Engaging With the Middle East

ENGAGING WITH THE MIDDLE EAST….Matt Yglesias writes, and Atrios endorses, the following critique of the Bush Doctrine:

America’s strategy for the Middle East is centered on transforming its states into liberal democracies, but our main local partners in this effort are…sharia-enforcing hereditary monarchs. Nobody seems to talk about it anymore, but this is obviously dumb.

….The bulk of American elite opinion has switched over to the Bush view that we need to democratize the Middle East, but as we’ve been seeing in the port controversy the bulk of American elite opinion, like Bush himself, thinks the Arabian peninsula’s monarchical elites are wonderful people who we should be supporting to the end. You can’t do both.

This is a topic that deserves considerably more than just an assertion of “obviously dumb,” I think. Let me offer a few half-formed responses.

First, America has lots of strategic partners that aren’t liberal democracies, and always has. What’s more, everybody talks about this. I can hardly swing a dead blog without hearing George Bush condemned for not being tough enough on Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, and this criticism isn’t exactly foreign to dead tree op-ed writers either. I’m a little mystified at the proposition that this paradox at the heart of American foreign policy never gets any attention.

Second, has the bulk of American elite opinion really bought into the Bushian view that democratizing the Middle East is Job 1? I’m really asking here. There’s no question that this is a major preoccupation among a certain sort of opinion maker, but it’s far from universal. I think democracy promotion is a fine idea, for example, but I’m actually a lot more interested in things like economic reform, institution building, a free press, better treatment of women, religious tolerance, and so forth.

Third, is it really true that you “can’t do both” ? i.e., support democracy and work with nondemocratic regimes in the Middle East? The Bush administration certainly pushes hypocrisy to the limits sometimes on this score, but what’s the alternative? Outside of Israel, sharia-enforcing hereditary monarchs are the only partners available in the Middle East. This means that if we want to engage with the Muslim world, instead of simply bombing and invading it, we’re going to have to engage with some fairly disagreeable regimes. There’s no question that this is a tricky line to walk, and I myself think the Bush administration appeases nasty but useful allies far too often, but carrots and sticks are still the name of the game here.

None of this is directly related to the Dubai port deal, which can be supported or opposed on its merits. Still, there’s an instructive lesson to be taken from the latest talking point among the deal’s opponents, namely that Dubai Ports World is a nasty company because it supports the boycott of Israel. Surely this is an opportunity, though, not a reason to scuttle the deal? If we make approval of the deal conditional on DPW abandoning the boycott, that’s a big win. It would mean we’ve used American leverage in a good cause and a major Arab company would be publicly committed to allowing trade with Israel. That’s a small step, but with rare exceptions that’s how progress is made.

UPDATE: Matt makes some eminently reasonable points in response here.