02 August 2007

02 August 2007 - The Sharansky doctrine, abandoned

The Bush administration has announced a series of arms deals with so-called “moderate” Arab states, and is beginning talks with others. It has also formally signed onto the Arab peace initiative. The quid pro quo for this is supposedly cooperation with security in Iraq and participation in the upcoming Middle East peace conference that is meant to kick off a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Presumably, American endorsement of the Arab peace plan does not override earlier Bush commitments to Ariel Sharon that Israel would not be required to withdraw fully to the 1949 armistice lines. And it is likely that the shared strategic goals driving these new alliances are a) containing and opposing Iran’s influence in the region and b) preventing any future Hamas-style Islamist coups in the region.

Democracy and human rights—the justifications that Bush belatedly found for the Iraq war, and which led folks like me to offer qualified endorsement of his foreign policies—are out the window for now. Facing new domestic political pressures, the administration decided to throw out the so-called “neoconservative” hawks and bring back the old so-called “realists,” who are happy to support “our” dictators.

Gone is the Sharansky doctrine—the idea that dictatorial regimes can never be trusted to honor peace agreements because they need an external enemy to survive. The Sharansky logic suggests that democracies should use pressure, not offer concessions, in dealing with the rulers of “fear societies.” Create agreements, by all means—but on the terms set by free societies. Only then will peace be possible.

Israel—which also received a large boost in military aid as a sort of consolation prize—is reportedly worried about the fact that its most intransigent enemies are about to get sophisticated military technology. That’s not what worried me: my first thought was that sooner or later—probably sooner—American weapons are going to be used by these Arab leaders to repress their own people. Does anyone care?

According to the Sharansky doctrine, we should. Giving weapons to autocratic regimes only causes them to be more hated and feared by their people, who will also hate and fear America more. That, in turn, will legitimize violence and create support for populist religious extremism. In short, making dictators stronger only adds to the fear in fear societies and makes them more unsafe for democracy.

There are, I would argue, limits to the Sharansky doctrine. I think he was wrong about the Gaza disengagement—though perhaps correct in his anticipation of the results—because I think Israel had to be mindful of its own freedom. Enforcing the occupation has contributed to the overall erosion of the rule of law in Israel—and the rule of law is the true foundation of all human rights and freedom.

So—if the Sunni Arab states can be brought on board in a coalition that backs a real Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it may be worth striking deals with them. But arms? If they don’t end up in the hands of terror groups—as those brand-new Fatah rifles did in Gaza—they’ll still be used to terrorize innocent people. If the Sunni regimes are so afraid of Iran, why does the U.S. need to offer them anything at all?

The counter-argument, by now, is familiar: the U.S. can’t force dictatorial regimes to democratize; ater all, look what has happened in Iraq. Assuming Iraq is a failure (and this still seems a premature assumption to me), did it fail because bringing democracy through force of arms can never work, or because the same regimes we are now calling allies set themselves to making sure Iraqi democracy imploded?

Perhaps the so-called “neoconservative” ideal did fail in one important way—namely, in that the U.S. lacks the capacity to create democracy in the Middle East on its own. When Bush opened the post-Saddam box, Tom Friedman warned, it would either get Germany or Yugoslavia. It got Yugoslavia, and perhaps an administration so opposed to government was not destined to build nations after all.

But that does not mean democracy is impossible in the Middle East. Containment and deterrence are still important strategic options—not just with regard to Iran, but the Sunni states as well. Those strategies, plus the moral leadership of the U.S. in actively promoting freedom—and a freedom compatible with religious piety, which is really the core of the American model—could provide real long-term peace.

I am not as worried about the shift in American foreign policy as much as I am about the speed with which it has happened. Two years ago, Condoleeza Rice was lecturing Egypt about the need for democratic reforms. Now she’s arming their fragile yet fear-mongering government with high-tech made-in-the-U.S.A. hardware—and for what? What is really going on in the White House?

I have no more confidence in the Democrats, who are floating crazy military adventures like invading Pakistan to compensate for their cut-and-run stance on Iraq. I am amazed that so few presidential candidates seem prepared to place American values at the center of American foreign policy. Everyone has some crazy kiss-‘n’-kill scheme. How long must the U.S. repeat the mistakes of the past?

A word or two is due in praise of the Iraqi national soccer team, which just won the Asian championship. Here come a bunch of guys who used to get tortured every time they lost, from a country where home games are basically impossible due to the threat of suicide bombing, and who may not even be playing under one flag in a few years’ time, and they go and beat the continent’s beat. Olé, olé, olé!

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