Democracy vs. Engagement!

In the aftermath of 9/11, democracy became a catch-word that was repeatedly enunciated by various American officials and commentators, from the President down, and brandished as some kind of magic weapon that can help make the differenced in the Global War on Terror. In the process though, Democracy was reduced to a single aspect of it, namely elections that, more often than not, produced undesirable results by empowering inherently non-democratic actors thus complicating the Administration’s push for greater political openness and reforms in the region.

This much has already been established, and criticizing the Bush Administration on these points is understandable, legitimate and necessary, especially considering the fact that we have still two more years to go in which much can still transpire, both positive, if new more nuanced approaches are adopted, or negative, if current tactics continue to be deployed unrevised.

But criticisms in this regard, however justified, will remain hollow and unproductive, if no clear and realistic alternate policy approaches are put on the table. To simply introduce a new catch-word on the scene, namely: Engagement, might make for some good sound-bites, and might indeed work within the context of the American electoral processes, and perhaps, Israeli ones, still, this is quite insufficient to help tackle the serious and critical problems involved in GWOT.

Indeed, engagement, with its current reduction to pure pragmatic containment, will likely prove even more naïve and disastrous than the democracy approach of the last 5 years, to the extant that muddling through using the current policies of the Bush Administration might make more sense.

How so?

Well, when engagement becomes all about containment, with no vision pronounced for addressing any of the real underlying issues in GWOT, the potential for empowering the wrong players and for abuse of the entire process of engagement becomes all the more likely, if not inevitable.

In order to understand how this might work, just consider what seems like the basic stand of the pro-engagement crowd, namely: their adamant dismissal of the very possibility that some sides may not be as engageable as we want them and need them to be. This opens the door for abuse of the process of engagement by dragging talks on and on without an end-game in sight. Meanwhile the regimes involved will be empowered to act as wantonly as they can get away with so long as they manage to maintain certain façades that will fool the pro-engagement crowd because they seem eager to be fooled.

For even before the talks are underway, engagement advocates have already conceded, in their various pronouncements, articles, op-eds and blog-posts, many of the basic demands of the regimes they want to engage without getting anything back in return, not even promises.

Take the Assads regime in Syria as an example of how the pro-engagement crowd proposes to do things. Indeed, in this case, the list of concessions seems to include: a readiness to bury the UN inquiry into the Hariri assassination, and a willingness to see the entire country of Lebanon returned to the Assads’ control, in anticipation of the Assads’ help in disarming Hezbollah, controlling radical Palestinian groups and stemming the flow of Jihadi elements and funds to Iraq.

But the most important concession of all is the complete abandonment of any push for reform and democratization in Syria. The position of the Assads as the rulers of Syria will be legitimated, and all serious talk of reform will be consigned to that old “dustbin of history” that the allegedly socialist Assads are so fond of. Opposition members, human rights and democracy advocates, the critical position that most of them adopted vis-à-vis the Bush policies in the region and vis-à-vis their own country notwithstanding, will be decimated so thoroughly that the cause of modernization, democratization and secularization of the country will be set back for decades.

The impact of such a turnaround on whatever remaining support that the US still enjoys in certain reformist quarters around the region will be equally devastating of coursem, as other regimes follow the Assads’ lead. The US will have no real friends left in the region, and only charlatans and blackmailers to deal with. For, this is indeed what the Assads are, in the final analysis, and this is what their policies have been all about for decades now. Even the pro-engagement crowd concedes that, as many of them continue to deploy Godfather analogies to the entire situation. Engagement advocates simply hope that engagement will encourage the Assads to change their spots, eventually, though they fail to tell us how the Assads can actually manage such an unlikely feat, and who will eventually emerge as the Michael Corleone, of the family (and let’s bear in mind here that the Michael Corleone’s project for legitimizing the family business failed, as he was continuously sucked back in) .

Meanwhile, those who call for engaging Syria but not necessarily Iran, try to justify their Syrian-engagement policy by claiming that it is necessary in order to wean the Assads off of their newly-recovered Iranian dependency and take a step towards isolating Iran and weakening its influence over Hezbollah in Lebanon. The possibility that the Assads might just be too weak at this stage to turn against Iran, that such a course might indeed be suicidal for them as it might lead them into an internal showdown and/or a conflict with Hezbollah (not to mention the radical Palestinian groups, including the radical wing in Hamas led by Khalid Meshaal, who now get the bulk of their financial support from Iran) for which they are no more ready than the Israelis have been, is simply not factored into the calculations of the pro-engagement crowd.

Little intelligence indeed seems to be factored into the calculations here and much faith. So how different is the pro-engagement crowd from their neo-con foes?

While the Democracy Faith seems to have been based on the assumption that authoritarianism and corruption in the Broader Middle East and North Africa Region seem to play a role in encouraging international terrorism, the Engagement Faith is premised on the assumption that authoritarian regimes are much more capable of cracking down on terrorists than democracies can. The facts that authoritarian regimes, due to their endemic and gargantuan corruption and their mismanagement of the economy are actually driving their populations further and further into the folds of Islamist extremism, and that this state of affairs leaves the regimes involved only one realistic option to deal with this problem on the short run, namely: to export it to other neighboring countries and the world by allowing the radical elements to take their violence elsewhere, are, once again, not factored into the equation.

But so long as policymakers continue to base their calculations on faith, wishful thinking and unjustifiable expectations rather than intimate knowledge of the new complexity of the region and reliable intelligence, and so long as policymakers in the United States in particular continue to lay a nihilistic partisan game, despite the serious nature of threats involved with regard to the US interests on both the short and long runs (not to mention the interests of the peoples of the region), and so long as US policymakers fail to coordinate their plans and policies with their European and regional allies, at least through NATO, if not the UN (and NATO seems more preferable here), and so long as there is no acceptance, on part of one and all involved, of the reality that the challenge of terrorism requires longer term commitment and planning, then the region will simply move from one disaster to another and the impact of that will be felt all over the world through increased acts of terrorism and mayhem.