Piecing together Middle East peace

by Henry on February 9, 2004

The “Washington Post”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A24025-2004Feb8.html says today that the Bush administration is proposing a new multilateral plan for the Middle East, which would link progress on democracy and human rights in Middle East countries to concessions on trade, aid and security from the advanced industrial democracies. It’s not clear to me that this represents a real policy shift yet; the Post’s major sources seem to come from the State department, which is naturally more sympathetic to multilateralism than other parts of the administration. However, if the Post is correct in suggesting that Cheney has signed on, this could be interesting – it’s certainly a far cry from the intoxicated proposals to remake the Middle East by force that were floating around among neo-cons last year.

Could this plan work? According to the Post, these proposals are modeled on the Helsinki accords, which led to the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, now “OSCE”:http://www.osce.org ). A few years ago, Greg Flynn and I wrote a “piece”:http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~farrell/Piecing_together.pdf for International Organization arguing that Helsinki and the CSCE had played a key role in securing the democratic transition in Europe.[1] It wasn’t a popular argument at the time, so it’s nice to see that others are now making the same claim. Academic self-justification aside, I’m not at all sure that the new proposal has legs, even if you disregard the differences between Cold War Europe and the Middle East today. The factors that allowed the CSCE to transform Warsaw Pact countries aren’t likely to work in the same way.

The CSCE helped to secure the democratic transition in Western Europe in two important ways. First, it created a normative framework that enabled democratic activists in Warsaw Pact countries to have their protests heard. When the Soviet Union and its satellite states signed up to the Helsinki accords, they thought that they were getting the West to recognize the division of Europe into different spheres of influence, in exchange for meaningless concessions on human rights. Many in the West thought that the Soviet negotiators were right, including Henry Kissinger who tried to block the accords (although he puts a different spin on this in a more than usually mendacious section of his autobiography). As time went on, the Helsinki commitments proved to be a potent weapon for democratic activists within Eastern bloc countries; they could now use their governments’ failure to live up to international commitments as a tool to embarrass them in public. The US and other democratic states provided a sympathetic audience.

Second, the CSCE created a set of instruments designed to allow a limited form of collective intervention within CSCE participating states in order to shore up democracy. It’s usually difficult to get states to agree to allow outsiders to intervene in their internal affairs. However, the states participating in the CSCE had previously made an internationally binding commitment to democracy. Furthermore, many of them were interested in joining the EU at some stage and wanted to show their willingness to reform. This meant that many CSCE states were prepared to allow the CSCE to become involved in internal disputes as a sort of honest broker, representing the collective interests of other states in ensuring a secure neighborhood. Preventive diplomacy, practiced through the CSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, was instrumental in preventing a crisis in the Baltic states over ethnic relations that could very easily have led to renewed confrontation between Russia and the West.

It seems to me that neither of these effects will be strong in the Middle East, even if there’s a Helsinki-type arrangement in place. First, it’s going to be far harder for democracy activists to use a Helsinki-style institutional framework as a means of leverage. Pro-democracy groups are in a structurally weaker position; while they want reform, they’re aware that there are other elements (fundamentalist Islamists) who would very happily take advantage of a weakened state to try and create their own non-democratic form of social order. Democratic activists are going to be highly cautious in trying to weaken their own government through international pressure; the alternative could be much worse (as witness Iran).

Furthermore, the kinds of multilateral intervention that allowed the CSCE to smooth the transition of many states in Eastern Europe to democracy are going to be tough to pull off in the Middle East. There isn’t the same inter-state consensus on democratic norms as there was in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This means that it’s highly unlikely that states in the region are really going to permit outside intervention to help solve internal problems – they haven’t signed up to it, nor are they going to do so unless they have very good reason.

These caveats stated, I suspect that the proposal would have a far better shot at success if it had a successful trial run in the one place where US policymakers are loath to go – Israel. For all its flaws, Israel is the one country in the region that approximates a real democracy. However, its internal tensions have demonstrably had a destabilizing effect on the region and helped corrupt autocrats elsewhere to shore up their rule. The US hasn’t had much success in intervening from outside, in large part because it isn’t a neutral actor in the conflict. A genuinely multilateral initiative to help solve the Israel-Palestine problem could help push both the Israelis and Palestinians into making some real concessions, while providing an external framework to help ensure that any agreement stuck, thus alleviating the fundamental problem of distrust between the two sides. I admit that I’m blue-skying here – but something along these lines seems more likely to succeed than either unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the bits that it doesn’t want, or a peace process supported by a US administration that is demonstrably better disposed towards the one side than the other.

fn1. Health warning – this article contains some heavygoing international relations jargon – unless you’re truly interested in turgid theoretical debates, you can skip large chunks of it.

