The Bush administration's resolve on "reforming" the Arab world poses an entangled dilemma, at least for the Arabs.
For one, Arab countries are in urgent need of overreaching change, change that fundamentally refurbishes their political, economic and even cultural institutions. But let's face it; it is not the kindness of President Bush and his assembly of quasi-ideologues that is motivating these initiatives, the latest of which is the Greater Middle East Democracy Initiative (GMEI).
Vice President of the American Enterprise Institute, Danielle Pletka was adamant in her assurances to me during a recent interview that the US government is well intended.
"It's not fair for us to liberate Iraq" and leave the rest of the Arabs hanging, she told me without a shred of sarcasm.
Pletka, one of America's leading neoconservatives, must've known that this talk about democracy, liberation, and the empowerment of mankind convinces no one, except perhaps some innocent souls living on the periphery of history without a spec of knowledge of the political economy that steered its course for millennia.
But why worry if America's intentions are that obvious? The reason is fairly simple: Because Arabs do need reform - and need it badly - the US can easily exploit this imperative to serve its strategic interests in the region. A recent returnee from a visit to Iraq, US Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis) advised the White House to alter its "war on terror" approach to include the "weapon" of democratization (ballots in hands and bucks in pockets, according to Ryan's infinite wisdom.)
"The pressure cooker in the Arab world and the Middle East is for democracy. And that is our country's best export and our greatest weapons in the war on terror," Ryan said. Maybe one can substantiate such terminology as "greatest weapon", "best export", and "bucks in pockets" on the basis of the overly militant business mentality of America's political elite. But how does one explain the fact that Ryan sees in some unmistakably undemocratic Arab governments an example to be followed, while assertively dismissing others who are just as undemocratic?
It seems that the US government's "democracy scale" will always tip in favor of those who unquestionably conform to Washington's political and business interests in the Middle East.
However, the realization among many Arabs that the US government is seeking to further its strategic goal in the region can hardly diminish the quandary.
While some influential Arab leaders vehemently and unequivocally reject the US initiative under the guise of the good-sounding phrase of "reform must come from within," many Arabs find themselves at a standstill, faced by the same thorny impasse.
Take for example the UN-sponsored study by Arab scholars: The Arab Human Development Report.
The report espoused no illusions; "the global wave of democracy has barely reached the Arab states," it grimly concludes.
In many Arab countries, poverty and illiteracy have reached a staggering level; human rights abuses are widespread; prisons swarm with "prisoners of conscience"; freedom of expression is confined to press releases and empty promises; even when positive change takes place, it's often slow and insufficient, a behavior that is rationalized by the compelling need for "gradualism" in reform.
Interestingly, this "gradual" change almost always guarantees the absolute role of the political elite.
These are the axis of the Arab people's dilemma. On one hand, they see American democratization in practice in Iraq: Giant, mostly American corporations scrambling after the country's oil and a never-ending violence that turns neighborhoods into heaps of rubble and scattered body parts.
Meanwhile, not many Arabs are comforted by the pompous promises made by their rulers of impending reform that are self-imposed and not imposed by outsiders. If there was indeed such as an official Arab alternative to the US-imposed reform then one must ask: Where is it? Why not unveil it now? And what are the follow-up mechanisms that would assure its implementation if it in fact exists?
Further, the persistence of some Arab countries on placing the solving of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a prerequisite to democratic reform seems rather self-defeating. Sure, if the idea is to highlight that Washington is only interested in achieving its strategic goals and not remedying the bleeding wound of the region, exemplified by the Middle East conflict, then, point taken.
But how long can Arab governments wave this sword? Do Arab women have to be denied proper education, Arab public political representation and Arab nations an integrated economic system, until Israel's Ariel Sharon decides to end his colonial reign in the West Bank and Gaza?
As cruel and costly as the Arab-Israeli conflict has been, I still fail to see the connection.
In a series of interviews I conducted with leading Arab intellectual and religious figures there was a collective agreement that "reforms cannot be imposed," especially "not from the outside," and that lasting genuine reforms "must come from within."
This is an argument that I search for myself. However, I am concerned that indulging oneself with such assertions without any substantial qualifications will only result in a new patch of slogans, as hollow as the rest. The lead author of the human rights report, Egyptian social scientist Nader Fergany recommended, in a recent commentary in the London-based Al-Hayat Arabic newspaper, that Arabs must rebuff the US initiative and concentrate on grassroots efforts to build their democratic societies.
Seems like a good compromise, but even then, there is still a serious lagging in the devised Arab alternative.
The greater danger posed by the US-envisaged reform is that it faces almost no serious Arab alternative. Even more worrying is that the plight of the oppressed, disfranchised and underrepresented Arab populace hanging about at the bottom of the priority ladder, both for Washington and the official Arab circle.
If Arab governments are truly keen on protecting the rights of their people, they certainly do not need Bush and his neocons to tell them how. As far as Washington is concerned, it sounds ludicrous to pursue a sweeping intercontinental human rights campaign while it's incapable of respecting the rights of the people of one country, Iraq. Meanwhile, Arab intellectuals must not permit their rejection of the US foreign policy to stand as a barrier to confronting the dire reality in which their people are forced to endure.
Loaded slogans no longer suffice. Tangible change demands tangible action. Either that or, eventually the browbeaten and demoralized Arabs would be left with no other option but that envisaged by Washington.
It's this immediacy that makes the Arab's dilemma the more daunting, the more compelling.
-Ramzy Baroud is an American-Arab journalist.