December 19, 2005

In the Mideast, Democratic Momentum (Jackson Diehl, December 19, 2005, Washington Post)

The most obvious element of the liberalizing drift has been the elections of 2005: in the Palestinian Authority, in Lebanon, in Egypt, even in Saudi Arabia. Flawed as many of the polls were, they produced some stunning results, from the formation of a government in Lebanon committed to independence from Syria, to the quintupling of seats held by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliament, to the electoral victory of two women in the Saudi city of Jiddah. Last week the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas presented its list of 62 candidates for scheduled legislative elections next month, including 10 women. The corrupt old guard of the ruling Fatah party meanwhile has been challenged by several new lists of secular reformers; elections may bring, at last, rejuvenation of the corrupt power structure created by Yasser Arafat.

Another revealing index is the number of the Arab world’s authoritarian rulers who have felt obliged to spell out plans for a democratic transition. In the past two months Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah have unveiled platforms to introduce a free press, an independent judiciary and liberalized election laws during the next several years. By some accounts, Saudi Arabia’s then-Crown Prince Abdullah privately promised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in June that democracy would reach his country in a decade. Whether or not they meant it, the autocrats’ promises raised expectations in their countries, and gave their growing domestic reform movements a standard to hold them to.

For the first time, too, the Arab world is getting a peek at what political accountability looks like. Four senior Lebanese generals are in prison for their role in the car-bomb assassination last February of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and Syrian President Bashar Assad is under growing pressure from a U.N. investigation; never before have the region’s thugs been collared for their political killing. In Morocco, an official truth commission has spent the past 12 months listening, in public, to the accounts of citizens who were tortured or persecuted by the government; reparations are being paid to thousands.

Most intriguing of all has been the shift by Islamic movements during 2005 from terrorism to democratic participation. Despite some lapses, both Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have mostly refrained from violence this year while focusing on elections. While neither has disarmed, both are under pressure from public opinion in their own countries to do so. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which swore off violence decades ago, has embraced the agenda of parliamentary democracy and free press put forward by the secular opposition coalition that appeared in Cairo this year. The most commonly cited obstacle to Arab democratization — Islamic fundamentalism — looks far less formidable than it did a year ago.


MIDDLE EAST PROGRESS AMID GLOBAL GAINS IN FREEDOM: Arab Middle East Shows Improvement, Despite Continued Repression
(Freedom House, December 19, 2005)

The people of the Arab Middle East experienced a modest but potentially significant increase in political rights and civil liberties in 2005, Freedom House announced in a major survey of global freedom released today.

The global survey, “Freedom in the World,” shows that although the Middle East continues to lag behind other regions, a measurable improvement can be seen in freedom in several key Arab countries, as well as the Palestinian Authority. In another key finding, the number of countries rated by Freedom House as Not Free declined from 49 in 2004 to 45 for the year 2005, the lowest number of Not Free societies identified by the survey in over a decade. In noteworthy country developments, Ukraine and Indonesia saw their status improve from Partly Free to Free; Afghanistan moved from Not Free to Partly Free; and the Philippines saw its status decline from Free to Partly Free.

According to Thomas O. Melia, acting executive director of Freedom House, “The modest but heartening advances in the Arab Middle East result from activism by citizen groups and reforms by governments in about equal measures. This emerging trend reminds us that men and women in this region share the universal desire to live in free societies.”

“As we welcome the stirrings of change in the Middle East,” said Mr. Melia, “it is equally important that we focus on the follow-through in other regions and appreciate the importance of the continuing consolidation of democracy in Indonesia, Ukraine, and other nations.”

Complete survey results, including a package of charts and graphs, and an explanatory essay are available online.

Iraq: Many Communities, One Democracy (Khaled Fouad Allam)

We are beginning, paradoxically, to grow accustomed to a certain “normalization” of the electoral process in Iraq. The December 15 elections consecrated a point of arrival for the democratization of Iraqi society.

The statistical data are clear: the first of these is the 70 percent participation in the voting. Then there is the stark reduction of the terrorist threat during the voting process, and – contrary to what one might have expected – an enormous turnout at the ballot boxes in the zone of Fallujah, symbol of the Sunni triangle. Even Iran’s Arabic television news outlet, al-Alam, which has a large audience among the Shiite Iraqis, emphasized the vast participation of all the components of Iraqi society. The definitive results on the composition of the new Iraqi parliament, whose members will remain in office for four years, will be made known in around two weeks.