{ 11 comments }

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Conrad barwa 02.10.04 at 1:13 am

First, it’s going to be far harder for democracy activists to use a Helsinki-style institutional framework as a means of leverage. Pro-democracy groups are in a structurally weaker position; while they want reform, they’re aware that there are other elements (fundamentalist Islamists) who would very happily take advantage of a weakened state to try and create their own non-democratic form of social order.

I would say this is a major difference; the East European transformation in 1989 could very legitimately be called social/political revolutions and a lot of the impetus came from local-national democratic upsurges. There simply isn’t a corresponding social force strong enough in many ME countries at the moment and they have to compete with Islamists as well – the problem here might be that is any democratic dissent gets channelled through primarily Islamist politics then any transition to democracy would electorally favour them. The result might be a state that is democratic but not one that is necessarily liberal or pluralistic. In anycase without this kind of internal, grassroots pressure for change and transformation any externally aligned mechanism is not going to go very far and could de-legitimise incipient democratic activists by allowing their opponents to tar them as anti-nationalist as you have noted in the case of Iran.

The other problem is that, I don’t think the political economy of the state is quite the same. Although they do have serious problems, most ME state regimes are not caught in the kind of economic crisis that many Eastern bloc countries were in the 1970s and the 1980s; the flow of oil rents allows the state to escape some of the fiscal contradictions here and foster the illusion of prosperity (even if this is hostage to fluctuations in the international oil market). The existence of a major regional, nationalised conflict (the Israeli-Palestinian situation) also allows a useful deflection from domestic problems and generates a useful outlet for aggressive chauvinistic sentiment, that might otherwise be directed at the state itself – unlike Afghanistan for the USSR by the late 1980s which had become a problem rather than a diversion. Solving or reaching a settlement here, will go a long way in starting the process of domestic socio-economic changes in the relevant countries as well, as you also note. The big problem here, is one of intentions, I guess most leftists would argue or feel that it suits the US to maintain a situation where it can play the power-broker and mediate any conflict between the contending sides (a situation where the two main regional allies are Israel and Saudi Arabia, brings some contradictions to the fore) any settlement here could arguably displace this influence and lead to the installation of regimes which are democratic and nationalists but less pliable and predictable. A cynical view, granted, but not without its merits.

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Henry 02.10.04 at 2:38 am

Conrad – very nice, astute comments.

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drapetomaniac 02.10.04 at 5:10 am

For all its flaws, Israel is the one country in the region that approximates a real democracy.

I always wonder about people who say this. I mean, I wouldn’t say that the situation in Yemen or Iran or Lebanon or Turkey was ideal democracy, but approximates seems a fine enough word to use. And there are democratizing movements in several of the Gulf states as well as Egypt. I wonder if the people who say that Israel is the only ME country with a democratic system are doing so after seriously considering the situation in other countries or whether they are simply assuming and whiting out the shoots of democracy in West Asia.

It would be interesting to focus on Yemen, a place where democracy movements are losing some momentum and perhaps could use some rejeuvenation.

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Scott Martens 02.10.04 at 9:58 am

When the Bush administration proposes something that doesn’t seem unreasonable, I tend to check to make sure I still have my wallet.

I think the right approach would be to get Israel on board, and probably Iran. Otherwise, this would either just be the institutional mechanism by which the US voices its disapproval of what goes on in the Middle East, or a powerless excuse for press conferences like the Arab League. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything Israel has to gain from it unless they face some serious threat of losing American aid. One might attempt to advance monitoring agreements that would secure the rights of Middle Eastern dissidents, in return for full-time international monitoring in the West Bank and Gaza, and like the Helsinki accords, offer tacit recognition to Israel in return for a binding arbitration process for its border disputes with Lebanon and Syria.

But, I suspect this is just hot air from Washington, and this is what makes me think so:

Unlike Helsinki, however, the administration’s “Greater Middle East Initiative” seeks to avoid creating committees and structures to strictly monitor progress and issue report cards, U.S. officials say.

No reports means no shame. Both Israel and its neighbours frequently focus their rhetoric on legalistic arguments and tend to toss the word “proof” around a lot. No paper trail and no cameras means it didn’t happen.

