What does Obama want?
ISLAM AND THE WEST
By Daniel Brumberg
In the 20th century, crackdowns against civil society frequently occurred under the guise of ideology. Since the demise of Communism, most crackdowns seem to be motivated... by sheer power politics. But behind these actions, there is an idea, an alternative conception of how societies should be organized. And it is an idea that democracies must challenge.
--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Speech before the Community of Democracies, July 3, 2010
I couldn't agree more with our Secretary of State: the U.S. and its democratic allies must challenge the efforts of autocrats to disseminate an "alternative conception of how societies should be organized."
But how are we to go about this in the Arab world, where regimes closely associated with the U.S. offer their own philosophical justifications for the repression of civil society? Are we ready to criticize the autocratic actions of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia's Ben Ali when, in effect, we count on a "Community of Autocracies" to help the U.S. tackle strategic threats such as Islamist radicalism or Tehran's bid to enrich uranium?
The Obama administration has tried to balance its strategic and democratic commitments by embracing an ingenious solution: channel the lion's share of our democracy aid to civil society groups in the hope that their demands for change will eventually compel Arab governments to democratize--while avoiding the strategic discomfort of placing too much pressure on our autocratic allies to pursue genuine political reform.
One key problem with this approach is that it skirts the task of getting states to initiate the political, legal and constitutional reforms without which civil society groups can have little impact. However valiant and determined, these groups face a debilitating Catch-22: they cannot advance democracy absent the legal and constitutional protection of a state that is already committed, at least in part, to democracy itself.
The great French writer Alexis de Tocqueville grasped this chicken and egg problem. Democracy in America, he argued, thrived in part because a remarkable group of founding civic leaders created a national government charged with protecting the rights of local governments, churches, and civic groups. In the U.S. a strong civil society came to depend on a democratic state for its very survival.
There situation is quite the reverse in the Arab world. From Casablanca to Amman, a multitude of small -- and often highly fractious -- civil society groups are constantly battling the efforts of powerful autocratic regimes to co-opt, silence or neutralize them. As a result, these NGOs cannot possibly realize the democratizing mission that many well-meaning American policy makers expect of them. Without pressure on regimes for sustained democratic reforms, a policy that ultimately relies on NGOs to transform autocracies will hardly rattle the cages of Arab autocracies.
Well aware of this fact, Arab leaders have little reason to fear from Clinton's July 3 speech. While boldly assailing the efforts of autocratic leaders around the globe to stifle civil society groups, when it comes to the Arab world, there was little in her talk to suggest that the administration is breaking with an assistance strategy that looks to the romance of civil activism for most answers. Indeed, when the Secretary of State announced that two million dollars will be set aside to "provide legal representation, communication technology...and other forms of quick support to NGOs ...under siege," she signaled Washington's understandable preference for supporting the Arab world's targets of political siege -- rather than confronting the siege makers themselves.
The technology of grass roots free expression cannot be secured by technological innovations that by design or default by-pass states. For societal pluralism to make a real democratic difference, our highest policy makers must make it clear to Arab leaders that the apparatus of state autocracy itself remains a vital and serious problem.
Will Obama take the plunge? As he and the Secretary of State ponder this question, they might well remember that their success as community activists -- to which Clinton referred in her speech--was made possible by a democratic infrastructure that has no analogue in Arab states. In these states, some of our closest allies spin "alternative conceptions of society" that promise freedom of speech -- while providing no guarantee of freedom after speech.
Daniel Brumberg is Co-Director of Georgetown University's Democracy and Governance Program, and Senior Advisor to the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace.
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