Friday, January 28, 2011

Note to US: Invest In Populations, Not Dictators

Steve Coll has a typically insightful piece in The New Yorker, Democratic Movements, on the implications of the revolution in Tunisia and the growing unrest in other countries in the region.  Coll points out that while each country has their own unique concerns, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Saudia Arabia have in common with Tunisia several political and demographic factors that are potentially combustible:  "youthful population, high unemployment, grotesque inequality, abusive police, reviled leaders, and authoritarian systems that stifle free expression."

In Tunisia, according to Coll, "investments in civil society -- programs launched by the United States, European governments, and independent foundation, which were peaceful, gradual, and unrelated to war or invasion -- bore fruit."  It was "Tunisian women (empowered by constitutional rights), labor unions, human rights campaigners, journalists, and artists" who survived the police state and triggered the overthrow of President Ben Ali "because outside supporters had promoted their legitimacy and built their capacity."  This is in stark contrast, Coll notes, to the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq, which "set back the cause of promoting democracy by tying its ideas to violence and occupation."

Coll is familiar with the many "objections to pushing democratic reform in the Arab world," which include the possibility of creating instability, empowering Islamists parties, and depriving us of reliable partners in combating terrorism.  And, "there are significant risks, particularly if Egypt's government were to fall to leaders who would abandon any alliance to Washington."  In addition, "the practical rewards for promoting democracy in Arab societies may be uncertain and slow, if they come at all."   Nevertheless, as Coll argues, "it is the right strategy -- in principal and in pursuit of America's national interests."  The "corrosive effects of political and economic exclusion in the region cannot be sustained."  As the situation in Tunisa shows us, "Arab politics is not stable" and "common sense is ample guidance in foreign policy:  the United States must invest in populations, not dictators."


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