Maybe the Canadian and Danish proposal address this more.

One of the things I keep coming across is the idea that there is some popular support for a sort of Islam-driven liberalism. The first time I ran into it was as a teenager when I had a Pakistani friend who complained bitterly that the Quran never said anything about monarchies, and that the natural form of the Islamic state was a parliamentary republic. I’ve come across similar sentiments quite a few times – people saying that their “Islamic” governments aren’t very Islamic. Their might be enough public support for a less militant Islamic identity and a more democratic government that it could fill the role of the nationalist movements in Eastern Europe. On the Israeli side, there is certainly a large population that wants Israel to move more towards international norms.

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Conrad barwa 02.10.04 at 3:08 pm

I always wonder about people who say this. I mean, I wouldn’t say that the situation in Yemen or Iran or Lebanon or Turkey was ideal democracy, but approximates seems a fine enough word to use. And there are democratizing movements in several of the Gulf states as well as Egypt. I wonder if the people who say that Israel is the only ME country with a democratic system are doing so after seriously considering the situation in other countries or whether they are simply assuming and whiting out the shoots of democracy in West Asia.

I would say that there is a good reason why Israel can be regarded as such. Partly this has to do with history in that it has consistently adhered to the democratic standard it was founded on since its creation and secondly because democracy has achieved an important and almost semi-permanent hegemonic status in the public and political spheres. The foundational characteristics of the state are always cited as being “Jewish and democratic” and arguments about how to preserve the state always revolve around these elements; so much so that no political party can gain formal entrance or easy acceptance into the mainstream if it does not adjust to this reality. Even those which espouse blatantly anti-democratic mentalities or attitudes need to pay obeisance to a notional loyalty to democratic practise and promise to abide by it, no matter what their ideology is. To move this parameter has proved remarkably difficult – a parallel example could perhaps be the concept of secularism in India, where secularism has acquired a strong historical legitimacy and totemic status with its association to a certain part of the anti-colonial Nationalist movement and early post-colonial period. Even parties that are explicitly or covertly communal must hide their intent behind some notional nod towards an idea of secularism and can make headway in the political sphere not by openly endorsing anti-secularism but by accusing non-communal parties of “pseudo-secularism”. When an aspect of the foundational order of any polity survives for any length of time, it acquires this kind of hegemonic influence in setting the terms of the debate and the parameters of what can be seen as acceptable and thinkable. Certainly the emphasis placed in maintaining a state that remains not only Jewish but also a democracy can be seen as a strong commitment to democratic modes of governance, even if it is limited primarily to one ethnic group. Where tension remains it exists not in the question of democracy itself but how broadly it should be applied, I think it is legitimate to say that Israel is in many ways an ethnocratic state, which has instionatialised the dominance of one particular ethnos within the polity; both at an ideological and juridical level; yet its commitment to democracy outstrips that of most other ethnocratic regimes such as Serbia and Malaysia. Perhaps only Sri Lanka comes close in mirroring this democratic record. It certainly has not been equalled elsewhere in the ME region.

Much of this is somewhat besides the point, as well all know democracies can do some pretty nasty things and having a democratic polity has certainly not been incompatible with having strong racist sentiments and practices embedded within the society, economy and culture of a nation. From time to time, chauvinistic and racist strains find political articulation even within a democratic framework but this is a generic problem for all democracies and not one, which has yet been successfully solved. The sole positive benefit is that while democracies can treat stateless and non-democratic states quite shabbily and violently; they have on the whole been better when dealing with other democracies. This may simply be due to the historical accident, that most liberal democracies have existed within select geo-political regions who have mediated their inter-state conflicts and as democracy spreads as a form of governance this record might well break down. Either way further democratisation of the ME is desirable both from a domestic and a regional point of view.

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Dan Simon 02.10.04 at 7:46 pm

It could be said of Turkey that it “approximates a real democracy”, but the emphasis would be on “approximates”–the last military intervention to depose a democratically elected government was in 1997. As for Lebanon–whose independence and democratic politics have been brutally suppressed by Syria’s military conquest and occupation–it “approximates” democracy in the same sense that, say, Warsaw Pact-era Poland did.

And Iran? You can’t be serious.

