Thursday, March 24, 2011

Taking Sides against Islamists?

Ray Takeyh worries in the Washington Post that the Islamists will take over the democratizing Middle East. He therefore argues the U.S. must uphold its "moral obligation of political partiality" towards secular democrats. To do so, he recommends economic aid packages and "standing with emerging secular parties and youth activists."

While I understand his concern about Islamists, his second recommendation is misguided. First, it's not clear what exactly "standing with" actually means. Presumably he means giving money and technical assistance. But it's not certain whether these groups actually want that kind of help. While Takeyh rightly reminds us that the democracy protests have not been anti-American, they really haven't been pro-American either. Rather, they have been pro-Tunisian, pro-Egyptian, pro-Bahraini, etc.

For a long time, many pro-democratic groups in the Middle East have expressed ambivalance and even rejected American support for a variety of reasons. They didn't want to be painted as pawns of external forces. They disagreed with key U.S. foreign policies. They worried about the strings attached. These worries still remain.

Second, the U.S. has made serious mistakes in the past when choosing sides. As a recent and especially damaging example, we became enamored with Ahmed Chalabi, whose machinations not only propelled us to war in Iraq, but stymied our efforts at nearly every turn after 2003. We now consider him an Iranian agent.

Third, from a more philosophical standpoint, by choosing sides in a democratic system, we oddly imply that we do not trust democracy to produce just outcomes. Too much of the debate over Islamists have focused on whether they will "moderate" in a democratic system. Instead, we should consider how successful democratic systems force a moderation of political outcomes.

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
In other words, a true democratic system does not only reflect the will of the people. It also establishes checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power. Men aren't angels, and therefore rules and institutions must curb his baser instincts.
It is that observation that has ensured America's success as the oldest democracy in the world. It is why our system can absorb everyone from Glenn Beck to Code Pink. It is also what can ensure the building of a sound foundation for the world's newest democracies in Tunisia and Egypt.
Far from choosing sides, we must help the Middle East build systems that favor all sides and therefore favor no side. Legitimate constitutions. Free and fair elections. Independent judiciaries. Empowered legislatures. Unfettered press. Such institutions, if properly established and preserved, will render fears of an Islamist (or any other) takeover obsolete. Luckily, it is also exactly the kind of assistance most Arabs will accept graciously.

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