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Democratizing the Middle East: A Realist Alternative

May 27, 2011

The most significant aspect of President Obama’s speech on the Middle East (May 19) is the absence of a plan to revive the “Peace Process.” The passing storm over his statements regarding the 1967 borders notwithstanding, it is already evident that there will be no new initiatives in the months to come. This is just as well, because any new initiative would be doomed to fail for as long as the political future of several key countries in the region remains uncertain. The PLO-Hamas coalition hopes, with good reason, that as several key Arab regimes become more democratic, they will become more willing to pursue policies supportive of the Palestinian views and aspirations.

The “Arab Spring” may yet produce regimes with enhanced domestic legitimacy. This will be reflected in the reduced willingness of the countries thus democratized to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state, let alone to sign peace treaties and establish normal relations with that state. A secondary result will be an enhanced ability of those states, in the long run at any rate, to fight wars successfully. This is one of the reasons why “spreading democracy” in the Middle East has always been a dubious idea. The quagmire in Iraq is largely due to George W. Bush and his team extending the original mission from containment—depriving Saddam of his (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction—to regime change and the establishment of “democracy.” Iraq was supposed to be only the first step in transforming the region as a whole, and “democracy” was claimed to be the universal remedy for the ills of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, poverty and violence.

As we now know, and as some of us had warned back then, the objective of democratizing the Middle East is unattainable in practice and undesirable in principle. The regime changes contingent upon “democratic transformation” would benefit only one variety of political Islam or another—from the Muslim Brotherhood’s various offshoots to al-Qaeda affiliates—which are happy to use the rhetoric, legal form and mechanisms of “democracy” for the imposition of a very different model of society. That scenario is being played out even in the formerly Kemalist Turkey, which is now yet again an integral part of the Middle East.

It cannot be otherwise: the system of governance based on the concept of popular sovereignty is not viable outside of the framework of ideas, beliefs and habits of the culture and civilization which sustain it. In the Muslim world Allah is “the true sovereign of the community, the ultimate source of authority, the sole source of legislation” (Bernard Lewis). All over the Middle East governments consist in practice of only one branch—the executive—controlled by a political party (Turkey) or a family (the Emirates, Saudi Arabia), or an oligarchy (Egypt, Syria).

This is not to say that the United States is powerless, or should remain passive, faced with the many unpleasant aspects of the Middle Eastern politics and society. Insisting on greater respect for the rule of law can and should be demanded from the governments in the region Washington considers friendly. Limiting capricious exercise of state power and especially limiting its abuse for political ends is the least the United States should demand of those regimes which expect to be regarded as “friendly.” Such demand should be accompanied by a clear statement of intent: those regimes will become more stable by making their legal systems less arbitrary. This is the not the first step on the road to “regime change,” this is its exact opposite.

In addition it is important to note that—unlike “democracy”—an impartial, efficient and predictable system of justice is not inherently contradictory to the spirit of Islam. The discriminatory strictures of Sharia vis-à-vis women and “infidels” are intolerable and should be discouraged, of course, but at its base is the demand for the scrupulous observance of legal strictures. This principle per se is a more promising base to build upon in the Middle East than the legacy of Pericles, Jefferson, or Lech Walesa.

A long overdue start should be made with Turkey, which at least nominally remains committed to the Western values, principles and practices bequeathed by its founder 85 years ago. A spectacular miscarriage of justice is in the making there, orchestrated and manipulated by the government and obediently followed by a pliant judiciary. The story is huge but it has been under-reported in the United States, which reflects a long-established reluctance of the Obama Administrations, and its predecessors, to confront the realities of Turkey under the Islamist regime of the Justice and Progress Party (AKP).

On April 6 the Turkish Army General Staff deplored the arrest of over a hundred active-duty officers as part of an investigation into an alleged plot to topple the government. The latest arrests bring to 196 the number of active and retired officers who stand accused of involvement in the so-called Sledgehammer Plot dating back to 2003. In February, prosecutors requested that 163 of the accused remain under arrest—most of them active duty senior ranks—on a dubious legal pretext. The suspects include the former commanders of the Turkish navy and air force.

