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U.S. Finds Allies in Repressive Arab Regimes

Commentary

Only systems that are authoritarian can force the peoples of the Middle East to swallow an attack on Iraq.

March 10, 2003|Shibley Telhami | Shibley Telhami is a professor at the University of Maryland, senior fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution and author of "The Stakes: America and the Middle East" (Westview Press, 2002).

Within days of President Bush's speech articulating a vision of democracy in the Middle East after a war with Iraq, a sobering reality set in.

The powerful security forces of the authoritarian government in Pakistan delivered the most important catch to date in the war on Al Qaeda: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the possible mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

They were able to do it because Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has put everything on the line to back the U.S. war on Al Qaeda -- even though it means challenging the passions of significant portions of his public.

Similarly, in the Arab world, most authoritarian governments, whose populations are overwhelmingly opposed to such a war, have decided to cooperate with the American effort anyway.

And it is the very absence of democracy that has enabled these authoritarian governments to respond to Washington's unpopular requests.

In contrast, Turkey -- the one Muslim democracy in the Middle East, a member of NATO and usually a staunch American ally, a country offered billions of dollars in American aid to say yes -- said no to American forces on its soil.

The reason was clear: Even its Islamist-supported government, which backed the presence of American troops, could not persuade the democratic parliament to overlook the fact that nine out of 10 Turks oppose the war.

Democracy spoke.

These trends are symptomatic of the history of American relations with the Middle East, which often have inclined Washington to follow policies that had the consequence of bolstering authoritarianism.

Whatever the intent, a war with Iraq is likely to perpetuate repression in the Middle East, not spread democracy, at least in the short term.

The pattern is clear. As we pursue policies that are highly unpopular in the Middle East, we ask, indeed insist, that governments support these policies.

To accomplish this, those governments unleash their security forces to prevent dissent, to contain public demonstrations, to limit freedom of speech, to disrupt any potential organization from undermining their stability. In the case of war in Iraq, the regimes fear that passions could be inflamed if there are many civilian casualties, so they plan ahead with particular ruthlessness. More and more of their resources go to keeping the security forces strong and happy -- resources that are enhanced by the deals that we make to gain their support.

Consider the facts as Washington's preparations for an Iraq war accelerate today. The public in Arab and Muslim countries remains passionately opposed to the war. Many authoritarian governments in the region have decided that it is easier for them to resist their publics than to resist Washington.

These regimes have begun preparing for war by unleashing their security services to stifle dissent, including in places such as Jordan, where the government genuinely believes that it is in its long-term interest to liberalize its political system. The regimes see their stability, even survival, to be on the line.

Certainly, some governments try to launch public information campaigns to reduce the public's anger. Jordan, for example, began a campaign in November declaring that "Jordan is first," meaning that the kingdom would not allow the issue of Iraq to undermine its vital interests.

Egypt's official media have begun to shift the blame for possible war to Iraq so as to reduce the anger against the United States and thus against the Egyptian government for cooperating with the U.S.

These measures make some difference, but a lot less than they used to because, with the advent of satellite television broadcasting, governments no longer monopolize information in the region.

The more access the public has to information, the less effective the government's spin. In fully democratic countries like Spain, Italy and Britain, the determined efforts of national leaders to support the war have had little effect on public opinion, which remains strongly opposed.

The consequences of war are unpredictable, and there may be some pleasant surprises. More likely, however, U.S. success in helping forge a new government in Baghdad that respects human rights is likely to be modest. It is also likely that a modest success story in Iraq -- enabled by a large American occupation force in a key Arab state -- will not be seen as an inspiring model.

Democracy has to grow from within, and any strategy that ignores public sentiment while trying to nurture it is doomed to fail.

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