Israel, on the other hand, doesn’t “approximate” a democracy–it is, and always has been, a democracy tout court. That’s presumably why reasonable people distinguish its government from all the others in the region. In particular, as a freedom-respecting, human-rights-honoring democracy, it gets inordinate attention from meddling foreigners, who see it as an ideal target for endless political pressure. After all, its government, being democratically responsible, is actually open to persuasion and vulnerable to diplomatic and economic measures, whereas its neighbors’ dictators care more for personal power and wealth than for diplomatic reputation or GDP growth, and are therefore more likely to tell visiting do-gooders to just hand over more money, leave them alone, or get stuffed.

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Conrad barwa 02.10.04 at 9:21 pm

Israel, on the other hand, doesn’t “approximate” a democracy—it is, and always has been, a democracy tout court.

Actually no, most democracies depend on full civil and economic rights being extended to all their citizens; not privileging one group of them, over another.

In particular, as a freedom-respecting, human-rights-honouring democracy, it gets inordinate attention from meddling foreigners, who see it as an ideal target for endless political pressure.

What a load of twaddle, democracies are more than capable of disrespecting freedoms and trampling on human rights when it suits them to do so. Turkey being a good case in point.

After all, its government, being democratically responsible, is actually open to persuasion and vulnerable to diplomatic and economic measures, whereas its neighbors’ dictators care more for personal power and wealth than for diplomatic reputation or GDP growth, and are therefore more likely to tell visiting do-gooders to just hand over more money, leave them alone, or get stuffed.

Many ME autocracies are quite susceptible to this kind of pressure actually; Egypt is heavily reliant on aid, the curtailing of which could and has caused serious political destabilisation in the past and the actions of the international community; or at least the US towards some of these regimes in the past, as the Pahlavi regime in Iran indicates has hardly been one of pushing for greater democratisation or human rights.

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Dan Simon 02.11.04 at 12:00 am

Conrad: I’d respond to your first two points, but since they directly contradict each other, there’s really no need. Either “democracy” is defined vacuously as “ideal perfect political environment”–in which case it’s a useless term, referring to no place on earth–or it means “place where the majority can fully participate in political activity, including electing the leaders who hold power”–in which case, Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East, with the current/occasional exception of Turkey. Either way, arguing in the alternative–i.e., “Israel isn’t a democracy, but if it is, that doesn’t make it a nice country”–doesn’t fly in non-legal contexts.

As for Egypt, If it’s so susceptible to external pressure, I’m sure you can cite a few specific examples of its succumbing to it–right? The only one I can think of, off the top of my head, is the release, not too long ago, of a single democracy activist. Otherwise, I can’t think of any cases in recent memory of the Egyptian government backing down on a course of action favored by the government, in the face of international pressure. (Compare and contrast with Israel….) But perhaps I’ve missed a few?

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Conrad barwa 02.11.04 at 1:45 am

Dan:

Either “democracy” is defined vacuously as “ideal perfect political environment”-in which case it’s a useless term, referring to no place on earth-or it means “place where the majority can fully participate in political activity, including electing the leaders who hold power”-in which case, Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East, with the current/occasional exception of Turkey.

If you go back and read what I said, I think it is pretty important that a democracy extend the same civil and economic rights to all its citizens and doesn’t discriminate against any one group of them negatively. If this comes under your definition of a “vacuously” defined statement, I have nothing more to say. I don’t have a problem with saying that Israel is a democracy, but democracies come in several different guises and types. I think there are serious problems with the kind of democracy, states like Sri Lanka and Israel practise; you obviously don’t, which is fine. I just want to emphasise that not all that is democratic is necessarily gold.

Either way, arguing in the alternative-i.e., “Israel isn’t a democracy, but if it is, that doesn’t make it a nice country”-doesn’t fly in non-legal contexts.

To respond to your points: (i) I have not argued that Israel isn’t a democracy, actually, what I have argued, if you had bothered to read my response to drapetomaniac’s comment is the reverse. (ii) Countries cannot said to be nice/not nice, since they are not people. Frankly anybody who argues differently in this context, is being a bit foolish as not being moral actors I don’t think states can be characterised in this way and (iii) there is an argument in favour of democracies wrt how they conduct themselves in interstate relations but that is not applicable in this case for reasons outlined earlier. The question of a legal/non-legal context does not arise at all.

As for Egypt, If it’s so susceptible to external pressure, I’m sure you can cite a few specific examples of its succumbing to it-right? The only one I can think of, off the top of my head, is the release, not too long ago, of a single democracy activist. Otherwise, I can’t think of any cases in recent memory of the Egyptian government backing down on a course of action favored by the government, in the face of international pressure. (Compare and contrast with Israel….) But perhaps I’ve missed a few?

