rain rather than be observed working with their hands by enlisted prisoners in a nearby camp. [...] This problem results from a highly accentuated class system bordering on a caste system.  (3)

Its alternation of power by free, fair elections?

Tribal life is characterized by unlimited factional conflict, [...] or the effective balance breaks down, and one party is able to dominate, which in the tribal context usually means that the weaker parties are driven out altogether.  (4)

[Arab politics is a] reality which defies all but the greatest novelists:  a lifelong questing for power, the gradual sensing and probing for potential allies of similar ambition, the conspiracy into which crucial friends are admitted and from which others have to be excluded, and ever-present awareness that the trusted friend is best placed as a mortal traitor, double-crossings and feints and denunciations, calculations over the smallest matters of promotion and demotion, the scrutiny for those imperceptible details of manner of facial cast which may reveal someone's inner purpose.  (3)

Its intra-governmental cooperation?  'Checks and balances'?

Middle Eastern rulers routinely rely on balance-of-power techniques to maintain their authority. They use competing organizations, duplicate agencies, and coercive structures dependent upon the ruler's whim. This makes building any form of personal power base difficult, if not impossible, and keeps the leadership apprehensive and off-balance, never secure in its careers or social position. The same applies within the military; a powerful chairman of the joint chiefs is inconceivable.
Any large-scale exercise of [military] land forces is always a matter of concern to the government and is closely observed, particularly if live ammunition is being used. In Saudi Arabia a complex system of clearances required from area military commanders and provincial governors, all of whom have differing command channels to secure road convoy permission, obtaining ammunition, and conducting exercises, means that in order for a coup to work it would require a massive amount of loyal conspirators. The system has proven to be coup-proof, and there is no reason to believe it will not work well into the future. (3)

Its motto "The buck stops here?"

Taking responsibility for a policy, operation, status, or training program rarely occurs. U.S. [military] trainers can find it very frustrating when they repeatedly encounter Arab officers placing blame for unsuccessful operations or programs on the U.S. equipment or some other outside source. A high rate of non-operational U.S. equipment is blamed on a “lack of spare parts” — pointing a finger at an unresponsive U.S. supply system despite the fact that American trainers can document ample supplies arriving in country and disappearing in a moribund supply system.  (3)

And most importantly, its people, who long for democratic self-rule?

(Iraqi historian Majid Khadduri, writing after independence:) 'There is an almost nostalgic longing in the Middle East, common to all political groups, for a 'strong' regime which will tolerate neither multiplicity of political parties nor anarchy of ideas [...] Arabs yearn for strong political leaders to preside over their destiny.'

Honor is accorded to the man who succeeds in capturing the state because he has truly proved his mastery, he has displayed ruthlessness beyond the imagination and capacity of the ordinary man.  (2)

Another feature of Middle Eastern nationalism is its tendency to embody itself symbolically in an autocratic father image. [...] The old Middle Eastern father image is, of course, that of the paternalistic absolute monarch, the theocratic ruler, who still [in the 1960s] functions in more or less the same sociocultural context as he used to for many centuries in the past.  (1)

"I and my cousins against the world, I and my brothers against my cousins, I against my brothers."

       The notion that we get the leaders and the governments we ourselves create is, for many, anathema.  Akin to saying a battered woman stays because at some level she wants to.

Yet both are true.  Tragic, but true.  Samuel Huntington  warned us twenty years ago that

"Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance" in other cultures.  Furthermore, "efforts to propagate such ideas produce instead a reaction against 'human rights imperialism' and a reaffirmation of indigenous values."

Arab countries have been 'transitioning  to democracy' for better than sixty years now (save the Gulf states, never truly colonized and thus, one presumes, 'transitioning to democracy' since Antiquity).

In most cases, incredibly, they are less democratic today than they were under French or British protectorate in the 1920s and 30s.  Continuing to shovel U.S. taxpayer dollars down the black hole of 'Arab democracy promotion' is a sad admission that we've succumbed to pious lies and childish fantasies.  A people who truly desires Western-style democracy will put it in place, with no outside help whatsoever.  That's what Westerners did.  A people who doesn't won't.

Let us leave Arabs to keep living the only way they can, by their 'indigenous values,' and let us keep our 'universal values' where they belong-- in that universe called the West.

   (1) Patai, Raphael, Golden River to Golden Road: Society, Culture, and Change in the Middle East, Philadelphia, U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1962.
   (2) Pryce-Jones, David, A Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs, New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
   (3) De Atkine, Norvell B.,  'Why Arabs Lose Wars,' Middle East Quarterly, Dec. 1999, Vol. 6, No. 2.
   (4) Salzman, Philip Carl, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, Amherst: Humanity Books, 2008. 

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