Credit and counterfactuals

CREDIT AND COUNTERFACTUALS….When Kevin asked me to guest-blog, he said that he was hoping for yet another piece giving al-Jazeera all the credit. I’ll try to get you all another one of those some time this week, but I thought I’d start with some more general thoughts on the question that’s been posed: how much credit should Bush, or the invasion of Iraq, get for the positive developments in the region the last few months?

I don’t really like framing the question in such partisan terms. It seems obvious that the invasion of Iraq matters for regional politics ? how could it not? Both the strategic and the normative environment have radically changed, for better or for worse, and everyone ? governments and political activists alike ? are responding to this new situation. On the other hand, it seems obvious to anyone who has been following the region over the last decade that the demands for change in the region have their roots in local factors, and that the main credit should go to the Arab intellectuals and activists who have been fighting for reforms for years. When I talk to many of these activists, or read what they write in the Arab press or hear what they say on al-Jazeera, what I hear is a combination of frank recognition that some new opportunites have been created with opposition to American foreign policy and a fierce refusal of any appropriation of their struggle by the United States.

One of the most misleading ideas out there has to do with the supposed novelty of Arab demands for democratic reforms. The conventional wisdom that the invasion of Iraq triggered the first public Arab conversations about democracy is just flat wrong. Arabs have been talking about the need for reform and protesting against the status quo since long before the Iraqi war. Al-Jazeera talk shows were full of heated debates about democracy and the need for reform as far back as the late 1990s. During the run-up to the Iraq war, most Arab governments clamped down hard because they were afraid of what might happen if demonstrations got out of hand (the first big anti-Mubarak protest back in 2003 began as a protest against the invasion of Iraq). After the crisis passed they relaxed a bit, and Arab activists renewed their long-stated criticisms of the status quo. Iraq, and Bush, may have helped to open up some political opportunities (and to foreclose others), but credit for the so-called Arab spring should go to the Arab intellectuals and activists who have long been pushing for change for their own reasons.

So how does this play out in some specific cases?

Take Lebanon. Change there was sparked by the murder of Rafik Hariri, not by anything immediately to do with the Iraq war. Protestors mobilized over the demand to know the truth about his death, and this then evolved into a demand for a Syrian withdrawal. This would have happened with or without Iraq, and Bush had very little to do with it. Where Bush and Iraq did matter, I’d say, is that the presence of American troops in Iraq probably restrained Bashar al Asad from more direct or violent responses. The Cedar Revolutionaries knew this, and this no doubt encouraged them to take more risks, but this wouldn’t have come to much if there hadn’t been a very real domestic Lebanese desire for political change. And (yes, Kevin!) Arab media played a big role: broadcasting the demonstrations empowered them and probably protected them from direct retaliation.

Or take Egypt. The Kifaya movement built itself up around the deep frustration with the political stagnation of the Mubarak regime, and is rooted in the experience of protests over Palestine and against American policy in Iraq beginning in the late 1990s (see this post by Egyptian blogger Baheyya for some background). Kifaya targeted the 2005 Presidential referendum as a defining moment to demand change, and would have done so with or without Iraq. Most Kifaya activists (and it is dangerous to generalize about such a diffuse and diverse movement) opposed the invasion of Iraq, remain quite hostile to American foreign policy, and reject any American support in their democracy struggles. Again, the Arab media played a decisive role, by heavily covering the early, small protests and magnifying their political weight. What role for Bush, here? Once again, even if the Kifaya protestors neither welcomed nor needed American support, the heightened American presence and concern for democracy probably acted as a constraint on a too-forceful crackdown by Hosni Mubarak. This shouldn’t be overstated ? Condi Rice played a constructive role in getting Ayman Nour released from prison, but the administration has seemingly had little to say in the face of the increasingly rough treatment of Kifaya protestors in the last couple of months ? but it would be silly to deny that the changed strategic environment created some opportunities for these quite independent activists to engage in some new kinds of political action.

Okay, that’s it for now. Maybe later I’ll actually comment on some of the articles, like Kevin is (not) paying me to do.