What we are witnessing is a massive purge in preparation for the largest show trial ever in the non-Communist world. The charges, too, are worthy of Moscow 1937. The Sledgehammer plot, the government alleges, was to have included bombings of historic mosques in Istanbul, an attack on a museum, and the provocation of military tensions with neighboring Greece including aerial attacks on Greek islands. Such acts of terrorism and outright military aggression were supposedly designed to plunge Turkey into utter chaos and provide an opportunity for the military to step in and remove the AKP-controlled government from power.

The Sledgehammer is connected to the reported Ergenekon conspiracy. This is supposedly the Mother of All Plots, the mega-conspiracy in which the “Deep State”—a shadowy coalition of senior military officers, the intelligence services, the judiciary, and organized crime—planned terrorist attacks to foment unrest leading to a military takeover. As Claire Berlinski explains, the claims about these supposed conspirators defy logic:

Arch-secular nationalists, the prosecutors say, have been in bed with the Maoist PKK, the extreme-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party, the Islamist Hizbullah and Milli Görüş, the ultranationalist Turkish Revenge Brigades, the Turkish Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, and the Islamic Great East Raiders Front. This is a bit like imagining that the Weathermen hooked up with the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers, Act Up, the Zeta drug cartel, and a dissident faction of the Republican National Committee, and that all concerned managed to refrain from killing each other long enough to design a serious plan to overthrow the American government—with a bit of willing propaganda assistance from Bob Woodward and the Huffington Post.

Details of the “Sledgehammer” emerged after an anonymous source delivered a suitcase full of supposedly secret military documents to a newspaper reporter in January 2010. Prime Minister Erdoğan and other AKP leaders have openly lent support and credibility to the charges. There are countless inconsistencies in the accusations, however. To take but one example, dozens of entities—hospitals, NGOs, companies, and even military units—were referred to by names or acronyms which they acquired many years after 2003, in some cases as late as August 2009.

The military has strenuously denied the allegations, claiming that the documents were forged, and insisting thatthe scenarios were part of a hypothetical war game that took place at a military training seminar. “The Turkish Armed Forces, which have especially avoided any actions that could be seen as interfering with the ongoing judicial process, have explained through repeated statements, in no uncertain terms, what the seminars were, how they were carried out, what they involved and who participated under what orders,” the April 6 General Staff statement said.

The Sledgehammer case is not a “case” at all; it is an attempt by the AKP regime to neutralize Turkey’s once-powerful military once and for all. The government’s specific objective is to discredit the officer corps and thus facilitate the abolition of the Army’s traditional role as the guardian of the country’s secular political system. According to Dani Rodrik of Harvard University—whose father-in-law, retired four-star general Cetin Dogan, is one of the defendants—we are witnessing machinations in the guise of the judicial process aimed at achieving political advantage instead of justice. The result is that “Turkey’s relevance as a democratic beacon for the Middle East” will be undermined.

Turkey has grand ambitions as a “beacon.” It is pursuing an openly neo-Ottoman strategy all over the region. Its president, Abdullah Gül, claims that Turkey can have a “great and unbelievably positive effect” on the Middle East. Its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu delares modestly, “If the world is on fire, Turkey is the firefighter… assuming the leading role for stability in the Middle East.”

The United States should take note of such aspirations and act accordingly. It is probably too late to encourage the generals not yet in jail to bring the AKP to heel, but it is still possible to demand that the Prozess in the making be abandoned as a precondition of tolerating Turkey’s attempts at regional grandstanding. Messrs. Erdoğan, Gül and Davutoğlu should be told that this would be the test of Turkey’s putative “positive effect” and “leading role” in the region. That much Ankara should and probably would do to maintain its bid for regional leadership which remains unhindered from Washington.

