Sunday, August 12, 2007

Kiss of Death

The last six years of international politics in the Middle East have placed in stark contrast the questions of democracy in the Middle East. Specifically, it seems that democratic political institutions may be taking hold in parts of the region, but with results that are not congruent with the hopes and intents of the Bush Administration, and perhaps, mis-aligned with the national interests of the United States. From Friday's New York Times:
There has been talk of the Christian vote and the Armenian vote, of history and betrayal, as each side sought to claim victory. There is one explanation, however, that has become common wisdom in the region: Mr. Gemayel’s doom seems to have been sealed by his support from the Bush administration and the implied agendas behind its backing.

“It’s the kiss of death,” said Turki al-Rasheed, a Saudi reformer who watched last Sunday’s elections closely. “The minute you are counted on or backed by the Americans, kiss it goodbye, you will never win.”

The paradox of American policy in the Middle East — promoting democracy on the assumption it will bring countries closer to the West — is that almost everywhere there are free elections, the American-backed side tends to lose.
Now, I don't know enough in depth about the Middle East, history, culture, politics, or people to comment on any of the speculation that goes on among American political commentators about if/how/when/by whom should democracy find its way into practice in Middle Eastern countries. I do firmly believe, however, that the purpose of democratic institutions is to express the will of the people, the electorate, and not to acquiesce with American foreign policy or install pro-American governments. I also believe that other countries have the right to national interests that may differ from the United States. Not controversial statements, I know, but at the same time, they are the curiously unstated sensibilities that under-gird so much of American foreign policy and opinion, particularly in the current Bush administration.

Those broad-brush sentiments aside, what is of particular concern to me is how closely aligned the perception of America has become to the actions of the Bush Administration, and more specifically, how difficult will it be to distance the image of the United States from the legacy of this administration in the Middle East? I am hoping to visit Egypt, and perhaps Jordan and Turkey (and maybe Lebanon?) over the winter. It would be my first visit to the region and my hope is that I will be able to gauge some sense of the sentiment there towards the United States government, and towards Americans as people. My unfortunate expectation is that the perception of both the United States government and its people will be greatly damaged, and that the unwillingness or ineffectiveness of average Americans to broadly communicate their displeasure with some of our actions abroad will fundamentally undermine perceptions of "Good people, bad government" that have held sway in many parts of the world at length. Thoughts?


rone said...

I'm not sure that i understand what you're saying in your "Not controversial statements" paragraph. Given US history, i do not believe that US foreign policy agrees with your belief regarding the purpose of democratic institutions; i would say that US interventionism occurs because the US wants sympathetic governments, and it has not always meant the installation of a democracy (e.g., Pinochet).

The perception of America has always cleaved close to whomever sits in the White House, but i agree that it seems to be even more so with Bush, mostly because of the Iraq fiasco. However, i think that you'll be spared any animosity from citizens of foreign lands, as long as your passport isn't visible, because you're not a typical American.

I think that American foreign policy sucks because we still haven't outgrown Manifest Destiny. I don't know what we'd have to do to get over it. It's a deep cultural problem.

Ritik Dholakia said...

Hey Ron, thanks for reading! A lot of the writing lately has been late at night and off the cuff, so apologies for confusing opinions. A couple of clarifying comments.

On the "Not controversial statements" paragraph, my take is this: if you examine US foreign policy, I think most candid observers would agree that the US has been perfectly content to compromise democratic institutions in favor of protecting national interests and installing favorable governments. So I certainly agree with you there.

My perception, however, is that if you were to ask the "average" American whether "the purpose of democratic institutions is to express the will of the people" or whether "other countries have the right to national interests that may differ from the United States" most people would agree.

There is a disconnect, I think, between how Americans view themselves, and how our government exercises foreign policy on our behalf (with our fundamental, electoral approval). For many years, that disconnect has actually been mirrored by the outside world. My experience in foreign countries was generally "the American government may do bad things, but the American people are generally good people."

The concern that I am trying to express in this post is that, as a consequence of the actions of the last eight years, and more keenly, of re-electing the Bush administration in 04 and a tacit acceptance of their policies (we may express our disgust in polls, but people are not rioting in the streets) has led to a binding of negative perceptions, where the Bush Administration policies and rhetoric become synonymous with the American government, and the American government with the American people. This is a casual hypothesis, of course, made from a great distance -- India being the only foreign country that I have visited in the last three years.

So, if my Middle East trip comes off, I am curious to talk to people, and see what the reaction is -- if people will be willing to forget the Bush Administration if the United States elects a different leadership in 2008. And I agree with you, I am not concerned from animosity directed at my person, more curious to get some perspective on how people feel, in general.