There are a number of problems here; firstly your argument depends rather heavily on US policy or ‘external pressure’ as you like to call it resting on somehow promoting pro-democratic forces; whereas in my view frequently the reverse is the case. Many pro-democracy activists have complained, especially since the WTC attacks that the excuse of the “Islamists are coming” have been used to crack down on any liberalisation of the polity in states where there was some incremental change being made, as in Morocco. There is also a confusion as to why any external power would want to expend any substantial political capital in favour of democratisation, most external state actors will only exert what influence they have to further their own interests. It is unclear to me as which one of them will gain from Egyptian democratisation, it strikes me that the sole major gainers here will be the Egyptian people themselves. Ergo my initial point about democratic revolutions being primarily domestic and chthonic popular movements. On the points where there are legitimate US interests at stake, as in trade talks, GMOs and the WTO negotiations the US has done alright in extracting the concessions it wants. As for the EU, I would be sceptical as to what degree they really care much about internal reforms here; being a dependent and secondary power, reliant on the oil flows from the region all they want is stability and nothing else. They will back whichever political regime seems to deliver this.

I also am unsure as to what exactly the contrast with Israel is meant to be; only the US is really in a position to wield decisive influence over its policy and this is something that it has chosen not to do so since pretty much the late 50s. What influence the EU has, I am in the dark about and why Israel should care enough about the EU to listen, is also something I am ignorant about. Of course various international NGOS and other organisations will jump up and down about various things Israel is doing but this is mainly noise rather than anything else. Far more powerful here I think, is Israeli civil society and indigenous humanitarian organisations in exerting a restraining influence. Given what many Israelis think about the EU, UN and much of the rest of the world this is unsurprising. Though, this is hardly unique to Israel, most countries are the same – domestic critics are generally more powerful than international ones.

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Dan Simon 02.11.04 at 8:25 am

Conrad: I gather we agree that (1) Israel is a democracy, and (2) democracies are not all perfect. My main additional points (with which you might or might not disagree–I don’t think you’ve been clear) are that (3) with the possible recent exception of Turkey, no Middle Eastern country other than Israel can legitimately be called a democracy, and (4) democracies, imperfect though they are, are subject to external influences–such as appeals to international reputation and broad economic interest–to which non-democracies are much less susceptible.

For example, although you claim that Egypt is vulnerable to pressure because of its multi-billion-dollar annual aid bonanza from the US, I know of not a single instance of the US government even threatening–let alone carrying out its threat–to reduce its aid to Egypt by so much as one penny, as punishment for one of its many acts displeasing to Washington. We need not speak here of democratization–even Egypt’s acting in America’s self-interest seems beyond America’s power to coerce. In contrast, American aid to Israel is routinely jeopardized, and occasionally even reduced, as an expression of American displeasure. And Israel routinely (although not invariably) responds by modifying its behavior to please its benefactor.

The reason is clear: Israeli governments are responsible to their electorate, and must therefore consider the serious consequences of depriving their population of a large influx of foreign largesse. The president of Egypt, on the other hand, need not fear criticism if he decides to forgo American aid–he can always suppress objections and blame Israel, if necessary. Thus he can turn to the American government and say, with a straight face, “deprive me of your aid if you will–I can whip up more anti-American sentiment in my tightly-controlled country than it’s worth your while to endure for the money you save.”

But perhaps you know differently. Are there glaring examples, unknown to me, of Hosni Mubarak kowtowing to American pressure for the sake of his country’s aid check?

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Conrad barwa 02.11.04 at 8:14 pm

I gather we agree that (1) Israel is a democracy, and (2) democracies are not all perfect.