Standing up for the Turkish army at its time of need—the only true ally the United States has had in the country for some decades now—is both just and prudent. Among the accused officers several have maintained close professional and personal ties with their American colleagues.

The U.S. should demand no more (but also no less) than a scrupulous observance of Turkey’s own laws and legal procedures. As Ms. Berlinski points out, Turkey’s legal system has always been viewed “as something opaque, arbitrary, and capricious—another weapon to be used by the powerful against their enemies, not a source of justice for ordinary people.” Its continued misuse is an issue which is a matter of legitimate American concern, if we are to take seriously President Obama’s rhetoric about Turkey as the essential bridge between the East and the West.

Different in magnitude and political implications but not in legal and moral substance is the case of an American citizen, Zack Shahin, who was arrested in Dubai in 2008, held in isolation for months on end. Shahin still remains in jail on what appear to be spurious charges with no trial date in sight. All this is happening in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which still purport to be the forward-looking showcase of Arab capacity for liberalism and entrepreneurial flair.

Before the financial crisis the UAE attracted thousands of Western investors and experts. Dubai in particular started growing into a glittering metropolis of high-rise towers, expensive hotels and top-tier shops. It became Arabia’s Las Vegas (minus the gambling and showgirls), a financial Disneyland without the fun.

But then, as reported in Human Events last February, in early 2008 Dubai’s investment flagship, Dubai_World, showed signs of financial instability and the authorities looked about for scapegoats: “As the world economic downturn expanded, Dubai’s $80 billion debt threatened the emirate with financial collapse. It withdrew from free-trade negotiations with the U.S. over disagreements about its foreign worker labor laws and human rights… While Dubai sought a bailout from the rest of the UAE, it engaged in highly autocratic behavior.”

Those same expatriates who built Dubai’s economy and helped enrich its rulers were suddenly presented as predatory speculators to be blamed for the downturn in what had been obviously an overheated property market. Shahin, a former top executive of Deyaar Development, was held in isolation for 13 months, denied U.S. consular assistance—in blatant violation of international treaties to which the Emirates are a party—and in April 2009 charged with embezzlement. There is no indication when he will be tried. While incommunicado he was allegedly tortured and forced to sign papers in Arabic he did not understand. After investigating one misdemeanor charge against Shahin for the past 3 years, it suddenly dawned on the presiding judge  that he may not have jurisdiction over the case.  Therefore, he decided to send the case back to the public prosecutor.  This maneuver will now enable the prosecutor to apply a new law that never existed at the time of Shahin’s arrest, where Shahin can be labeled a public official  and potentially, if ever tried and convicted, face a sentence of up to 20 years.  Shahin has twice been “released” on bail, and then immediately rearrested. Dozens of other non-American foreignershave been treated in a similar vein. Tourists in Dubai have sometimes fared far worse, such as British tourist Lee Bradley Brown, who was apparently beaten to death by his jailors following his arrest for allegedly using abusive language.

The U.S. government has sent at least three formal Diplomatic Notes expressing concerns about Shahin’s treatment but they remain unanswered.  His case has been raised with UAE officials by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her visit last January and by other American diplomats, but all have been rebuffed.  Letters to the UAE ambassador in Washington DC from both Ohio Senators and from former Rep. Deborah Pryce have never been answered.

The State Department has yet to make a public statement about Shahin’s predicament, however. This is in marked contrast to the case of three American hikers who strayed into Iran. Paradoxically, the U.S. government has taken far keener interest in the legal problems of two foreigners—Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia and Liu Xiaobo in China—than in the ongoing predicament of one of its citizens.

