TCS Daily

Realists vs. Idealists

By Nick Schulz - December 19, 2001 12:00 AM

Newsweeks Fareed Zakaria has written a provocative piece grandiosely titled How to Save the Arab World. In the article, Zakaria calls for several steps the United States can take to pressure the Arab world into important economic and political reforms.

The piece has prompted the critic and essayist Andrew Sullivan to admit, I wish I could buy it. I wish I could believe that democracy could even in its most basic form take root in Islamic culture. But I dont.

Sullivans pessimism is understandable, and he is certainly not alone. But his posture misconstrues or ignores the nature of the aspirations of the vast majority of those people living in the Islamic world. This common tendency to assume the worst of those living within an Islamic culture is, in turn, limiting the imaginative scope of our ongoing foreign policy debate.

Realists = Idealists

Zakarias Newsweek article dovetails out of a seminal essay he wrote in 1997 in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled The Rise of Illiberal Democracy. In it, Zakaria cautioned against promoting democracy and democratic reform in some parts of the world, pointing out that some countries used the trappings of democracy e.g., elections in order to lend repressive regimes an air of legitimacy. Peru and Algeria are examples of democracies in name only that use democratic institutions for illiberal ends. Democracy is not a panacea, Zakaria put it at the time.

Such talk irked some American foreign policy idealists, who believe that promoting American ideals and values, such as democracy, should be the first order of business. To them, Zakarias admonition to be wary of pushing for democracy smacked of foreign policy realism, where American moral considerations often take a back seat to concerns over balance of power and strategic American interests.

Realists many of whom are our countrys foremost Middle East and Arab experts have a predisposed bias to prefer the status quo and fear the unforeseen consequences of rocking the political, sociological or economic boat.

But this charge of excessive realism was a false one when leveled against Zakaria. Then, as now, he was exploding the realist-idealist dichotomy that stifled American foreign policy debates. The severity of the terrorist threat has now made explicit this false distinction as American values and American interests ideals and reality are obviously and unmistakably, intertwined. All the better, since now it is possible to factor the values and interests of people in the Islamic world to better understand the need for working to transform that world so that it is cast more in America`s image -- not merely through democracy, but through the decentralization of power prompted by entrepreneurial activity.

What Is To Be Done

We seek first what might be called the preconditions for democracy, Zakaria says, or what I have called constitutional liberalism -- the rule of law, individual rights, private property, independent courts, the separation of church and state.

How will this work? First, Zakaria says, the Saudi monarchy must order a comprehensive overview of its funding (both private and public) of extremist Islam, which is now the kingdoms second largest export to the rest of the world. The same goes for Egypt.

Second, and most importantly, Zakaria points out the need to pressure for economic reforms. Those countries that have made the transition from dictatorship to democracy with greatest success -- Spain, Portugal, Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, Mexico -- all traveled along a similar road. The regimes first liberalized the economy, not out of any desire to expand freedom but rather because they wanted to get rich. This expansion of economic liberty had steady spillover effects. Economic reform meant the beginnings of a genuine rule of law.

Thats all well and good for the Asian tigers and elsewhere in the world, but is there something endemic to the Islamic or Arab world that makes such a project impossible? Sullivans pessimistic posture buys into the soft bigotry of low expectations, to use President George W. Bushs phrase. Contrary to popular belief, the future can be a bright one for the Arab world provided the United States in the wake of its fight against terrorism in Afghanistan finally recognizes the necessity of its leading the region to change.

The Constituency of Hope and Optimism

The more optimistic possibilities for the Arab future are promoted not just by Zakaria but more explicitly by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. De Soto pinpoints the societal conditions conducive to breeding Islamic terrorism for example, extreme poverty and economic dislocation coupled with restrictions on free expression. Then de Soto considers the longings and desires of the people situated there and advocates economic and property reforms designed to unleash the potential that exists in all societies.

Writing recently in the New York Times, de Soto discusses what he calls the constituency of terror and says, It is not enough to appeal to the stomachs of the poor. One must appeal to their aspirations. This is, in a way, what the terrorists do. But their path leads only to destruction. In the Arab world, repressed aspirations are being channeled into a radical Islam that hates America and blames America for its problems.

Zakaria understands this. In the Middle East today there are too many people consumed by political dreams and too few interested in practical plans A genuine entrepreneurial business class would be the single most important force for change in the Middle East, pulling along all others in its wake.

Contrast the experience in the Islamic world with the experience of the economies of Asia that were liberalized in the second half of the 20th century. Despite lacking substantial material resources, these countries experienced an explosion of capitalist growth and rising living standards fueled by the adrenaline of technological progress and innovation.

De Sotos optimism about the desires and dreams of people in the Arab world is informed by the knowledge that people everywhere hunger for freedom and dignity and aspire for something better. The joyful faces of the liberated residents of Kabul make that point obvious. In that way, they are no different than anyone else.

As such, it is not just American values and interests that are important to consider in formulating policy. The values and interests of people throughout the world who aspire to live free and thrive are important factors, too, and will help inform how the United States should proceed. Promoting democracy right away might be a mistake, but the Arab world cant wait any longer for liberalizing their economies. And as a national security matter, America cant wait any longer either.

With the help of the United States, the transformation of the Arab world is possible so that democracy may one day emerge out of the ruins of an earlier Islamic order. This is what it will truly mean to fight -- and win -- the war on terrorism.

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