Do people in the Middle East want democracy? Of course. Ask them. They also want justice and peace. People that I’ve met so far in the Middle East envy people who live in democratic countries, though they may not completely understand the role of citizens in a democracy.
The struggle for democracy in the Middle East has a long and noble, albeit tragic, history. (See Part I of this article,
http://www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_rosa_sch_070319_how_americans_can_su.htm) The problem isn’t that these people are “backward,” unwilling to reform their age-old system of kings and dictators. The problem is that undemocratic systems are extremely difficult to change—especially when the rulers have powerful foreign friends, or when the rulers seem to be defending the country against the threats of powerful foreign enemies.
Is the American government on a mission to bring democracy to the Middle East? Do you believe in Santa Claus? Let’s examine what it means when the Bush administration speaks of defending “American interests” and working with “friendly” governments. “American interests” means big American investors. It’s not about the safety of you and me. “Friendly” governments are those willing to sign agreements that benefit American corporations: contracts that favor foreign investors, labor laws and environmental regulations that keep the corporations’ costs low. Truly democratic governments aren’t likely to sign such agreements; they would put the good of their own people ahead of “American interests.” That’s why the democratic governments of Guatemala’s Arbenz, Iran’s Mossadegh, and Chile’s Allende were overthrown.
Of course, it looks better if the officials signing on the dotted line have the appearance of elected legitimacy, like the “governments” of occupied Iraq and Afghanistan. But when it’s a dictator or king, like the rulers of Saudi Arabia or pre-revolutionary Iran, who is willing to “open up” his nation’s resources (and utilities and banking systems), then we’ll hear little about “democracy.”
For today’s big investors and the governments that represent them, free trade (to their advantage) is a better kind of freedom than democracy. Just watch—if the U.S.-Middle East Free Trade Area becomes a reality, there’ll be a photo-op of kings, dictators, puppet-government officials, and bullied “leaders” standing with Condi Rice under a big banner announcing, “Mission Accomplished.” The Halliburton Corporation will host the reception at their new headquarters in Dubai.
II. A Six-Part Program that’s good for democracy in the U.S. and good for democracy in the Middle East, too
We in the U.S. are having trouble holding onto our own democracy for some of the same reasons people in the Middle East are having trouble achieving democracy. The best thing Americans can do to support the democratic aspirations of people in the Middle East is to stand up for democracy and make it work here in the USA. I suggest a six-part program:
- Impeach the lawbreakers in the White House.
- Reform our election system (transparency, paper trails, improved access to voting for all citizens, campaign finance reform, etc.).
- Educate our people about the history and peoples of the Middle East.
- Bring the troops (and the mercenaries, and the military aid) home now and demilitarize the region.
- Start a truth and reconciliation process for the Middle East.
- Build support for international law among Americans and hold our government responsible to abide by it.
Let’s take them one at a time.
1. Impeach the lawbreakers in the White House. Initiating the impeachment process against “American warlords” Bush and Cheney is not only essential for defending our own Constitution but it is also one of the most important things Americans can do to encourage democracy in the Middle East.
By activating the impeachment process, we’ll set a marvellous example. We’ll show the world that a democratic people need not be cowed by would-be dictators or emperors who betray the will of the people, steal or squander the nation’s wealth, and glorify violence.
Impeachment is our chance to demonstrate how democratic institutions are supposed to work, and we can be sure the citizens of the Middle East will be taking notes! We don’t need a foreign army to invade us, battle the Secret Service, chase Bush and Cheney into hiding, tear their pictures off Post Office walls. We don’t want to hang anybody. We can take care of this ourselves. Impeachment is the non-violent, lawful alternative to bombs, assassinations, and civil war. It’s how citizens of a democracy defend the republic and bring corrupt, lawbreaking officials to justice.
There’s another way that starting impeachment can support democratic forces in the Middle East—even if the House doesn’t have the votes to indict, even if the Senate doesn’t have the votes to convict. The threat of impeachment is sure to rein in the administration’s illegal war-making, a profoundly anti-democratic use of coercion.
With their big supporters Bush and Cheney under threat of indictment, the shaky leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan (and Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and Egypt) will have to be more sensitive to the will of their people and less concerned with putting into place the undemocratic economic policies demanded by the West. Also, without Bush’s threats, the leaders of Iran will not be able to use America as a bogeyman against those working for democratic reforms.
2. Reform our election system. Elections are widely accepted all over the world as the way to choose a legitimate government. Yet people can become quickly disillusioned when they learn that elections aren’t necessarily fair. We can do something about that.
