The West Should Support Democracy in the Arab World

Two arguments are regularly raised against the promotion of democracy in the Arab world: first, that Arabs are culturally or constitutionally incapable of, or uninterested in, self-rule; second, that democracy will briskly devolve into Islamist tyranny. Elliott Abrams contends that the naysayers are wrong on both counts:

[I]t is very hard to argue that Arabs . . . would prefer living in states where the police are free to grab you from your home, beat you, and jail you—or would prefer living in states where a dictator steals a vast fortune, makes his son his successor, and silences anyone who complains about it. And indeed, repeated and respectable surveys do show that Arabs want democracy. . . . But will Arab democracies be “illiberal democracies,” where majority rule will be the means of imposing constraints on freedom? They will, in two areas: religion and sexual matters, to a degree. . . . Beyond these areas, [however], it is reasonable to expect Arab democracies to meet the standard Western definitions of what democracy means. . . .

The [successful transition to democracy in] Tunisia does suggest that democracy is possible, and it has been achieved in other Muslim states around the world, from Senegal to Indonesia. The very great obstacles to achieving democracy tell us that the struggle will be long and arduous. . . .

[Furthermore], the argument that dictators are the best bulwark against Islamist victories is also wrong. This is because Islamism, whether armed or unarmed, is a set of ideas about how the state should be governed, how God wants society to be ordered, and how people should conduct themselves in public life. Every Muslim country will have to debate whether those ideas are in fact sensible and true to the Quran, or are heretical, inhuman, and unworkable. [But] policemen and soldiers can never win that debate. They can jail or shoot Islamists, but they can never defeat them and win the debate because they themselves have no ideas. What ideas, after all, did [the ousted Tunisian dictator] Ben Ali or [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak have to offer young citizens? They stood for family rule in fake republics, for immense theft of public funds, and for repression of freedom. It is no wonder that they could not defeat Islamism.

For that to be achieved, better and more persuasive ideas must be proffered—and that requires politics, and debate, and freedom of thought and speech. The last two decades in Turkey provide an object lesson. [There military] coups and the banning of Islamist parties did nothing to undermine support for the Islamist cause. Indeed, one can argue that the coups undermined support for [secular] parties; they certainly provided no intellectual or spiritual arguments against the Islamists.

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More about: Arab democracy, Arab Spring, Arab World, Islamism, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy

When It Comes to Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Word Can’t Be Trusted

July 13 2018

In the upcoming summit between the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki, the future of Syria is likely to rank high on the agenda. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already made clear that Moscow won’t demand a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country. Donald Trump, by contrast, has expressed his desire for a complete U.S. withdrawal. Examining Moscow’s track record when it comes to maintaining its past commitments regarding Syria, Eli Lake urges caution:

Secretary of State John Kerry spent his last year in office following Lavrov all over the world in an attempt to create a U.S.-Russian framework for resolving the Syrian civil war. He failed. . . . President Trump [now] wants to get to know Putin better—and gauge his willingness to help isolate Iran. This is a pointless and dangerous gambit. First, by announcing his intention to pull U.S. forces out of the country “very soon,” Trump has already given away much of his leverage within Syria.

Ideally, Trump would want to establish a phased plan with Putin, where the U.S. would make some withdrawals following Iranian withdrawals from Syria. But Trump has already made it clear that prior [stated] U.S. objectives for Syria, such as the removal of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, are no longer U.S. objectives. The U.S. has also declined to make commitments to give money for Syrian reconstruction.

Without any leverage, Trump will have to rely even more on Putin’s word, which is worthless. Putin to this day denies any Russian government role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Just last month, Putin went on Austrian television and lied about his government’s role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Why would anyone trust Putin to keep his word to help remove Iran and its proxies from Syria?

And this gets to the most dangerous possible outcome of the upcoming summit. The one thing that Kerry never did was to attempt to trade concessions on Syria for concessions on Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. There was a good reason for this: even if one argues that the future of Ukraine is not a high priority for the U.S., it’s a disastrous precedent to allow one nation to change the boundaries of another through force, and particularly of one that signed an agreement with the U.S., UK, and Russia to preserve its territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its cold-war-era nuclear weapons.

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More about: Crimea, Donald Trump, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin