Blogs > HNN > Why the U.S. Does Not Deserve Credit for the Democracy Wave Spreading Across the Middle East

Mar 8, 2005 4:44 pm

Why the U.S. Does Not Deserve Credit for the Democracy Wave Spreading Across the Middle East

Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine and author of the forthcoming books: Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil; and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948.

These are certainly exciting times in the Middle East. Even the most cynical observer can't help but feel a twinge of excitement as the peoples of the region begin to assert their right to a just, democratic, peaceful future. But if we take a step back from the celebrations--and in the United States, self-congratulation--of the last month or so a much more sober reality emerges; one which reminds us of how little has actually been accomplished on the ground and how far ahead lies the road to real democracy.

Here's the reality in the region as of the time of writing: in Afghanistan the "democratically elected" government of Hamid Karzai still controls almost no territory outside of Kabul, the capital, while opium production--much of which reaches the United States as cheap, potent, and therefore deadly heroin--has skyrocketed under the watchful eye of the US military. And, of course, the Taliban have regrouped and are increasingly powerful in the no-man's land of the frontier provinces with Pakistan. This is not surprising since three years into the American occupation Afghanistan remains perhaps the poorest country in the world.

In Palestine, free and fair elections have occurred, but it is hard to see how this will improve the lives of most Palestinians--or Israelis for the matter--in the near future. Not only has it not stopped Palestinian violence, but the Israeli government continues to expand settlement construction and has okayed a rerouting of the so-called "security fence" that will permanently alienate even more land, the sine qua non for a viable state, from Palestinians. The current scenario is in fact eerily similar to the early Oslo period, and we all know where that led. What this should tells us is that without a clear demonstration by Israel that it will relinquish practically all the territory conquered in 1967 and a concomitant renunciation of all forms of violence by Palestinians there will be no peace, no matter how many elections, conferences and aid commitments we read about.

Then there's Iraq, where we should remember the US opposed elections (in favor of a US-appointed transitional council) until the country's Shi'i religious hierarchy left us no choice but to go ahead with them. And while they were successful from the standpoint of Shi‘i and Kurdish turnout and the relatively violence-free atmosphere under which they were conducted--if we consider 40-plus dead Iraqis on election day to be relatively violence free--the violence picked up again soon after, Sunnis seem to be little closer to joining the electoral process, abuses and killing of foreign and Iraqi civilians by US troops and insurgents alike continue apace, and nothing has been done to stem the massive corruption that will destroy any possibility of building a democratic political and economic culture in the country.

The two most celebrated moves toward democracy are the announcement of multiparty elections in Egypt and the mass protests that are forcing Syria to begin a process of withdrawal from Lebanon. The US is taking credit for both of these developments, but it's hard to see how it can credibly do so, or that even if both processes played out as planned it would signify a real democratic evolution in the two countries.

Starting with Egypt, President Mubarak has signaled his support for "multiparty" elections this year; but announcing this process is a far cry from holding anything resembling a truly free and fair election in the country. Not only are democracy advocates admitting that the coming elections are sure to be rigged to ensure the ruling National Democratic party remains firmly in power, there's absolutely no guarantee that in the five to seven years before the next election that the regime won't continue to arrest democracy advocates, ban or coopt opposition parties and utilize the myriad other standard practices of authoritarian regimes that together will make the next elections little freer than this one, whatever the hoopla that might surround them.

And lest we assume the United States will keep a watchful eye on the country's democratization process, let's remember that Egypt remains America's number one destination for "rendering" high value intelligence detainees for "interrogation"--in plain language, torture--outside the bounds of US law. It's hard to see how the US will push Egypt (or Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or other rendition-friendly countries for that matter) to democratize as long as they continue to be our principal destinations for the "ghost detainees" of the war on terror.

Finally, there's Lebanon, ostensibly the most heartening development of them all. Except when we realize that the "withdrawal" of Syrian troops will likely not change much in the country. Syria has functioned in Lebanon like the mob, skimming a nice share of the cream off the country's economy in return for ensuring stability of the existing system. Rafiq Hariri believed that the Lebanese no longer needed an outside power to ensure its stability, a sentiment which likely cost him his life. But even if Syria withdrew its armed forces, innumerable Syrian intelligence agents--enforcers really--hidden amidst tens of thousands of guest workers, would remain, ensuring that the system continues to function as a combination cash cow and safety valve for Syria's otherwise moribund economy.

Naturally, none of this concerns the tens of thousands of protesters camping out in Martyr's Square in Beirut. But we need to realize several things about these protests that were already clear last fall when I visited Beirut: first, unlike the East European protest movements of the late 1980s, today's generation in Lebanon and elsewhere has no love for the United States, is not protesting in response to President Bush's rhetoric, and most protesters are as opposed to US domination of the region as to Syria's. Second, as of now, the protests don't include the most important demographic and political force in the country--young Shi‘a who are nominally supportive of pro-Syrian Hizbollah (which is, in many ways, the most democratic force in the country), without whom the democracy movement will never achieve a critical mass. To contextualize the situation: if the current protest have brought about 25,000 people into the streets, Hizbollah brought 500,000 people--roughly 20 times that number--into the streets just last month for the celebration of the Shi‘i holy day of Ashura.

It is undeniable that a seismic shift in the political landscape of the Arab world is occurring before our eyes. But before the United States can meaningfully support democratic transformation we need to understand both America's ongoing role in frustrating democracy, how marginal the democratic gains of the last six months have been on the ground, and how little President Bush's eloquent rhetoric will mean unless backed by a sea-change in the substance of US foreign policy. Only such an honest appraisal can lay the groundwork for a productive American role in the democratic transformation of the Middle East.

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Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Mr. Simon,

You make some really excellent points... If recent geopolitics play out based on past relations Syria's strongest allies have traditionally been Russia and France... Maybe France is in too deep ($$$) with Syria to consent to US military action against Damascus.

Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Would someone please explain to me why all the protest signs used in Martyr's Square in Lebanon are written in English? Doesn't it make sense that the signs should be written in Lebanese or Arabic? Is Syria the only nation with agents in country? I realize we were chased out of Lebanon following the Beruit Bombing that costs us 243 brave Marines (Mr. Reagan, that pillar of strength and determination, showed his true colors on that one) but, could the US be involved in manipulating events to foreshadow an invasion of Syria. Remember the toppling of Saddam's Statue where seemingly 100's of thousands of Iraqi's were a mere few hundred and some were paid to attend the staging of this event.

Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Mr. LeVine,

The BBC reports that 100's of thousands of Lebanese protested in support of Syria in Beruit today. Todays pro-Syria protests exceed the recent anti-Syria gatherings. Hezbollah praised Syria and warned the West against any interference in Lebanon's internal affairs.

This does not bode well for the Middle East as the US has no choice but to punish Syria. Damascus better get busy building bomb shelters because it is really going to pay a heavy price for meddling in US/ Israel affairs. It's pay back time for the '83 Beruit Bombing.

Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006


The US is not interested in spreading democracy anywhere including here at home... Remember, we live in the worlds most imprisoned nation of which a sizable percentage of convicts are incarcerated for non-violent crimes... We also freely utilize the death penalty and our human rights track record is not the shining example we pretend it to be... we can't even hold fair elections.

The US is an empire and as such must operate as one... Unquestioned control of oil/natural resources/financial wealth, subjugation of lesser peoples and competitive dominance over adversaries and allies (Japan, China, EU, Russia) is paramount to our survival... Democracy only gets in the way and is quite messy... The monied interests have no desire or need for democracy... Democracy is a utopian ideal for use as a propaganda tool and forced fed sound bites to pacify the illiterate masses of Idiot America.

Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006


Information Clearing House ran a series of articles on Iraqi's who were "rounded" up and issued gifts, including money/ food/ clothing, most stated through foreign news services. Remember, Baghdad was under siege for over a month at the time of the toppling of Saddam's statue so folks were hard pressed for something to eat. They also showed the long range telephoto shots of the area which revealed that the crowd was much smaller than reported in the US press and TV. I also read at this site that the CPA handed out bags of money to local Iraqi contractors and businessmen almost non-discriminately... these reports were in lieu of the missing $9 billion in provisional funds that the Bremer led interim government was responsible for. Check ICH for more detail.

Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Mr. Simon,

I did not remember mentioning the French in my post. Just as a reminder for students of history the French fought at the Somme and Verdun-sur-Meuse. During the later suffering the loss of over 500,000 troops in checking the German advance. Only someone ill-educated in the art of warfare would question French bravery in battle.

As for "agents at the Republican convention" what does that have to do with this post. FYI... I am neither a Democrat or Republican but a registered Libertarian... I have neither the time, inclination nor interest in the two cloned parties that unfortunately control political discourse in this country.

Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

Don't you think that your predictions in the past (i.e., that none of this would happen and that Bush's war would only lead to an increase in anti-Americanism) diminish your credibility as an advisor of how to spread democracy?

Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

When Mark says "on the ground" he means southern California.

Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

I'm well aware that you're not as bad as others (juan Cole springs to mind) but I see nowhere that you predicated a Syrian withdrawl. I'll take your word on the anti-Americanism front--you are better informed than I (you have, for example, attended the world's only Palestinian anti-suicicde bombing demonstration. You may have been alone, but you were there . . .)
People's should be spelled peoples.

Dylan Sherlock - 3/11/2005

That's all I've got to say on the subject.

Edward Siegler - 3/11/2005

...don't you know that the failures of all these governments were all somehow America's fault?

E. Simon - 3/10/2005

Yes - I am not intimately familiar with Jumblatt's biography or politics, but it's weird to disregard the remarks as rhetorical gibberish just because politicians are "dishonest." We can assume the statements (and, by your analysis, ALL politicians' statements) are meaningless or we can consider the idea that perhaps they were uttered for a reason. One can be less than 100% honest and still interested in getting a message across and pursuing an agenda. Or, of course, we can conclude that Jumblatt has interest in neither and his statements are no more meaningful or worthy of analysis than those heard in an insane asylum.

Frank Jenista - 3/10/2005

If Walid Jumblatt is playing politics as Cole alleges, this STRENGTHENS the argument that the U.S. gets credit for the changes taking place in the Middle East - and anti-Americans like Walid Jumblatt are changing sides as a result!

E. Simon - 3/10/2005

Rest assured, the point is obvious enough to many of us. But the regional history on this particular point could warrant further exploration. For all the socialist rhetoric behind various Arab nationalist movements in the last century, which ones have delivered, and what have they delivered? And to what extent? It seems many simply gave way to single party police states under the guise of a localized brand of nationalist sentiment, and achieved little if anything other than a continued mouth foaming directed at an optional enemy, who was paradoxically described as a political "alternative," to be, of course, avoided at all costs - Zionism.

I think the majority of these governments could have offered something more substantive, or at least a more substantive set of options.

E. Simon - 3/10/2005

I've got no problem with his "allying" himself temporarily w/Bush/France/whomever for the sake of further withdrawal. Were I Lebanese I probably wouldn't feel he would represent me very well and how popular or realistic is socialism in the modern Levant anyway? In any case, if he talks out of one side of his mouth to praise Bush, it demonstrates how likely it was that the anti-Zionist garbage that came out of the other side of his mouth during the thirty years previous was also, just that - the rhetorical garbage of deflection and appeasement. Real socialists, of course, should expect more substance!

Obviously I've made this into somewhat of a parody, but it's hard to see where else to go with the thread. Obviously, he (Jumblatt) is trying to get someone's attention. Also, Cole's "analogy" assumes that either Iraqis see the U.S. occupation as a bigger threat than they do the insurgency, or that Syria is a better guarantor of stability in Lebanon than is Hizbullah.

Edward Siegler - 3/10/2005

I have to wonder what the alternative is to the economic liberalization that you see as being so destructive? A command economy model where the state makes all the decisions?

Dylan Sherlock - 3/10/2005

There is something rather lofty about calling other countries "the ground".

Dylan Sherlock - 3/10/2005

Levine said: "political 'bias' should have nothing to do with judging it as such, since by the same token one could dismiss any conservative's opinions as worthless on the same grounds."

Proffessor. What I was attempting to articulate was that the truth is more important than politics. Disagreeing with someone not because they're wrong, but because you've disagreed with them before is a logical fallacy.

My disagreement with Milne is my diagreement with people who masquerade as journalists. Throwing in little jibes like "without serious justification" where he should of put a period? It's not even real op-ed writing -- it's propaganda at this point. The man essentially was saying "this is what someone else believes" then he threw in "but they're full of shit". It's unnecessary and offensive. I've already articulated the unnecessary part, but the offensive part is reading him label one of the more easily acceptable State Department proclamations as being "without justification". Both of us know that in any qualification, Hezbollah is a terrorist group. Milne threw in that inexusable little tid-bit because he felt like towing at once the "the state department is full of stupid people" and the "Hezbollah is really great" lines. I live in Canada, we just deported someone like him, by the name of Ernst Zundel. You can look that one up yourself proffesor.

N. Friedman - 3/10/2005


More to the point...

Your argument about democracy is manipulative by using definitions. In this, I have quoted your precise words. You have created a straw man and you know that full well.

John H. Lederer - 3/10/2005

" Information Clearing House" is one person ("Tom") who collects left wing and anti-american stories.

A principal source for Tom on the Mid-east is Robert Fisk, the correspondent for the very left Independent. Fisk's reporting is the source of the slang term "fisking" to refer to the line by line rebuttal of an erroneous news story. . Fisk's reporting on the "massacre at Jenin" is a classic example of grossly inaccurate reporting.

In regard to crowd size, I have seen an analysis of the long range video frame of the statue site that points out that the shadows and vehicles in the frame usually displayed on the Internet are not consistent with other photos taken at the time of the statue's toppling, i.e. that the captured videoframe fails to capture the moment when the crowd was largest.I have not seen the entire 45 minute video. This seems to be one of those events that is so heavily politicized that the truth is hidden -- if you opposed the war it is a staged psy-ops operation collaborated in by the press and tv crews who deliberately dishguised the truth; if you supported the war it is a genuine expression of Iraqi sentiment attacked by misrepresentions by the left.

Me? I don't know. But I am unconvinced by the "information Clearing House".

N. Friedman - 3/10/2005


I think you are mistaken.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/10/2005

sir, i cannot respond to every one of your attemtps at refutation of my argument except to urge readers to look at what i wrote and then your critique and see if you're critiquing what i wrote or something different. however, regarding your comments about liberalization programs causing increased poverty being refuted, that's absolute nonsense. all the literature on liberalization and the impact of washington consensus policies on the global south has shown that they increase poverty and inequality almost across the board. the countries such as india or korea or china which have done well have done so precisely by NOT following this model, and even there once china moved to a growth-at-any-cost policy poverty levels and inequality have skyrocketed, to the point where the regime just held a special meeting on the issue.

i provide a detailed analysis of these issues in my new book, why they don't hate us, chapters 3-5, which is out soon. if you read it please feel free to send me a detailed critique and i will respond.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/10/2005

yes, a sense of humor is good to have, especially when listening to the bush administration celebrate its support of democracy! :-) but in fifteen years living and working across the middle east and north africa i can't think of a case where the US--or any country for that matter--did anything to help the countries of the region democratize or otherwise improve their social, political and/or economic situation. this is not surprising, for that's not what countries generally do. rather, they pursue their narrowly defined interests regardless of the costs involved to countries they deal with, especially if said countries are much less powerful than they are. that something we could call 'democracy' could be a by-product of such policy would be nice, but i think it's a stretch to say the US or any western power is suddenly acting in an altruistic or philanthropic manner and going against its economic and political interests to bring democracy to the region when such a process would clearly involve bringing to power forces that across the board would oppose bush administration policy. iraq is a good example of of this, as elections were only allowed after the US spent 20 months "disciplining" the country and creating such a situation of chaos and violence that the shia and kurds would never "ask us to leave" in the foreseeable future for fear of civil war. brilliant strategy, but hardly democratic.

as for milne's view of hizbollah as not a terrorist organization, i believe there is one or several generally accepted definitions of "terrorist organization" under international law. i don't have time to search them out. please do and let me know what they are. however, i can say that hizbollah has certainly committed numerous terrorist acts. but i don't know if that makes it a "terrorist organization" given that however heinous its attacks on civilians such acts constitute a minority of its military activities and an even smaller percentage of its total activities including its massive social welfare and political activities. hizbollah is a social and political movement that has used terrorism to advance its goals. but this characterization can apply to almost every movement against occupation, and to most every government involved in occupation, including the US, Israel, Syria, etc, and to the manner in which governments in the region treat their own citizens.

but regardless of the accuracy of milne's comment on hizbollah the rest of his argument is, i believe, valid, and moreoever his political 'bias' should have nothing to do with judging it as such, since by the same token one could dismiss any conservative's opinions as worthless on the same grounds.

N. Friedman - 3/10/2005

Professor LeVine,

You write: i define democracy broadly to include freedom and a basic level of economic justice and opportunity, what the anthropologist james holston calls 'civil democracy' if i remember the term correctly. from this standpoint i don' see how the US can be credited with helping to bring anything close to democracy to the region.

Your argument renders the question of democratization moot. No. Economic justice is the political policy of a political party within a democracy or, as has often been the case, in tyranies such as the USSR and Nazi Germany. Democracy concerns, in its most basic meaning, the will of the people, not a particular policy set by such people. Liberal democracy has added the idea that there are limits on the rights of the majority.

Now, economic justice, depending on what you mean by that, may be a desirable thing although it is worth noting that the countries which have focussed primarily on that issue have all been horrendous tyrannies.

You are, of course, quite correct that the US policy has not, at least thus far, been directed specifically to addressing the issues of poverty and economic justice in the Middle East. But, of course, that is not what the President claims to advocate. So, your argument is a red herring, a straw man. The question is whether he is advancing the ball on his goal, not on your substitute goal.

Rather, Bush's goal appears to be limited more or less toward the following: that such states should not place their inhabitants in fear for their lives and that, with such aim in mind, people should have some say in their own governance. Whether that goal is achievable and whether or not the US has been really pushing for that goal will likely be a question for future historians. However, judging people by your standard, which is not the goal in the first place, is rather absurd.

You write: but the realities of continued occupation, over 100,000 dead Iraqis

That is propaganda. No one knows whether there have been anywhere near that many dead.

You write: it is very hard to say that all destruction wrought by the invasion can somehow be justified by the fact that in some future time the country will have a functioning democracy, especially when there is no evidence that the country wouldn't be on that same road had the world community found any one of numerous other ways to work with iraqis to help end hussein's murderous regime.

The issue today is not whether the invasion was justified.
The war occurred, even if it was - which is certainly arguable - not justified or necessary. The issue is what to do now. The President's plan appears to be what was noted above. He seems to have moved the ball along on that path. Time may, we hope, tell if such was a good idea.

Your theory is that there were ways to work with Iraqis to end Saddam's regime. That sounds like a fantasy to me. Saddam's regime seemed rather entrenched.

You write: the economic liberalization that bush insists must occur alongside political liberalization is not just opposed by upwards of 80% of iraqis (according to one poll), across the global south it has led to increased poverty and inequality, which makes political/formal democracy much less meaningful. i do not believe that a fully economically 'liberalized' iraq can be a democratic iraq in any broad sense of the term.

You argue that economic liberalism has brought poverty to the world so that our effort to advance that cause should end. There is certainly a question whether the best way forward involves economic liberalism. However, the position that economic liberalism has mostly led to poverty appears, so far as I can tell, to be contradicted and refuted.

The most obvious thing to note is that economic liberalism has affected different countries in very different ways. Hence, India (which is a rather remarkable case) is on the rise while Pakistan is on the downslide: both have been impacted, but have reacted very differently, to economic liberalism. Hence, Israel (another remarkable case) has prospered while the Arab regions, by and large have declined in the face of economic liberalism. In any event, both have reacted differently. The Israelis have thrived economically while the Arabs countries appear to have mostly declined rather precipitously. South Korea has thrived under economic liberalism. And so have Singapore and Malaysia. Which is to say, it does not seem to follow from the evidence that the issue is economic liberalism. There are likely other more significant factors and, moreover, it appears that economic liberalism can boost living standards rather substantially. I note: a theory which has as many counter-examples as your argument against economic liberalism has is simply not a very useful analytical tool. It is, instead, propaganda.

Milne's argument is another fantasy. To confuse Hezbollah with an ordinary political party while dismissing its role in terrorism all over the world means that Mr. Milne knows nothing about the topic he has addressed.

Edward Siegler - 3/10/2005

Mark - I'm curious about what you see as the "numerous" ways that Hussein's regime could have been ended without an invasion. International sanctions and isolation? Sounds familiar. Some sort of constructive engagement like the oil for food program? Assisting pro-democracy forces to create a de facto independent state in the North. Sounds familiariar again. Perhaps the U.S. following through on the encouragment it gave to Iraqis to rise up after the Gulf War instead of leaving them to twist in the wind. However that follow through would likely have involved an invasion or at least some military action. So pray tell - what do you have in mind. These ideas should come into use in dealing with North Korea, where an invasion is out of the question.

Dylan Sherlock - 3/10/2005

Quick response. Firstly, I am reading what you are writing though Milne is definetly more articulate in the argument you are putting forth.

I'd just like to say, my disagreement is primarly with your thesis "Why the U.S. Does Not Deserve Credit for the Democracy Wave Spreading Across the Middle East". Your approach so far is to say that what I call suffering and you call the "total environment" makes the idea of the US deserving credit for pro-democracy movements in the ME as being absurd. I don't think that's a valid argument. For one, you must employ a lot of cognitive dissonance to write entirely the dark side of things (perhaps you should watch the "Life of Brian", it might cheer you up).

Rather than bother you more I'll just quote and criticize Milne who has left his bias all hanging out: "The US brands Hizbullah, the largest party in the Lebanese parliament and leading force among the Shia, Lebanon's largest religious group, as a terrorist organisation without serious justification." Without serious justification? Where did the people at the Guardian find a sense of humor?

Dylan Sherlock - 3/10/2005

Mr Levine: As far as this democracy thing goes, "caused" is your word. I would prefer "influenced". I would also prefer if you wouldn't attack a belief I haven't expressed with pretentious little phrases like "just not supported by the empirical data" and answer the question already.

Dylan Sherlock - 3/10/2005

Mark. Your argument comes down to: there's suffering in the Mideast therefore democracy is not being achieved. It's frankly astonishing to read a historian stating such things. Saying that elections are occuring in the Mideast not because of the US ("expect in a very twisted sense") is up there with saying that America was going to join the war already and Pearl Harbour was coincidental.

Looking back in your article (I'm still unsatisfied as to your making a case for "Why the U.S. Does Not Deserve Credit for the Democracy Wave Spreading Across the Middle East") there was one line that stuck out "America's ongoing role in frustrating democracy".

Would you care to articulate that role? Can you?

Dylan Sherlock - 3/10/2005

Mark says: "My perception comes from talking with people on the ground"

Oh? That would be very interesting. What are people on the ground (I'm assuming you mean in the Mideast) saying exactly?