These are simple propositions and need to be qualified, but yes, we do agree, however I think our agreement is based on rather different reasoning and while me may reach roughly the same conclusions the argument is rather different. Of course all democracies are not perfect – certainly nobody is arguing this and it would be kind of silly to even try to do so. Like most good things in life it is inevitably bounded in some sense or another; in fact a little bit contrary to your statement (2) I would say that no democracy is perfect and few even come close. One could make many valid criticisms about the increasing bureaucratic centralisation in many European democracies and the impact of oligarchic tendencies in the American example; these examples can be multiplied ad infinitum. The problem exists where we draw the boundaries as to what is acceptable or not and where can the direction of change occur – since a democratic polity is one that tends to change significantly over time. One needs also to locate a democratic polity within its proper national context, since we live in an era of nation-states as opposed to simply democratic and non-democratic ones. It is here that some of the concerns of observers like drapetomaniac may become relevant; a nation-state that says it is a democracy but excludes a large minority of its citizens from landownership and discriminates against them in a number of institutionalised ways to their socio-economic detriment and legitimates this by its founding ideology is in my opinion a heavily circumscribed democracy. An ethnocratic state that is designed and set up to cater and articulate the national demands of one set of its citizens over another, is also in my view a heavily compromised democracy. None of these makes the state in question some sort of dictatorship but it isn’t exactly analogous to the kind of liberal democracy that we see in Europe and the neo-Europes. Even moving outside these regions, I would say that India is a fairly good example of a democracy; though it has well institutionalised social discrimination against sections of its citizenry within civil society, is prone to bouts of intolerance at religious communal level and has strong elements of chauvinist nationalism within its political spectrum with a polarisation of many of its state and para-statal institutions; it remains a democracy because none of these trends are legitimated in its foundational political order. This is simply not the case for ethnocratic regimes; or indeed confessional ones. If Pakistan or Iran suddenly switched over to real parliamentary elections, and ceded any extra-legislative powers to these popularly elected bodies but insisted on remaining ‘Islamic’ states with an ‘Islamic’ constitution and ensconced the privileged or dominant position of certain ethnic groups within their polities through the constitution, then they might well meet some Washington standard of democracy and the demands of many indigenous pro-democracy activists but they still remain highly limited democracies in my view.

So, while I agree with you about (1) my reasoning and approach is somewhat different and this is why I don’t overreact to any questioning of democratic credentials with the ‘at least we ain’t as bad as dem Arabs next door’ type reply. It is also why I suppose I am less complacent about the easy endorsement of democracy in this particular case and aware of its limitations, which remain quite significant and serious.

(3) with the possible recent exception of Turkey, no Middle Eastern country other than Israel can legitimately be called a democracy, and (4) democracies, imperfect though they are, are subject to external influences-such as appeals to international reputation and broad economic interest-to which non-democracies are much less susceptible.

Well, (3) I would agree except that Turkey is probably only a borderline democracy, much like Iran (more controversially). It takes much more than just simply repeated elections to the legislature to make a democracy – otherwise Singapore would be a model democracy. I also would distance myself from the implicit normative element here; in the realm of interstate relations, democracies don’t really behave radically differently than many non-democratic regimes (except the extremist ones) and have done many unpleasant things in the past, including indulged in genocide. The sole possible exception comes in the light of how democracies treat other democracies where there can said to be a qualitative difference; but since Israel is the only one in the region this is not really all that relevant unless other states democratise.

I don’t know where you (4) from, it is quite bizarre to me and completely mistaken. Governments in democracies are elected not to appease international opinion but to serve the electorate and further the national interest (however this is defined). If they compromise on this and defer to external pressures they are either not doing their job properly or do so when they formally cede some part of their sovereignty as joining in a military pact with a hegemonic partner (as in NATO), a supra-national association (the EU) or become dependent on external guarantees for their national defense needs (Japan under the American nuclear umbrella). Outside these limited cases, it would be a serious neglect of their duty for democratically elected governments to yield to such pressure and when they do it is done unwillingly; when there is a potential clash I would assume actually that democracies can put up with much more punishment than autocracies can simply because the populace can be mobilised to soldier on voluntarily rather than through coercion. Maintaining political orders based on pure force or compulsion requires a huge expenditure of political, institutional and mental energy; maintaining one based on consent, even when the resulting policies create substantial hardship is much easier. When the Liberal Nationalists under Mossadeq decided to go ahead and nationalise Anglo-Iranian oil, they did so while putting up with a boycott from other UK and US petroleum companies at a not inconsiderable cost to themselves; and this continued for a couple of years until the only way to get rid of the regime was via an internal coup. One could say something similar about apartheid South Africa, it was a limited democracy for White South Africaners and what caused its collapse was internal economic contradictions and increasingly unwinnable wars rather than the pure hardship of isolation or moral opprobrium of the rest of the world (though this definitely played a role). When a central or key aspect of a political programme is at stake or the survival of the existing political order, I would think that democratic states, as long as they can carry their citizenry along with them are much more immune to change than non-democratic ones. Autocracies lose effectiveness quite rapidly when isolated and when the benefits of keeping quiet disappear while a democratic deficit widens. Much of course depends on the nature of the regime, how wide its social base is, capacity for mass mobilisation, strength of the political opposition etc. a Stalinist state like NK can hold out for an incredibly long-time and while the only keeps the ZANU-PF kleptocracy going is that it still is clinging some vestiges of residual support and a suppressed demand for land; as the party machinery who would be scared of losing out if there is a change.

