The U.S. is Ignoring Hard-Learned Lessons in the Middle East

tags: Middle East, Barack Obama, foreign policy, Syria, Egypt



Scot Faulkner has worked and traveled in the Middle East since 1981. He was a project leader for the business leadership initiative in Egypt. He also oversaw Eastern European parliamentary development programs while Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. http://citizenoversight.blogspot.com/



As Obama and Congress wrestle over intervening in Syria it is useful to reflect on the violence and uncertainty the United State has sown in the Middle East.

During the past eleven years, White House and State Department strategists, from both Parties, have ignored world history and plunged a key region into chaos. They also ignored Ronald Reagan’s Cold War “playbook,” which brought down the Soviet Empire and freed Eastern Europe.

Back in December 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the “Middle East Partnership Initiative” (MEPI). This was intended to create a long term “prospect of political reform” in the region. This push for democracy in Egypt, and throughout the Middle East, was promoted by President George W. Bush in his November 2003 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy. At the same time, Vice President Cheney’s daughter, Liz Cheney, was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs to manage MEPI.

The mounting death toll and uncertainty throughout the Middle East is proving that MEPI was ill conceived and poorly executed.

Firstly, those developing and implementing MEPI forgot or misunderstood how modern democracy evolved. Except for the unique experiment in fourth-century-B.C. Athens, democracy took a thousand years, and countless lives, to take root and flower.

Starting with the first humans, there were already aspects of “government by the consent of the governed.” Hunter gatherers anointed leaders of their family groups or small tribes by selecting the eldest family member or the best hunter. As larger settlements evolved, these early leaders became warlords who enforced their power through force or mysticism.

It became a long road from a warlord choosing a council of advisors, to the people selecting those advisors, to the warlord (now King) being selected by the people or those advisors. The drivers for this evolution to democracy and universal suffrage were economic liberty and localism. The problem in the Middle East is that neither element is present.

The path to European democracy began because Humans are naturally entrepreneurial. It did not take long after the Vikings and other raiders settled down that towns and trade arose throughout Northern Europe. The moment merchants could exchange goods in safety, economic activity burst from out of castle walls and pulled away from the control of the nobility. Anywhere land and water met, or roads crossed, commerce occurred and towns grew.

By the twelfth century, towns, like Lübeck in Germany, were growing large enough to have their own governance. They still paid homage and taxes to nobles, but day-to-day commercial activity was now locally controlled by town councils and by skilled associations of artisans. The guild (or hansa) was the professional certifying association of its day. Among the towns along the Baltic Sea, trade was formalized as the “Hanseatic League” in 1356.

Local governance, except during the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was focused on the basics of human existence. This includes water, sewer, garbage, roads, and safety. By focusing on the engineering aspects of daily life, people learned how to work together, sorted out differences, and developed the vital attributes of civilization -- tolerance of differences balanced with rules of engagement.

Localism, therefore, becomes a proving and training ground for self governance and basic democracy. The U.S. State Department’s “nation building” ignores this maxim in favor of consolidating power nationally. American diplomats may want to project U.S. influence from the safety of a central embassy complex instead of braving the risks of unpaved roads and rural hamlets.

It may also have something to do with “one size fits all” dogmatism. Afghanistan has always been run by local tribes and warlords, and occasionally with a titular King to referee disputes and rally the region against a common threat. Yet, the U.S. imposed a centralized government that is not working. Iraq was three distinct provinces under the Ottoman Empire for four hundred years. Instead of forming a federated state, the U.S. imposed a highly centralized government that is not working. America is a federal system with large swaths of local autonomy for state, counties, and municipalities -- so why didn’t we consider this model for others?

Localism would work wonders in the Middle East. This is not tribalism, but a focus on a community that transcends family and sectarian loyalties. There is no Sunni or Shiite way to pave a road, collect trash, or provide clean water. They could draw inspiration from Muhammad’s Constitution of Medina [622 A.D.], which established the concept of “ummah” -- cooperation among all people (of every religion and ethnic group) within a local community. Locals would have to work together and develop their own democratic culture, just like Europe did. It takes time -- maybe centuries, certainly decades. It will not always be trouble or violence free. The ultimate bottom line at the local level is not about which religious or ethnic group triumphs, but whether tangible quality of life can occur. Such mundane measures can quell many conflicts.

Economic freedom is the other driver for democracy. Once people can make a living with little or no meddling from the noble, they begin to realize that the noble needs them more than they need the noble. The noble wants to maintain his castle and his knights both for protect and ego. For this he needs to charge fees or taxes. Once independent towns grew outside of castle walls, or far away from manor lands, people had the freedom and mobility to “vote with their feet.” Is a noble is cruel, corrupt, or charges extortionary taxes? Then move to the next village.

Economic vitality and localism in England drove a centuries’ long migration from King over the people to people over the King. In 1215, local English nobles forced King John to sign the Magna Carta declaring he could not levy taxes without their consent. This pivotal document also outlined rules of law that shape Western democracy and justice to this day.