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/10/2005

here's what juan cole, who's certainly smarter than i am and much more trustworthy, says about jumblatt's comments (go to form the whole story):

"The main exhibit for the relevance of Iraq to Lebanon is Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt's statement to the Washington Post: "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world."

It is highly unlikely that Jumblatt is sincere in this statement. He has seen Lebanese vote for parliament several times, and has campaigned, and Iraq was nothing new to his experience (like Lebanon, it is occupied by a foreign military power even during its elections)
I guess now that Jumblatt sees a way of getting the Syrians out of Lebanon by allying with Bush, all of a sudden America is no longer an imperialist cause of chaos. People who want to believe that remind me of PT Barnum's dictum that one is born every minute."

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/10/2005

the question of whether the US deserves 'credit' for democracy revolves around several interrelated questions: 1. how do we define democracy? 2. are the various countries in the region democratizing on the ground? and 3. can it be convincingly argued that us actions were a cause of these democratic processes. i define democracy broadly to include freedom and a basic level of economic justice and opportunity, what the anthropologist james holston calls 'civil democracy' if i remember the term correctly. from this standpoint i don' see how the US can be credited with helping to bring anything close to democracy to the region. this is why in my piece i mention the horrific continuing poverty in afghanistan, which one of the commenters felt was besides the point. i couldn't disagree more. as for 2, is there a real democratization process on the ground: well, in palestine, there already was one a decade ago and the US worked with the PA and israel to destroy it.

the fact that there's elections now doesn't mean that it's because of the US except in a very twisted sense. other examples are in the article. iraq is perhaps the best case for saying the US has brought "democracy" to the region; but the realities of continued occupation, over 100,000 dead Iraqis, massive corruption and unemployment make that claim pretty hard to sustain. perhaps we can say that iraq is 'on the road to democracy' thanks to the US invasion, but that is a very long road indeed, and it is very hard to say that all destruction wrought by the invasion can somehow be justified by the fact that in some future time the country will have a functioning democracy, especially when there is no evidence that the country wouldn't be on that same road had the world community found any one of numerous other ways to work with iraqis to help end hussein's murderous regime. moreover, the economic liberalization that bush insists must occur alongside political liberalization is not just opposed by upwards of 80% of iraqis (according to one poll), across the global south it has led to increased poverty and inequality, which makes political/formal democracy much less meaningful. i do not believe that a fully economically 'liberalized' iraq can be a democratic iraq in any broad sense of the term.

as to evidence i have to show about the US not being able to get reasonably priced oil from hussein, that's not the point about why the US invaded iraq. it's the larger dynamics of a chaotic globalized system in which the US is using military force to cement its dominant role vis-a-vis competitors and allies, for which the control of oil is crucial. please see any one of several articles on chaos theory in iraq i wrote in the past year, available at my website, a more detailed version will be contained in my new book.

mark safranski - 3/9/2005

"...bringing bernard lewis into the argument doesn't help either, as he's one of the most responsible for spreading the discourse/idea that there's something essentially "wrong" with the ME and muslim world and that only our direct intervention can shake things up. "

I take the time to peruse al Jazeerah and Crossroads Arabia, where the blogger, a FSO in KSA, provides regional media commentary and debate. It would seem a fair number of Arabs are questioning why the ME lags behind.

Who exactly is cheering for the status quo in the ME beyond the ironfisted minority in control ? Yes, everyone there is unhappy with the US and Israel but that's not the same thing as them believing their own house is in order.

E. Simon - 3/9/2005

People who only tell someone what they want to hear are not beyond allowing their motivations to be discerned -- after all, you've attempted as much vis a vis the U.S. administration. Idealistic young kids, on the other hand, might be politically honest to a fault (if such a thing is possible). At the same time, however, they can be naive about how to implement their interests. I think a comprehensive analysis would combine into account both the raw desires and reasons of those leading a political movement, as well as observations about what appear to be the underlying motivations of those in the political establishment based on how they tend to react to certain challenges and opportunities, as well as past behavior.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/9/2005

well, that's true. you can trust him more than me. but then you could trust nasrallah more than him. of course, both are politicians so it wouldn't be too wise to trust either to speak honestly. my perception comes from talking with people on the ground, especially the young people who are at the forefront of the movement. i can't speak for jumblatt or
any other politician.

E. Simon - 3/9/2005

Thanks - and don't lose hope that political processes can't be overcome. Nothing that can be comprehended need be overly disconcerting, however...

Ordinarily I wouldn't worry too much about the role of traditional allies, but I agree that a slight shift back to exploring older alliances might be a reactionary consequence to the current state of uncertainty in the world. I doubt the U.S. will be going to war as we know it with Syria anytime soon. I'm not sure exactly what's motivating France, and the extent to which they will or will not be willing to back it up - so at the moment I can complacently afford to enjoy a supposition of altruism and hope that if it's not a care for the eventual state of Lebanon, they might nevertheless help contribute to such an outcome.

Vernon Clayson - 3/9/2005

Mr. Siegler, you feel the same as I, I don't understand what Mr. Levine is trying to say. The only thing I can think of is that he wants us to come up with a number of ideas to help him flesh out his article, i.e., he puts up kind of a bare bones thing, maybe because of a little writer's block, and then goes over our responses for some ideas. What else could it be??

E. Simon - 3/9/2005

The first and last sentences were half in jest. I don't question French "bravery" -- whatever that means -- rather the wisdom of at least a few decisions of previous French governments and their current president over when and how to engage conflict and when to desist from abetting it - it currently going by the name "Hizbullah" but there are other examples I'm sure. I obviously agree with their current role vis a vis UNSC #1559 and see no reason as of yet to doubt their sincerity on that position. We will see how this plays out.

Incidentally, as long as we will bring up WWI, I should insert a parenthetical reminder of how the balance of power idea that Mr. Chirac currently wants to revive on a larger scale was the impetus for the war to end all wars. Just a minor aside - feel free to explore or ignore, discuss with me or, as Mike Meyers said "amongst yourselves."

