Democracy in Name | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Democracy in Name 

If our government wants democracy in the Middle East, maybe it should reframe its sales pitch.

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As much as Americans claim to love freedom and democracy, we’re terrible at selling it. In fact, if building the groundwork for democracy in the Middle East were a full-time job, the sales manager would have canned us long ago.

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To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault. Conventional wisdom holds that because the region’s rife with oil, of course we’re going to turn our heads from some unpleasant truths from time to time. So what if in Saudi Arabia only men can vote or stand as candidates, and only half the country’s municipal council are elected? Dude, they’re our friends! Iran’s candidates may be entirely vetted by religious authorities, but they’ve got universal suffrage. They’re also, if you need reminding, part of the new “Axis of Evil.nn

Our government’s infernal hypocrisy is part of the problem, sure. The other problem is the Middle East’s sheer dearth of palatable choices. If our leaders were open and sincere, they’d admit that, at least from the standpoint of liberal western democracy as we know and enjoy it, the choices are almost nonexistent and true democracy in the region will be generations in the making. Because as it stands now, about the only choices we’ve got span the divide between brutal dictators and Islamists, with little in between.

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But why call it “our choice”? That’s part of the problem as well. Sure the United States wants democracy'if you’re talking our brand of democracy. The long-suffering Palestinians get the brunt of this attitude. We didn’t like it when they elected Yasir Arafat by a convincing mandate in 1996, and we certainly didn’t like it when they voted Hamas to power in a landslide early this year. President George W. Bush made his preference clear as far back as June 2002 that “the Palestinian people elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror.”

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Now, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and definitions of “terrorism” are certainly open for debate. But by now, our government should at least adopt the only honest policy and tell Palestinians it matters little what they want or whom they vote for under free and recognized elections. It’s crystal clear that we don’t want what the Palestinians want. Therefore, democracy means nothing, and we should stop pretending otherwise. We’re halfway there already, now that the House of Representatives voted recently to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Palestinian people and declare the Gaza Strip and West Bank a “terrorist sanctuary.”

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But we keep on pretending, and make a few token gestures. Under recent U.S. pressure, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opened his country to democratic elections for the first time in almost 25 years. When Mubarak brazenly sentenced prominent liberal opposition candidate Ayman Nour to prison for collecting a mere 7 percent of the vote, our government stood with Nour and his party in protest. But it was the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, a staunch Islamist party and supporter of Hamas, which gained 19 percent of seats in parliament. Should the Brotherhood gain more political power in Egypt’s democratic future, will we stand with them when Mubarak cracks the whip? Don’t bet on it.

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There’s still hope in Iraq. But the Shia-influenced Islamic Dawa Party, which bases its legislation on Islamic injunctions, will almost certainly call the shots. The Iraqi people had no taste for the secular leanings of Ahmed Chalabi, who lost his 2005 bid for prime minister in a landslide. Optimists take comfort in the fact that Iraq’s current government requires women hold 25 percent of assembly seats, but homosexuals won’t fair well under Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s injunction that homosexuals be killed in the “worst, most severe way,” according to his Website.

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“I had no love for the former president [Saddam Hussein],” a gay Iraqi told The Times of London. “But his regime never persecuted the gay community.”

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The choice between Islamists and dictators repeats itself throughout the Middle East. As brutal as Syria’s Hafiz al-Asad was during his rule, he attempted reforms granting women greater privileges and rights, which helped enrage the country’s Islamic Front. Squelching rebellion meant slaughtering 10,000 people in the city of Hama in 1982. The United States stood aghast. Did we dare acknowledge a margin of sympathy for his reforms on behalf of women? No. We frowned on al-Assad’s brutality, just as we today condemn the rule of his son Bashar. Meanwhile, we’ve no guilt about the thousands of Iraqi civilians sacrificed on the altar of our quest for “democracy” in Iraq. Some people call this realpolitik.

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What should be obvious is that our government should let peoples of the Middle East make their own mistakes through the trial-and-error of democratic elections, or stop spouting contradictory rhetoric and rule the region with our iron fist. Right now we’ve got a confusing mix of both, which makes democracy a tough sell in a region badly in need of reform.

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Secretary of State of State Condoleezza Rice, for one, seems to get it, even in the face of some Democrats who complain that the United States should return to supporting dictators who will keep Islamists at bay. “Yes, there are going to be some outcomes that are not perfect from the American point of view, but I don’t think that our policy can be that you can only have elections if you plan to elect candidates that are friendly to America,” Rice said during recent Senate hearings.

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And that’s the path of freedom, scary as it is, or might seem.

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