For example, although you claim that Egypt is vulnerable to pressure because of its multi-billion-dollar annual aid bonanza from the US, I know of not a single instance of the US government even threatening-let alone carrying out its threat-to reduce its aid to Egypt by so much as one penny, as punishment for one of its many acts displeasing to Washington. We need not speak here of democratization-even Egypt’s acting in America’s self-interest seems beyond America’s power to coerce.

I think this is somewhat simplistic to put forward as an argument; it depends of course on the perennial question of ‘what does the US really want’. Somehow turning Egypt into a shining beacon of liberty and democracy in the ME or some sort of Arab tiger economy does not strike me as very high on the list of US policy goals. In the broader context of limiting any radical nationalist regime or worse and Islamist fundamentalist one, coming to power; US policy has not done too badly. As indicated earlier, democratic-nationalist regimes tend to be much more difficult manage than non-democratic ones for a number of reasons; particularly since in the ME the motors of mass mobilisation tend to be either rather radical notions of nationalism or religion. As long as Egypt maintains its peace treaty with Israel and doesn’t go beyond rhetoric in its pan-Arabist pretensions; I fail to see what the problem for the US is. Certainly the NDP regime is caught up in its own internal struggle against various elements in the domestic sphere, including several Islamist strains; as well as popular discontent in not being able to manage effective economic policies and the typical problems of poverty and development found in most LDCs. The govt in Cairo walks a thin path between making all sorts of tall claims about what it can do in pandering to some of the more extreme sentiment but the gap in practise is quite large and is fairly apparent to many Egyptians – otherwise there wouldn’t be so much opposition to the regime in the first place. It is in the interests of the US to maintain this status quo and stability, not rock it. Cuts in aid can have severe backlash effects, as reducing the large public subsidies to much of the urban population has led to serious rioting and disturbances in the past, as in 1977 which no govt would like to see. So we differ obviously on what the US really wants here; it has got the bulk of it from the current regime and can’t extract much more without running the risk of something it wants even less replacing it. I doubt that the Mubarak govt would take a step that they knew would seriously cause the US to threaten flows of its aid, locking up the odd pro-democracy activist and killing a few civilians here and there is not going to suspend a few billion dollars of aid (I am afraid to say) deciding to renege or reconsider its peace treaty with Israel or interfering in the internal politics of other ME states would.

In contrast, American aid to Israel is routinely jeopardized, and occasionally even reduced, as an expression of American displeasure. And Israel routinely (although not invariably) responds by modifying its behavior to please its benefactor.

Actually no; US aid to Israel over the long-term has shown a secular rise that is out of hock with any serious evaluation of Israeli strategic needs – that is aid has increased as Israel’s relative military position has – not decreased. Aid that is promised to go anywhere but towards settlement activity, in fact goes towards settlement activity and no US admin seriously considers withdrawing or cutting down its aid commitments. There is again, here much talk and rhetoric but little real action beyond some symbolism and delays. Also I am unclear as to what modification in Israeli behaviour there is and to what degree it is due to external as opposed to internal pressure and to what degree this is merely symbolic as opposed to substantive. Israel negotiates based on its evaluation of how it can best serve its own interests – which is what it is meant to do; detainees at Camp 1391 are no more going to be released due to US pressure than are the Egyptian Special Security courts going to stop functioning in secret. It simply isn’t going to happen just because the US says it should; what is more important is how any concessions can go towards reaching agreements with those forces the Israeli and Egyptian state are contending against. I would also be very careful in saying that Israel routinely reacts in this manner to US wishes as you are coming dangerously close to mirroring the Islamist-extremist fantasy that Israel is just controlled by the US and is some sort of ‘Crusader’ state. Israeli policy is determined in Tel Aviv not in Washington; while Israel is quite dependent on US largesse; it knows that such flows will continue regardless of its actions; if a situation should arise whereby there is an actual danger that such flows might be threatened, it would already have made the necessary realignments in its external and internal policy either to prevent or to accommodate such an outcome. Its policymakers would have been criminally negligent, if they were not in a position to do this.