It is unrealistic to think that the two party system will go away soon, although I understand your frustration. I am largely (i.e. - not completely, I don't lack _any_ ideals or preferences) a pragmatist on political issues but am somewhat sympathetic to some minarchist concepts, depending on the context. I also believe that pretending away realpolitik is not a realistic option for any current U.S. administration, nor is it mutually excluded from implementing ideals that seem to be increasingly realized, more or less, as universal aspirations. This doesn't mean the Bush administration can be considered criticism-free, or that tactics don't matter. It just means that near-term fixations can fog up an analysis of how a longer-term trend might likely shape up.

That said, the last sentence was a sarcastic reminder that there are extended communities who care about what's going on in Lebanon and they care that others around the world with the ability to exert influence in the international arena who speak a very influential language are watching and that this is not a conspiracy. And the fact that this also occurred in not one but two places not very friendly with the current administration is a funny way to dispel theories that would place a conspiracy at the center of every heretofore unlikely demonstration. I regret that it threw you.

E. Simon - 3/9/2005

If the long response allowed for more complexity than the above, then it is indeed, too bad that it was lost.

Should I infer that you believe the U.S. was incapable of being provided oil at a reasonably similar price from Hussein?

Would you be willing to provide at least one example where you believe democratization conflicts with a goal of the administration?

Edward Siegler - 3/9/2005

When someone tells me I've done a good job on something that I've worked on along with other people I like to say, in front of everybody, "thank you - I take full credit." It's one of the precious few lines I've got that can raise a laugh. It would be great if Bush would stand up and say the same in regard to what's going on in the Middle East. At least it would clarify the debate a little bit and the screams of horror that would come in response would provide some temporary amusement.

Of course the U.S. doesn't deserve full credit for the changes that are taking place in the Middle East. But it's actions can't realistically be ignored either. This reminds me of the claim that Reagan "won the Cold War", often repeated after his recent death. While likely that the Soviet Union would have fallen eventually anyway under the weight of its own economic mismanagment, Reagan's rhetoric and military buildup - which forced a similar buildup in response from the Soviets that they could ill afford - helped hasten this fall. Reagan didn't "win the war" but his contribution to this victory was certainly meaningful.

I have to confess that I really don't understand just what is being said in LeVine's article. That the poverty in Afghanistan and the continued threats from the Taliban have reversed the progress that has taken place there? That the example of Iraq's elections to other peoples in the region is meaningless? That the budget busting 200 billion dollars that the U.S. is pouring into Iraq can't influence a thing? Or is it just that it's so painful to see the latest dope to occupy the white house look good for the moment that it feels better to deny him any credit?

All I know is it ain't over till it's over. And until the Middle East is populated by little Swedens and Norways there will always be a debate - and a politicised attempt to assign blame for the setbacks and take FULL credit for the successes.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/9/2005

The prevalence of English signs might be an artifact of news-gathering: international news outlet reporters and cameramen are more likely to focus on English language materials because they need less explaining.

N. Friedman - 3/9/2005

Professor LeVine,

You believe that all is well in the ME? You must be kidding.

I do not know whether the US should shake things up, but, really and truly, the most salient thing I see in the Muslim regions is a Medieval culture where people take seriously religious demagogues who shout "infidels" and "Jihad" and publish garbage such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as serious literature (and, evidently, such junk is taken very seriously). The success of that publication, among reems of other such trash, as we speak in the Muslim regions says enough about what goes on in there to know that something is very, very wrong.

So, if you are suggesting that the Muslim regions do not have something essentially wrong just now, I think you have not looked very carefully. Try reading MEMRI and its reprints of sermons preaching the virtues of nuclear war and fatwa asserting the right to use nuclear weapons and listing how many civilians can justly be killed. You might read "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" by Bernard-Henri Lévy (although that book is about Pakistan and the Islamists) where the clergy is described as using the pulpit to preach the virtues of both having and using nuclear weapons and where people are shown taking very seriously the distinctions between the dar al-Harb, where war is to be had, and the dar al-Islam; and where people plot the death of people like you and me and, as with Pir Mubarrak Gilani (sp?) publish odes to the machine gun and have maps showing the progress of their effort to conquer the West and the US. You might read Mary Anne Weaver's A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam which describes many of the ins and outs of the militant groups. Is MEMRI publishing things not said by the highest religious authorities in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among other places? Did Bernard-Henri Lévy make up his discussions in the Binori Town madrassa? Did Mary Anne Weaver make stuff up about what occurred in Luxor and what is said in mosques? I'm sorry, Professor LeVine. The Muslim regions are in terrible turmoil and it is not all about what the US does or does not do. It is mostly about that region's unwillingness to employ self-criticism, among other things, and the region's efforts to blame others for their own shortcoming - just like the Nazis did a few generations ago -.

You, of course, are correct that Professor Lewis in fact pushes the view that something is wrong (about which no serious person could disagree) and that by shaking things up, perhaps things will improve (which, of course, is a very debatable point). At this point, his argument appears to be a lot more astute than yours has been.

And, the issue is not whether people in the Middle East like us. The issue is whether our actions will cause improvements or set back potential improvements. I could care less that they love or hate us.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/9/2005

again, the language here is all about us causing them to change--we're 'uncorking' the democracy genie; the region is 'now pregnant' with possibilities... bringing bernard lewis into the argument doesn't help either, as he's one of the most responsible for spreading the discourse/idea that there's something essentially "wrong" with the ME and muslim world and that only our direct intervention can shake things up.

also, my piece does not say that the people in the region 'despie' the US. i said they are against the policies of the bush administration. in fact, i am about to publish a book called "why they don't hate us," so clearly i don't believe the peoples of the region despise the US. but to assume that they support bush's grand designs and are protesting in response to his impetus is not supported by the facts.

