Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Anti-Islamism as the New Anti-Communism

The New York Times has a very good editorial up today about Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine ben Ali's upcoming visit to Washington, making a point of the need to have our words match our deeds, by pushing our "allies" to live up to the ideals on behalf of which we claim to be fighting.

Last fall, President Bush declared that Washington had learned the folly of accommodating Middle East dictatorships in the name of stability and that America would start putting its power in the service of democratic values throughout the region. Today, one of the area's most unbudging autocrats, President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia, will visit the White House. If Mr. Bush meant what he said last fall, he will offer some constructive public criticism on the value of free elections, a free press and an independent judiciary. Secretary of State Colin Powell prepared the ground yesterday by offering Mr. ben Ali just such criticism.

Mr. ben Ali's record on human rights and democracy is poor even by the standards of the Middle East. No serious political opposition is allowed, no critical coverage appears in the mass media, and hundreds of Tunisians remain jailed after unfair trials. Such arbitrary practices warrant condemnation anywhere, but are doubly deplorable in Tunisia, a relatively developed country that enacted pioneering protections of women's rights decades ago.

Tunisia's political progress has all but ground to a halt since Mr. ben Ali seized power in 1987. Since then, he has had himself re-elected three times, on each occasion claiming more than 99 percent of the vote.

He plans to run for yet another term this October, and he recently pushed through constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power through 2014.


Mr. ben Ali also poses as an effective ally against Islamic extremism, a danger he has invoked to justify his wider repression. Mr. Bush provided the best answer to that last fall, noting that in the long term, neither America's safety nor stability in Middle Eastern countries — like Tunisia — could "be purchased at the expense of liberty." That sound advice bears repeating today.

Washington seems set on repeating in the Arab world the same errors it did throughout the Cold War, by opting for a "realpolitik" that makes all its talk of "freedom" and "democracy" look like so much cant. It simply will not do to allow characters like ben Ali, Mubarak and Musharraf to get away with stifling all domestic dissent by raising the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism. Playing along with this nonsense actually increases the danger that the very fundamentalism these strongmen claim to be fighting against will actually be strengthened, for in societies in which all avenues of criticism outside of the mosque are forbidden, who else but the imams can be the voices of change?

America's refusal to seriously push Portugal and South Africa to reform played a major role in the upsurge of communist sympathies in that part of the world, and American tolerance for the Shah's brutality helped deliver Iran to Khomeini, Carter's initiatives coming too late in the day to save a regime that had become universally loathed. The same story does a great deal to explain South Korean ambivalence towards America's security presence, as many people are all too aware of Washington's willingness to countenance the dictatorships like Chun Doo Hwan's, even in the face of the Kwangju massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1980. People have long memories, and are quick to spot big-power hypocrisy when they see it. Those who think political "realities" oblige us to tolerate stifling regimes are the ones who really have a poor grasp of reality, for how can they hope to convince people who have seen America effortlessly overthrow the Taliban and Saddam in quick procession, that the United States is truly unable to enforce its will when it feels like doing so? The natural (and correct) conclusion they will come to is that the US only really cares about "democracy", "human rights" and "freedom" for that portion of the world it considers "civilized", and the rest can go hang.

UPDATE: It seems David Adesnik of Oxblog is touching on the same issue.