April 16, 2012
To the editor:
Haviland Smith’s article “Transition to Democracy in the Middle East” (March, 2012) is a cogent and realistic analysis of the situation in the Islamic world that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan, along the southern shores of the Mediterranean and across the Middle East. It is far superior to the articles one finds on the editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers and to the gibberings of the television gurus. I feel certain that our political and military leaders have less understanding of the realities of the situation in this world of Islam than does Haviland Smith. His article needs to be widely read and assimilated.
I would like to point out one slight error, undoubtedly inadvertent, in his analysis. He writes, “... conversion attempts [to democracy] have been going on since the 11th century crusades...”. I doubt seriously that the Crusaders were motivated by a desire to introduce into the Middle East a governing concept that did not then exist in their own countries.
Although his analysis is right on target, his concluding suggestion for an American policy with respect to the Islamic world’s transition to democracy lacks substance. He limits himself to writing, “We need to...focus on supporting moderate Islamists. Only they have any possibility of successfully confronting Islamic extremists and ultimately evolving into liberal democracies. The timelines for that kind of change are likely to be measured in decades at best and centuries at worst. That is certainly true, but it is not an “action plan”. How, in fact, do we support moderate Islamists without intervening in the internal politics of an Islamic country and without creating diplomatic and commercial problems with the government in power?
The bases of a reasonable and effective “action plan” in the long term are dual. The first is the acknowledgment and understanding that all the other cultures of the world are being slowly, but inexorably, Westernized. This is true even for cultures where there exists a strong countervailing force intent upon retaining the customs and usages of the ancient culture. This is a phenomenon that began with the creation of Western European colonial empires and has gained strength and momentum over the centuries. The pace at which this Westernization occurs and the depth to which it penetrates vary considerably from culture to culture, but it is manifest in all cultures. And it is not difficult to envision a time when all cultures will be thoroughly Westernized with differences like those between the United States and Great Britain, between France and Italy, etc.
The second basis for an “action plan” is the establishment of a strategic vision. From the Berlin Blockade until the dissolution of the Soviet Union the strategic goal of American diplomacy was the containment of Communism. To achieve this goal, tactical decisions were made, tactical actions were taken. Some were good, some were bad, some were very bad. In the end, those tactical actions, coupled with the inherent flaws in the doctrine of Communism, brought about the end of the Soviet Union and the end of a Communist threat. They also brought about the end of a strategic vision to United States foreign policy.
Since 1991 United States foreign policy has been essentially tactical, responding to situations as they occur with the means at hand, which have too often been military. If the United States wishes and wants to support a transition to democracy in the countries of the Islamic world, it will need to establish that as a strategic goal and base its achievement on the continuing Westernization of Islamic culture.
If we assume that the United States government does choose the establishment of viable democratic governments in Islamic countries as a strategic goal, what kinds of actions can it take to facilitate the achievement of this goal? Certainly not military force. That has been tried; that is being tried. That has failed; that is failing. Certainly not by inciting people to overthrow non-democratic governments. As Haviland Smith has written, if the United States government wants to support a transition to democracy in Islamic counties, it will be a long term effort with many setbacks along the way. And it will undoubtedly be bloody. American democracy was gained in blood, was conserved in the blood bath of the Civil War, was enhanced in the blood of the 1930s labor movement and the 1960s civil rights movement. British democracy was gained in blood. French democracy was gained in blood. There is no reason to believe that the Islamic world can achieve democracy without bloodshed.
Let us assume that the United States government has the will power and the determination to lead such a long term effort, how should it begin? Modestly. American personnel in embassies and consulates should make continuing efforts to establish relations with all the various social and political groups in their respective countries to learn what they are striving for. A dialog must be established on a continuing basis with all the forces at play in the country, whether they are pro or anti-American, whether they are pro or anti-democracy. This must be a two-way educational street. American embassy and consular staff must be “proactive”. There is not just one Ambassador. There are as many ambassadors as there are embassy and consular personnel, diplomatic and non-diplomatic.
There needs to be a continuing program of guest lecturers on diverse topics in the country’s universities subsidized by the Department of State. Such lecturers could also be brought in to talk to organizations as well.
There needs to be a government-subsidized program to grant scholarships every year to young persons who wish and are qualified to attend American universities. Preferably in political science or history programs. This is something the American military have been doing for decades, but rather than universities, American military schools. The objectives are not only to teach foreign officers United States military techniques and doctrines, but also to create officers favorably disposed toward the United States.
American cultural centers, American libraries, need to be created in embassies and consulates. These centers could accomplish various tasks: teach English, make available American books, magazines, and newspapers, bring lecturers/authors from the United States to give lectures, to talk about their books, show American films.
Eliminate military assistance programs except where a country is obviously threatened by one of its neighbors. The number of such countries in the Islamic world under discussion is virtually nil. The governments that have been receiving such aid use it primarily to guarantee the allegiance of their military leadership and to improve the capability of their armed forces to dominate their populations and suppress legitimate dissent.
First and foremost, however, force Israel to negotiate seriously and honestly with the Palestinian Authority. Force Israel and the Palestinian Authority to negotiate seriously. Force” may well mean the suspension of all aid programs to Israel and to the Palestinian Authority. It could even mean stronger measures in the event either of these governments proves recalcitrant. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict has been a festering sore in the side of the Islamic body for over 40 years. It has infected the relationships of the United States with all Islamic countries. The United States government bears the major responsibility for allowing this wound to continue to fester. Until this issue is settled, the United States will never be fully accepted as sympathetic to the struggle of Muslim populations to move into the modern world. Until this issue is settled, fundamentalist Islamic groups can continue to exploit American “pro Israelism” as an indication of American bad faith.
The above are some, but only some, possible approaches to American support of an ineluctable movement, however presently inchoate, in the world’s Muslim population to move beyond the strictures of medieval Islam into an Islamic world compatible with the aspirations of a slowly, but inexorably, Westernizing population.
My congratulations to Haviland Smith for his astoundingly clear, yet succinct, analysis of the reality of today’s Islamic world and to the possibilities of democracy in it. Would that our political and military leadership have the same clear understanding of this reality. I look forward to reading other articles by him.
Benjamin L. Landis, Colonel, US Army (ret.)