In these uncertain times for the region, the UAE are precariously stable but vulnerable. Looking at the neighboring Bahrain, its mega-rich rulers are feeling uneasy. They, too, are a minority in their own country—a mere fifth of the population—and they, too, suspect the impermanence of their wealth and power. Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoums in particular provide vivid evidence of Carnegie’s dictum that “there is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.” They control an ostensibly U.S.-friendly, economically weakened and politically fragile Middle Eastern autocracy which needs robust encouragement from Washington to clean up its act in the legal sphere. This needs to include rectifying victimization of foreigners through a corrupt judicial processes. A public expression of concern by the Secretary of State about the specific case of Zack Shahin would be a commendable first step.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—the biggest regional offender in this and many other fields—is a tougher nut to crack. It is actively engaged in spreading Islamic extremism all over the world and it is the biggest terrorist offender in the world. The desert kingdom does not only disregard the rights of its own people, it tramples on those of Americans, too. American citizens can be detained indefinitely at the pleasure of an Islamic judge—or of a Saudi Muslim father who had kidnapped them from their American mother. This happened a decade ago to Patricia Roush, whose daughters Alia and Aisha—now grown up and married to their father’s cousins twice their age—remain clad from head to toe in the black abbaya. Yet the State Department directed the U.S. embassy in Riyadh to remain “impartial.” Ray Mabus, ex-U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, explained that diplomats feel they should be working on the “big stuff.” Ms. Roush’s book At Any Price details her horrendous experiences with the Saudi government and with a society steeped in barbarity.

That barbarity is manifested in the extensive use of judicial corporal punishment, including amputations of limbs for robbery and flogging for “sexual deviance” and intoxication. The Saudis insist that their “legal traditions” are divinely ordained. That is no reason for the U.S. not to express an unambiguous and publically stated opinion on the matter, especially

  • when the condemned is accused of the nebulous “crime” of sorcery and sentenced to eight years in jail and 800 (!) lashes, compliments of the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” (CPVPV), aka the religious police; or
  • when high-school students are sentenced to six months in prison and 120 lashes each for stealing examination papers.

Large sections of the American and European elites are being fed Saudi money, directly and indirectly, to bribe them to exert pressures at home favorable to the Kingdom. Its kleptocracy owns huge parts of major American corporations, and that is the “big stuff.” The focus on the “big stuff” also allowed thousands of young Saudis easy access to American visas under various pretexts, many of them hell-bent on waging jihad against the unbelievers. The Saudi authorities issued them exit visas in the full knowledge what they were up to. The Islamic “charities” that financed terrorists included prominent members of the royal family on their boards. Many are now more discrete about their involvement than a decade ago, but no less committed.

America is still reluctant to read the riot act to the Saudis. It is high time she did. Their money earned during the oil boom has been largely squandered on palaces, cars, armaments, white hookers and brown foreign laborers. The fabulous flow of wealth was not used to create a serious industrial base. The only expanding industry is that of Islamic extremism. The ability of the fanatical and mendacious (as well as profligate and corrupt) rulers of the desert kingdom to remain in power is uncertain. The Saudis seem to believe that the North African storm has passed them by and that the US officials prefer to deal with the devil they know anyway. America needs to set herself free from the urge to pander to Saudi whims, however, because leaving the Saudis to their own devices will end in an Iranian scenario, more sudden and more violent than the drama in Teheran in 1979.

* * *

America cannot and should not try to effect regime changes in Turkey, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, or for that matter anywhere else in the Middle East. Washington has all kinds of political and economic tools at its disposal, however, to make their governments more observant of the rule of law, domestic as well as international. Using those tools judiciously but firmly has the potential to create far more good—for those countries’ people, for America, and for the rest of the world—than using cruise missiles has ever done.


Srdja (Serge) Trifkovic, author, historian, foreign affairs analyst, and former foreign affairs editor of “Chronicles” (1998-2009). He has a BA (Hon) in international relations from the University of Sussex (UK), a BA in political science from the University of Zagreb (Croatia), and a PhD in history from the University of Southampton (UK).

www.trifkovic.mysite.com

Dr. Srdja Trifkovic is a regular columnist for Novakeo.com


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