The Magna Carta also initiated a tug-of-war between king and subjects. Various implementing documents rapidly expanded the voice and power of land owners, such as Provisions of Oxford [1258]; Statute of Marlborough [1267]; and the Provisions of Westminster [1259]. The economic vitality of the towns forced the recognition of commoners as representatives of the people separate from the nobility. By 1341, the Commons began to meet separately from the nobility and clergy (now the House of Lords) in Parliament.

Parliament, now with two chambers, expanded its role from validating royal edicts to initiating its own edicts, and ultimately to reviewing and even rejecting the king’s actions. By 1485, the king was no longer a member of Parliament. By this time a member of either chamber could present a "bill" to Parliament. Bills supported by the monarch were introduced by Members of the Privy Council, who sat in Parliament. In order for a bill to become law it had to be approved by a majority of both Houses of Parliament before it went to the king for their approval or veto. The basic outlines of western democracy were forming.

In the seventeenth century, Charles I tried to reverse these arrangements, fought and lost a civil war, and then lost his head. The British Parliament sanctioned dictatorship, then returned to the old ways, before finally establishing the power to remove or anoint kings during the “Glorious Revolution” in November 1688. In 1701, the “Act of Settlement” codified the preeminence of parliament and began the English constitutional monarchy.

The lesson of this English Civil War is lost on the U.S. in the Middle East -- when dictators fall, the most fanatical and well-organized faction takes power, even under “democratic” circumstances. Upheavals favor the fanatics. Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin, and Hitler are just some on the long list of dictators who exploited power vacuums.

In England, once a separate parliamentary body presented itself as representing “the people” a new evolution of who are “the people” took place. In 1430, “the people’s” “franchise” was limited to Forty Shilling Male Freeholders. As commerce and the Industrial Revolution shifted the rural population into ever larger and crowded towns and cities “the people” demanded representation that reflected the true nature of the community. It took decades, but in 1832 the “Great” Reform Act enfranchised millions of male citizens.

Thus began the suffrage movement to expand the franchise to women. In 1893, New Zealand became the first self-governing nation to extend the right to vote to all adult women. In 1906, Finland became the first European nation to give women the right to vote. During and after World War I, women finally achieved their full voting rights in Britain (1918), the Netherlands (1919), and the United States (August 26, 1920). Voting rights for African Americans were not granted until the Fifteenth Amendment (ratified on February 3, 1870), and not fully enforced until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This description of the development of democracy in England and the west is totally lost on U.S. policy makers and implementers. It took 704 years from the signing of the Magna Carta to women suffrage for England to be a true democracy. America benefited from its British legacy, but it still took 133 years for women to vote, and 83/178 years for African Americans to vote.

So, is it any wonder that Egypt did not “get it right the first time”? Is it any wonder that the “Arab Spring” has become a “winter of discontent”? It is any wonder that the king of Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf State royals, is not enthusiastic about making the great Democratic leap? The America model, as pushed by the neocons and the last two administrations, is out of time and place with the region. Economic freedom must come, which means companies need to arise without a royal family member on their board. Independent businessmen must achieve economic liberty, and become community leaders, before ballot boxes are distributed.

Ironically, this was the original U.S. plan for Egypt. In 2000, the University of Maryland and other academic institutions partnered with USAID and the State Department to develop the top fifty businesses in Egypt. The goal was for these companies, some former parastatals, to become profitable and regionally competitive. Other programs were designed to prepare these business leaders to become community leaders. By 2004, the potential for a post-Mubarak Egypt being based upon a European style business-driven Democratic society was in reach.

In April 2004, the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI) was launched as part of President Bush’s "forward strategy of freedom." The plan was to expand political rights and political participation in the Muslim world in order to combat the appeal of Islamist extremism. Bush and his advisors forgot that economic opportunity historically comes before political. Enter Liz Cheney and MEPI. Being a former teacher, Cheney felt education reform was the better path to democracy than nurturing a capitalist elite. USAID, the Egyptian business community, and the U.S. embassy, pushed back. Her father, the vice president, sided with her vision of the future. Instead of embracing history and allowing economic freedom to ferment political reform, Egypt ended up with educated unemployed youths who looked to the fanatical fringe for salvation.

The tragedy of Egypt is not just the ignoring of how and why modern democracies rise; it is also about forgetting how Reagan controlled the democracy curve in Eastern Europe. During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration took numerous “active measures,” overt and covert, to topple the Soviet Empire. Reagan and his inner circle realized that removing tyrants was only half the challenge. They knew they had to be proactive in developing those who would replace the Eastern European dictators. Starting in 1981, legions of Reaganite grassroots and youth activists joined with English Thatcherites to tutor Eastern European dissidents on electoral politics. When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989 its ripple effects were anticipated and exploited by thousands of well-prepared political leaders and campaign workers, who assured Democratic moderate factions prevailed in the elections that occurred. The European Union, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Congress all became proactive in schooling these newly elected leaders in parliamentary processes, accountability, and constituent services. This comprehensive, strategic, and highly proactive approach to democratic transformation was completely missing during the Arab Spring.

Without economic freedom and localism, there was no economic or grassroots elites to fill the voids as the Middle East dictators fell. No campaign workshops were held for moderate factions any where in the region. The only organized groups were the fanatics in each country. Democracy may have provided the means, but because of America’s mistakes, it did not become the ends.


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