The Kiss of Death

Why do Arab reformers claim U.S. support is hurting them?

In the last few months, a number of American journalists have argued that the White House’s efforts at reform in the Middle East are counterproductive. Because of the Bush administration’s “ineptitude, arrogance, and mendacity,” writes the American Prospect’s Michael Steinberger, “Washington’s word is now mud, and overt U.S. support for political reform is considered the kiss of death.” Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria agrees: “In every Arab country that I have been to in the last two years, the liberals, reformers and businessmen say, ‘Please don’t support us. American support today is the kiss of death.’ “

Of course, U.S. intentions have long been suspect in the region, but the campaign to discourage American support—complete with the catchphrase “kiss of death”—suggests that some of the sources feeding the U.S. media aren’t entirely disinterested observers.

For instance, the Village Voice’s Kareem Fahim quotes Hani Shukrallah, who says that America “should just stay away.” Why? “It’s the kiss of death,” says Shukrallah, who, as the Voice notes, is editor of Egypt’s Al Ahram Weekly, the English-language version of the regime’s own media organ. Yes, President Hosni Mubarak’s government wants the United States to stay away, but that is not reason enough for us to do so. Egypt, Jordan, and the Arab League are recommending that Iraq postpone its January elections. No doubt Arab officials know the region better than we do, but we should at least be savvy enough to recognize that they have their own motives for wanting to delay elections. What would happen to Arab regimes if Jordanians and Egyptians and all the other Arabs wanted elections like the Iraqis? Oftentimes the Muslim world’s voices of moderation, its “liberals, reformers and businessmen,” have a stake in preserving the status quo.

Indeed, there are indications that the U.S. response to Sept. 11, including the Iraq war, has set the region on a course of change that the regimes can’t totally control. Recently, the sociologist and democratic rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim announced he might try to run for president of Egypt. A little more than a year ago Ibrahim was in prison awaiting the trial that U.S. pressure had helped force from the Egyptian government. He was eventually cleared of the trumped-up charges, but, while many Egyptians distrust and dislike Mubarak, Egyptian public opinion was nonetheless outraged that Washington had dared to interfere with their authoritarian regime. “I did not ask the U.S. government for anything,” Ibrahim told me at the time. “But I appreciated every bit of support I received. The negative reaction to the American gesture came mainly from people who have scores to settle, mostly over Palestine and Iraq.”

Sometimes, Arabs warn Washington away out of habit. Raymond Stock, a longtime Cairo resident and biographer and translator of Naguib Mahfouz, remembers a night he spent with the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and others when the subject of U.S. support for democratic reforms came up, and many at the table said they wished America would shut up. “Mahfouz said, ‘What’s wrong if the Americans want us to have democracy? Sometimes our interests can coincide.’ “

Stock explains that in the Arab world “the idea of democracy has never been divorced from the West. The problem is that many people who call for democracy don’t really want it. They want their own voices heard, and it stops there. This is true of Arab nationalists and Islamists. If standard democratic institutions are built, there will be an opportunity for all voices to be heard and participate.”

Those institutions can’t be built without external pressures, and right now the United States is the only nation capable of exerting enough force to make it happen and willing to do so. “Asking the Arab world to reform,” says the Syrian intellectual Ammar Abdulhamid, “is dabbling with its innermost political life.” That is to say, any real reform in the Arab world will have to go well beyond cosmetic changes and address the political, economic, and social structures that sustain Arab regimes and preserve the status quo. Clearly, the region’s governments won’t do that work if they’re not compelled to do so.

Already, there have been some positive results. According to Abdulhamid, pressure from the White House—namely the Syria Accountability Act and the U.S.-co-sponsored U.N. resolution on Lebanon—”has created a crisis and loosened the regime’s grip. A number of dissidents used the opportunity to raise their voice. When the regime saw this, it tried to engage with some of them. For instance, the new information minister was on Al Jazeera talking to dissidents, which is something that’s never happened before. We should not be overly optimistic, but we need to plant seeds now.”

As for those in the Middle East who want to distance themselves from U.S. reform plans, Abdulhamid says some of them are “just well-intentioned people who think U.S. support will discredit them. But using the United States is not being pro- or anti-United States; it’s being pragmatic. The Great Powers will always have designs and interests in this region. They’ll use us, so let’s use them. This is a highly politicized environment, so we have to be good politicians. We really have to understand the game; there’s no excuse for not understanding.”

The White House needs to understand the game as well. “U.S. policies are not wrong in themselves,” says Abdulhamid, “but Washington is delivering contradictory messages. That’s good if it keeps the regimes off balance, but it’s not clear the United States really knows what it’s doing. For the good cop, bad cop routine to work there has to be some coordination.”

The administration’s incoherent policy partly explains why, as Slate contributor Michael Young explains, Colin Powell was ineffective in the region generally and humiliated by the Syrians in particular. Presumably, Condoleezza Rice’s nomination for secretary of state is meant to keep the Bush administration on message. In any event, it’s time for the policy debate between the neoconservatives and the “realists” to move on. Assuming the administration’s policymakers are really serious about reform in the Arab world, we’ll need good cops working along with the bad cops. If the White House simply maintains the pressure, the crisis will render the regimes incapable of any reform, and eventually they’ll just crack down on real liberals and reformers. U.S. officials have to push hard and at the same time help the regimes enhance their own prestige.

First we must acknowledge that there are very few real reformers in any Middle Eastern regime. There are, however, plenty of pragmatists who can be convinced, through force and blandishments, that their privileged place in the world depends on their ability to cut deals. We need to identify, empower, and threaten these people.

Next, and most important, we need to recognize that, like unhappy families, each regime is different and that each has its own needs, strengths, and weaknesses. There is no one way to peace and prosperity in the Middle East, and neither the road through Jerusalem nor Baghdad will get us there.