The reason is clear: Israeli governments are responsible to their electorate, and must therefore consider the serious consequences of depriving their population of a large influx of foreign largess

No, not really; it is reflective of the greater strategic weakness of Israel; the Israeli electorate is already suffering quite heavily since the second intifada and poverty rates have reached some alarming levels. It would not surprise me at all, if this has actually resulted in some mortalities already and is set to continue for some time as yet. Given its size and resource base, Israel can’t maintain its military edge over its neighbours with substantial aid – it is in a far better position than its neighbours as even with substantial infusions of Soviet aid Syria could never come close to Israeli capability given its greater socio-economic weaknesses and poorer capacity to actually utilise this aid properly. Which is why if this aid was withdrawn it would remove a major pillar of Israeli policy but there is little danger of this happening anytime soon.

The president of Egypt, on the other hand, need not fear criticism if he decides to forgo American aid-he can always suppress objections and blame Israel, if necessary. Thus he can turn to the American government and say, with a straight face, “deprive me of your aid if you will-I can whip up more anti-American sentiment in my tightly-controlled country than it’s worth your while to endure for the money you save.”

Please excuse me, but this is a load of complete rubbish. The Egyptian regime is on shaky ground since it doesn’t enjoy much popular legitimacy and doesn’t want any major democratic reforms – these are the primary demands of many sectors of Egyptian society; no Egyptian President would be stupid enough to turn down current US aid, as there is basically no alternative and stripped of this kind of support there would most likely be a domestic revolution, of one sort or another within a matter of months. I am not going to delve into the complexities of evolving changes inside Egypt during this time – we would be here all night if I did; suffice it to say that with the collapse of Nasserist pan-Arabism, Sadat’s incomplete ability to de-link external and internal policy stances and the changes ushered in by the move away from state-sponsored capitalism by is infitah policy which lessened avenues of social mobility leading to discontent, tapped in by newer Islamist movements radicalised by the Iranian Revolution and influenced by the Saudi clergy was combined with a situation where the peasantry who had be quiet since the attempted bureaucratic land reforms of the early Nasserist period, had seen a rollback in agrarian reforms and was increasingly influenced by flows of capital from the Gulf states and the repatriation of remittances from the labourers sent to Iraq to fulfil manpower shortfalls during the war with Iran. Much of this led to increasing and new forms of Islamisation, rising expectations at a time when the state’s capacity to meet them was declining and an erosion of legitimacy from a regime who could not respond to newer and ascendant ideological challenges. The idea that Egypt is some sort of tight remote-controlled dictatorship is quite wrong, nobody needs to be told what would happen if the regime suffers of loss of aid inflows, precarious as it is, the likely outcome is quite obvious. This is not something that the current ruling junta in Cairo would be happy about since any change would result in their replacement; the notion of blaming Israel is laughable as people, despite prevailing local illiteracy rates are not stupid. They know quite well that their govt is very amenable relations with the US and who signed the treaty with Israel and the foreign policy of their state; the idea that this would suddenly change because the current regime would abruptly do a U-turn would be met with derision, since the latter would also be liquidating itself by rejecting a policy to which it has adhered to for so long. Real democratic and civil liberty reforms are not going to come this way and there is only so much scare-mongering that one can indulge in; few buy these excuses now, any attempt to reverse the course will simply remove the last shreds of any rationale for the govt to remain in power.

But there is also a greater problem inherent in some of your reasoning – which revolves around what a democratic state in say Egypt would do. As I have pointed out democratic states can be more resilient when mobilised in the pursuit of goals, which have widespread and substantial legitimacy and popularity; then it would be even more difficult to derail or to influence them otherwise. If such a states decides to take an anti-American stance in the region or to renege on its relations with Israel then it would be a more formidable opponent than some corrupt autocracy. One could perhaps debate as to what would be the outcome here along the lines of ‘what do the Egyptians really want?” but this is a different discussion.

But perhaps you know differently. Are there glaring examples, unknown to me, of Hosni Mubarak kow-towing to American pressure for the sake of his country’s aid check

It has been some time since I last spoke to him but I can’t think of any offhand, no leader will “kow-tow” in this manner in anycase, not unless he wants to survive. Projection of strength is even more important if one doesn’t have any democratic legitimacy, so running around bowing and scarping in front of foreign powers is not going to do much for one’s image at home.

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