Don Willis - 3/9/2005

True, but Ashura is an annual event, right? Anyway, according to today's paper, Hizbollah managed to turn out huge crowds for a political rally. What do you think of a rally rejecting the departure of Syrian troops but using the slogan of "No to Foreign Intervention"?

James H Dalrymple - 3/9/2005

America claims to spread democracy, as a matter of interest, since the second world war, how many countries has America successfully led to democracy, how many has it intentionally prevented from becoming democratic and how many non-democracies has it supported?

Frank Jenista - 3/9/2005

Whose judgment do we want to accept about U.S. influence on events in the Middle East generally and Lebanon specifically - Mark LeVine or Walid Jumblatt? It's not even a close call.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/9/2005

Sandor --
Here is the problem with correcting other people's grammar and writing as a snide aside: it almost inevitably bites you in the rear end when you make comparable mistakes in your own comments. As someone who is not the world's greatest typist or copyeditor, I've found it best to leave these mistakes alone rather than to make snide asides that have nothing to do with the substance of the debate. You write at the end of your comment #55699 from March 8 at 5:45 "People's should be spelled peoples." You are right of course, but I would guess that this typing error does not reflect Dr. LeVine's understanding of the use of apostrophes or his ability to convey his argument. I am assuming also that you could recognize the errors in your own post. But if this is really the game at hand here, I'll point out that Mr. Cole probably spells his first name "Juan" not "juan" as you write it, that the traditional spelling of "suicide" is not "suicicde," and that the word "withdrawal" is not spelled "withdrawl." And by the context of your comment I think you might mean "predicted" not "predicated," but if you really did mean the latter, you need to rewrite your sentence.
Get the point? None of us is without sins when it comes to the comments. It seems rather uncharitable to be offering spelling advice to people with whom you also just happen to be expressing ideological disagreements.


Vernon Clayson - 3/9/2005

Mr. Levine, what a strange opinion you assert, however, I divine nothing meaningful in your opinion. It seems obvious your purpose was to merely elicit argument as there is little of substance in your article and you lost me in describing President Bush's rhetoric as "eloquent", for heaven's sake, have you ever really listened to him? You dream if you believe there will ever be a true democratic transformation in the Middle East regardless of what American does or doesn't do. The denizens of that area have been riding waves for way too long to be hustled by political processes that barely work in any of our own states, although the basics may be the same, money talks, BS walks - and the Arabs invented BS to go along with their control of a huge share of petroleum resource$. They use time better than we use military force and will wait us out. When Saddam Hussein said "this will be the mother of all battles", he did not mean the brief military action involved at the time, he meant it in the larger historical sense. Generations from now, he and his quotation will be remembered while the Middle East continues as it always has, fighting off outsiders and any changes in their way of life.

N. Friedman - 3/9/2005

Prof. LeVine,

One does not have to be a supporter of the Iraq war - and I have not - to understand that US policy has, in fact, contributed to the stirrings which are occurring in the Middle East. Your argument appears to be that (a) those seeking democracy despise the US and (b) that, thus far, we have mostly talk and demonstrations but no democracy.

On your point (a), I do not know if that is quite true. First, there is no way to conduct scientifically useful public opinion polls in the Arab regions. What is clear is that there are some there who hate us while there are also those, as the millions of voters in Iraq attest to, who are willing to risk life and limb to vote in elections which have thereon the explicit stamp of the US. Moreover, after the elections, there were demostrations all over the Arab world including in Egypt where, low and behold, the Egyptian government now claims it plans to hold a real presidential election. As reported today on NPR's Morning Edition, Egyptians in droves have been seeking information and materials about the prospective elections.

As for your point (b), clearly things are in an early stage. That, however, does not mean that Bush's policy did not uncork the genie of democracy. It merely means that things are in an early stage. Maybe there will be progress, maybe not.

It is worth noting that Professor Lewis argued long before the Iraq war and, in fact, as an important reason for such war is that altering the landscape in Iraq for democracy would, in fact, cause a chain reaction in the Arab world. In other words, perhaps the problem here is that Professor Lewis' theory is more astute than those of his critics.

As for my view, I think it is too early to tell what will occur in the Middle East. If the US pushes hard, then there may be change for the better. There is also the chance that, for example in Lebanon, the stirrings for democracy will lead to civil war. Whether a civil war, if one occurs, dampens enthusiasm for democracy remains to be seen. That is a real possibility although that is not the only possibility. In any event, my bet is that the success of democracy will, with the genie uncorked, turn more on the ability of greater freedom to lead to some amount of stability or, in turn, whether such will lead to chaos.

One other point. The introduction of independent TV in the Middle East has also opened people's eyes to other possibilities. Which is to say, Arabs now see what it means that Israelis and Americans and others vote and have a say in their own lives. Such information can no longer be so easily filtered into a heresy by the region's leaders. Which is to say, whether or not they despise us or the Israelis, they see benefits. And, with Iraqis voting at great peril, such election may, indeed, have started something that will be difficult to control.

So, the reality is that the Middle East is now pregnant with possibilities. What is given birth to remains, however, to be seen. However, the notion that our actions have done nothing are as preposterous as the notion that we controlled everything before.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/9/2005

i just typed a long resopnse that was lost.

it is very much about oil and maintaining US military and strategic hegemony in a time of peak oil and vis-a-vis competitors like (especially) china. for a detailed and convincing discussion of this argument, see israeli economists' jonathan nitzan and shimshon bichler's work at

bush will not do more than rhetorically support democratization where it conflicts with the interests of his administration.

E. Simon - 3/8/2005

Patrick, if we invade, the French will be right there with us. Or won't they? Oh, I forgot, that's right - countries can exert pressure on other countries through actions short of direct military conflict. And, by the way, which paid agents were in charge of orchestrating the demonstrations outside of the U.N. in midtown Manhattan? Perhaps it could have been the same people who protested the Republican convention...