Never underestimate the enthusiasm engendered by the promise of democratic elections. I was in Iran about a year after the popular revolution that overthrew the Shah. I can still remember my aged father-in-law proudly going to the polls for the first election he considered legitimate since the 1953 coup. We took his picture voting. Another election day, almost 20 years later, we saw voters lined up in every town and village as we drove back to Tehran from a weekend in the mountains. Mohammad Khatami, a champion of civil society, was running for president, and millions of people had great hopes for what a Khatami administration could do for Iran. Because it was getting late, we stopped in a village along the way and my friend, an engineer, voted for Khatami. When we arrived in Tehran late that night, the polls were still open because of the high turnout. So she voted again, this time in her own neighborhood for local officials.
When the people’s hopes for fair elections are dashed, however, the disappointment can turn them cynical and can poison chances for democracy. This past winter some of my Iranian friends didn’t vote in municipal elections. It was not necessarily because the (blankety blank) Voice of America was urging a boycott; my friends were discouraged. They complained that during the last national election the Council of Guardians had crossed names off the list of presidential candidates until the only choices left were Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, neither of whom represented their views. They were surprised to learn that the corporate press and the Democratic and Republican party bosses do the same thing to us in the US, so that many Americans also never get a chance to vote for people who represent our views.
We in the U.S. have had the good fortune to be born into a democratic system that was up and running for a couple of centuries before we were born. We can’t really take credit for that personally. But we can accept the responsibility to continue to develop the democratic model. It’s up to us, the ones with the most experience, to work out the bugs in the system that make it possible to unfairly influence elections and even to steal them. And luckily for us, we can be politically active without danger of being “disappeared,” so we really have no excuse not to do it.
Election reform in the US can benefit democratic aspirations in the Middle East in another way. It may bring us representatives that are less beholden to special interests like the military-industrial complex, the oil industry, big financial houses, or those who believe in an expansionist “Greater Israel.” If it’s just us rank and file Americans speaking through office-holders who truly represent us, our country may stop trying to control the Middle East and may even stop funding the militarization of the region.
3. Educate our people about the history and peoples of the Middle East. I was raised in a strong Midwestern Christian environment where we were taught that God loves all his children—meaning all human beings—equally. “All men are brothers” was part of our creed. And you can bet there was no wiffle waffling about the Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Or at least I didn’t think so, until the Vietnam War. Even now, I continue to seek that brother or sister inside every “stranger.” It wasn’t hard for me to marry someone from another country. My greatest worry was that we’d be spending a lot of money on airfare.
The world is smaller now, so more of us can meet “the other,” even if only on cable TV music channels. Tourists don’t usually get much chance to interact with the local people, but students studying abroad can be ambassadors of peace. Some American students are here in Tehran now, although they’re greatly outnumbered by Europeans and Asians.
Even if Americans are a little slow to travel, these days many are trying to learn about the Middle East. For example, quite a few Americans can now find Iran and Iraq on a map and even tell them apart. We’ve heard of the two major sects of Islam in Iraq, and, what’s more, at least a couple of Americans have pursued the issue further and discovered that the Shia are waiting for the return of the messiah.
Education means substituting accurate information and insight for myths, stereotypes, and racist images. It’s time to pull weeds like the following out of the American mental garden:
Images and stereotypes -- sword-wielding Muslim armies on horseback, harems full of exotic scantily clothed women, sheiks and belly-dancers, fanatics ready to kill themselves and each other because of religion, a great empty desert stretching from Morocco through Iran with nothing but camels.
Myths and pseudo-theories about Arab or Muslim history and culture -- they’ve always hated Jews and always will, they hate the West because of our freedoms, they only respect the rule of force.
Racist epithets -- “natives,” “swarthy” skin, “dirty Arabs,” “hajis,” “ragheads,” and the ever-popular “terrorists.”
Our ignorance hurts us more than these images hurt them. I’ve heard some very gentle women in Tehran ask American acquaintances, with a twinkle in their eye, “Aren’t you scared being surrounded by all these terrorists?”
4. Bring the troops (and the mercenaries, and the military aid) home now and demilitarize the region. When we say bring the troops home now, why stop with Iraq? Why not bring them home from all over the Middle East and Central Asia? What are they doing there? (See article by Medea Benjamin on the international movement to close U.S. bases: click here
When no American soldiers are in a country, people look at America and the West from afar and think, “You know, democracy seems nice. Let’s get that.” But when our soldiers invade and occupy a country, or live on big bases and seem to be taking over, people hate everything those soldiers stand for, possibly including democracy. Imagine, mom to little kid: “Behave or the democratic soldiers will get you.”
Redeployment of US troops within the region is better than nothing, but it's not the answer. The only way an American soldier should be working in the Middle East is as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force, wearing a blue helmet and under United Nations command. And bear in mind, NATO is not the UN.
While we’re bringing the soldiers home, we have to do something about the mercenaries, also known as “contractors.” Raise the shout for them to be sent home if they’re foreigners (like South Africans or Americans) or for their former employers to find them honest work if they’re locals. Mercenaries are a threat to peace and democracy because their job is to do the dirty work of the highest bidder, the good of the people be damned. Japanese banks in the U.S. don’t have the right to private mini-armies to guard their facilities and drive their executives around in armed convoys. Perhaps if American oil corporation executives don’t feel safe among the people in Iraq, it’s time to get the message.