E. Simon - 3/8/2005

Getting another government to sucessfully lead its own political transformation is a bit harder and less well precedented than making demands of how it uses its military in other countries. France, of all countries, is on board with the U.S. position - where else in the Security Council today do you get a easier beginning than that when it comes to overcoming differences among Western conceptions of how to construct and advance foreign policy in the international arena?

I am not sure how seriously one takes the argument that the Bush administration would be the primary impetus for democratization in the region. Obviously televising the blue fingers of Iraqi voters helps embolden those who would demonstrate or agitate on their own behalf. The other half of the coin involves each society correctly identifying and resolving its own political resentments, which is rightly noted as a more complicated development. But vehicles of mass communication help this and Iraq can be a catalyst without being the fuel. It must be satisfying to be proved right about the Shiite response, but if Nasrallah's plurality of constituents ultimately want to succeed in the modern political world they will have to find a way to work with the Christians and Sunnis who none too appreciated the situation that allowed for Hariri's assassination. Hizbullah will need to be realistic as well as populist - if it cares for political development in Lebanon. But with joint Syrian/Hizbollah control over security and few incentives to change in the meantime, the other constituencies already have a tough enough sell without giving Hizbollah an undue share of credit for democratizing Lebanon.

Also, what's with all this lumping of how Uncle Sam defines its interests today with how it defined them yesteryear? This is a historical board, things change do they not? Interests are redefined. I don't think the administration is being insincere when it articulates that it sees continued democratization in the Middle East as being in its interests. I'm glad to see you don't entertain the oil (which we can buy just as easily regardless of who runs a government) canard. Just out of curiosity, what goals or interests do you think motivates the adminstration over there? Other than, of course, a supposed and unrealistic desire to parrot the unsuccessful policies of previous administrations...

John H. Lederer - 3/8/2005

"Remember the toppling of Saddam's Statue where seemingly 100's of thousands of Iraqi's were a mere few hundred and some were paid to attend the staging of this event."

You have credible support for the "paid" remark?

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/8/2005

you're assumption that the US is responsible is just not supported by the empirical data. just bc there's a coincidence bt bush's rhetoric--and so far, that's all is has been, and uneven at that: has he ordered mubarak to have real elections the way he's ordered asad out of lebanon? or the saudis to let women vote, etc?--doesn't mean that this rhetoric caused the these movements.

in fact, what proof do you have that afghanistan and iraq 'caused' democracy to spread across the region? the lebanese that are demonstrating are not doing so bc of bush, nor did they only hear about democracy when he began talking about it. in fact, it is quite paternatlistic for us to assume that 'we' are bringing democracy to the region. the people of the region have long wanted democracy just like everyone else in the world. but they've been dominated by oppressive regimes that owe their continued existence either to massive us support or to fighting/standing defiant against the system, and in so doing, helping to perpetuate.

iraqis did not have democracy until we came in quite large measure bc the us did everything possible to deny it to them, starting with putting the baath in power 2 times in the 1960s (and the british screwed the country even more in the previous half century), and working through rumsfeld's cozy relationship with saddam in the 1980s and our ruinous sanction regime in the 1990s... and on and on...

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/8/2005

yes, that's my point. that's why a 'sea-change' is necessary.

Dylan Sherlock - 3/8/2005

It's all fine and well to write an essay titled: "Why the U.S. Does Not Deserve Credit for the Democracy Wave Spreading Across the Middle East" but it would be expected that one would actually explain why the United States, and paticularly the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't responsible for spreading democracy.

As the essay stands right now it offers some pessimism and some important information in the difficulties pro-democracy movements are facing throughout the ME. A good title would be along the lines of "Don't get too excited: the democracy wave is not as big as it looks" because that what Mark has actually written about.

The title: "Why the U.S. Does Not Deserve Credit for the Democracy Wave Spreading Across the Middle East" insinuates that democractic movements in the ME have not been caused by the United States intervention in that region. That's an interesting idea and would make a great article. I just wish that Mark would write it.

On the actual subject of Mark's pessimistic approach to developments in the mideast... it's great that he's criticizing "self-congratulations" that have been undertaken. But I got essentially the same message in my mail box today in Daniel Pipes last missive. When arch neo-con Pipes writes the same thing as LeVine the argument, while important seems less interesting.

Please, make a case for "Why the U.S. Does Not Deserve Credit for the Democracy Wave Spreading Across the Middle East" I'll be waiting.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/8/2005

I think you understate the impact of the US and the shift toward democracy in the Middle East.

However, this statement--"how little President Bush's eloquent rhetoric will mean unless backed by a sea-change in the substance of US foreign policy"--I think is utterly true. American policy, both Democratic and Republican has constantly relegated the spread and maintenance democracy to a second or third tier issue.

If Bush really does change this, then he will deserve the accolades his supporters now give him. I'm inclined to think he won't, but, Lord, I would like to be wrong.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/8/2005

this comment assumes that the ashura festival is a purely religious occasion, which it is not. it has significant political and social overtones. and the other point is that the social power of the protesters against syria is still dwarfed by hizbollah, which has so far not turned against its syrian allies.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 3/8/2005

sir. i'm not sure what predictions you mention. i have predicted that the people's of the region would take matters into their own hands, and that bush's invasion would produce these results. i wrote it in a christian science monitor oped called 'how the peace movement blew it' in the days after the us invasion. however, are totally wrong that there isn't an increase in anti-americanism. if you think the protesters in beirut and cairo are 'pro' american, i suggest you go there and see for yourself.

Don Willis - 3/8/2005

Comparing attendance at a political gathering with that at a religious festival tells us that in Lebanon, people's faith may be more important to them than participating in political activity. Perhaps this is not a surprise when political activity can have deadly consequences and religious festivals are on the calender far in advance (assuming Newtonian physics holds). Maybe we shouuld investigate the same comparison between anti-war rallies in, say Lawrence, Kansas and church attendance in Wichita (subtle reference to Thomas Frank).