Speaking of the highest bidder, the U.S. is giving a lot of military aid to countries throughout the Middle East, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and Israel. What is the purpose of all these guns and warplanes? Are we preparing the region for Armageddon? Let’s support the ordinary citizens of the Middle East—and save ourselves billions of dollars a year—by demanding that our tax money be spent only for peaceful purposes.
Iran and Syria have called for the Middle East to be a nuclear free zone. Why doesn’t the peace movement in the USA take them up on it?
5. Start a truth and reconciliation process for the Middle East. Where more than in the Middle East is there such a great need to clear the air, end the cycle of revenge, and bring a genuine consensus for peace? We who have paid for so much of the violence must now pay for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
What would it look like? Not like Shimon Perez saying, about Israel’s use of cluster bombs against Lebanese civilians, “We committed a mistake.” Talk about a Freudian slip! Ordinary mortals “make” mistakes; what they “commit” are sins or crimes. “Mistake” is also the consensus word for what the U.S. did to the people of Vietnam and now of Iraq. Maybe we all need to ask the lawyers to leave the room so we can speak honestly with each other.
There comes a time when you just have to say you’re sorry for what you did and the pain you caused, a time when you must accept the apology of the other, a time to finally shake hands and try to make it up somehow.
As Americans face the fact that there were no WMD in Iraq and that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, many of us—including some of the soldiers—are feeling really awful. We will be better off as a democracy and a people if we are able to face the truth and restore our sense of morality. Denial isn’t the answer. Look what happened after the Vietnam War. We never paid the reparations we owed and we have been in denial for 30 years. So there was nothing to stop us from doing it again, most notably in Iraq. Denial about the 1953 CIA-organized coup d’etat against the democratic government of Iran and Washington’s support for the Shah’s dictatorship has resulted in Americans completely misunderstanding a whole nation of peace-loving people who genuinely want to be our friends in spite of it all.
Truth and reconciliation will help Israel to recognize Palestine, and vice versa, and will help them to work out a mutually acceptable deal. What will they do about all the war crimes that have been committed? How will they heal all the broken hearts? What will justice look like? Where will the refugees live and how will they make a living? If I know my fellow Americans, most of us are ready to support the process that will find solutions. Most of us are tired of throwing our weight around and stoking the flames.
Most of the Middle East has had an ugly, greedy, violent history in the last century, with millions of families affected by war, exile, torture, disappearances. Rather than supporting those who would add more families to the list of victims, Americans could set our intention now to let the healing begin.
6. Build support for international law among Americans and hold our government responsible to abide by it. Americans know little of international law, and some seem fearful that international law is a threat to our citizens, our soldiers or our sovereignty. But in the Middle East, international law is widely respected. A few days ago, a Palestinian leader pledged to abide by international law and avoid the slaying of civilians. He called on Israel to do the same. (No one claims that abiding by international law is easy.) Mahmoud Ahmedinejad frequently refers to Iran’s rights under international law, and on that point I’ve yet to hear any Iranian disagree with him. The civil society movement is growing in the Middle East. It calls for the rule of law within countries and in the international arena.
The current U.S. administration is not part of the civil society movement. It is perceived as holding international law in disdain, picking and choosing only specific items that suit their purposes. Bush administration officials go on TV and quote specific resolutions that they have managed to push through the UN Security Council over intense opposition. At the same time, they ignore the UN resolutions and international treaties that they don’t like, refuse to meet their obligations to disarm under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and disregard the fundamental principles of international law and the UN charter on issues such as preemptive invasions and torture. When has an American reporter been savvy enough about international law to call them on this? Building the consensus in the U.S. about international law should be a top item on the agenda of the peace and justice movement.
The basic message being sent to the world by the Bush administration is “might makes right.” That undermines hope for peace-justice-democracy in smaller countries and leaves Americans as unwilling accomplices to empire. Bush's vision of "Pax Americana" has nothing to do with democracy as we, and people in other countries, wish to live it.
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Rosa Schmidt Azadi is a long-time peace activist, an anthropologist, and a retired civil servant who's also a wife, daughter, sister, aunt, great-aunt, godmother, and the mother of two college students. After walking out of the smoke of the 9-11 attacks in New York City and returning to participate in the recovery effort, Rosa began working to prevent further death and destruction in other countries at the hands of the U.S. government. Participating in a peace vigil at the World Trade Center site for more than three years gave her the privilege of talking with thousands of people from all over the world about things that matter most. Dr. Azadi has earned two advanced degrees and is still learning. Currently, she's splitting her time between Tehran, Iran, and upstate New York.