All this is undoubtedly a success, both for the Iraqi people and for the United States, in the face of those who disputed, and still dispute, the exporting of democracy, a question that is feeding a philosophical debate that will mark all the geopolitical transformations of the twenty-first century.

In any case, the widespread participation in the electoral consultation and the success of the electoral process in spite of the dramatic lack of security in the country require a more profound interpretation.

What is the mechanism by which, in wartime, a people feels called so urgently to the polls? In reality, we have undervalued the fact that, even though the tanks entered into Iraq, the premise of this was a precise American plan for the reformulation of the Iraqi nation, which most Europeans probably did not realize.


December 19, 2005

Afghan MPs hold landmark session (BBC, 12/19/05)
Afghanistan’s first parliament for more than 30 years has held its inaugural session in the capital, Kabul.

President Hamid Karzai told 351 MPs the session was a “step toward democracy” and a display of national unity.


December 18, 2005

Time names Bono, Bill and Melinda Gates Persons of Year (CNN, 12/18/05)

The good deeds of an activist rock legend and one of the world’s richest men and his wife carried the day in 2005, as Time magazine on Sunday named U2 frontman Bono and philanthropic couple Bill and Melinda Gates as its “Persons of the Year.”

The Left has long dreamed of transnational institutions and rules running the world, yet here are individuals, nevermind states, that matter more.


December 18, 2005

Bhutan king announces abdication (BBC, 12/18/05)

The king of Bhutan says he will step down when the country will hold its first national democratic elections in 2008, state media reported.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck said he would be succeeded as leader of the tiny and remote Himalayan kingdom by his son, the crown prince. […]

Speaking in a remote village three days’ drive from the capital, Thimpu, the king told thousands of yak herders, monks, farmers, and students that he would begin handing over responsibility to the crown prince immediately.

“I would like our people to know that the first national election to elect a government under a system of parliamentary democracy will take place in 2008,” the 50-year-old told the crowd gathered in Trashiyangtse.


December 17, 2005

Annan tells Bush that Iraqi vote went well (Associated Press, Dec. 17, 2005)

UN Secretary-General Kofi ] Annan told Bush that violence in Iraq was low, voter turnout was high and that the Iraqi people had cleared another hurdle “on the road to democracy,” said Federick Jones, spokesman for the National Security Council.

Sure the Oil-for-Food scandal was a disgrace, but the beauty is we got our war anyway and now we own the Secretary-General.


December 17, 2005

UN stages rare Burma discussion (Susannah Price, 12/17/05, BBC)

The United Nations Security Council has held a rare discussion of Burma.

Council members heard a briefing from a senior UN official and held talks behind closed doors.

The UK ambassador to the UN said that despite disagreement over whether Burma was a threat to peace and security, all showed concern about the situation. […]

Denmark’s ambassador to the UN, Ellen Margrethe Loj, said the briefing was a clear signal that the world had not forgotten the suffering of Burma.

The United States and the United Kingdom, among others, have argued that Burma should be taken up by the Security Council because drugs trafficking and refugees make it a threat to international peace and security.

But other countries say its record is an internal issue.

As long as there’s an America, denial of God-given rights will never be an internal issue.

Myanmar Back on U.N. Agenda: The Security Council discusses problems in the military-run Southeast Asian country after being prodded by the U.S. and Britain. (Maggie Farley, December 17, 2005, LA Times)

[D]iplomats said the United States and Britain argued in the closed-door meeting that conditions within the country destabilized the region, as refugees, drugs and slave labor flowed across its borders.

British Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said that despite disagreement about whether those problems constitute an international threat, the meeting was an important first step. […]

Additional pressure to address Myanmar came from a September report commissioned by Desmond Tutu, another Nobel peace laureate, and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. […]

President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Asian leaders for action during a recent trip to an economic summit in South Korea.

This week, the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations authorized Malaysia’s foreign minister to visit Myanmar to push for “tangible results” in the country’s democratic reforms.

Myanmar has produced a seven-stage road map toward free elections and held a constitutional convention earlier this month, but without Suu Kyi’s opposition party.

One of the conditions imposed by China and like-minded countries was that the Security Council discussion of Myanmar be a one-time event.

Discussions regarding politically sensitive situations in Sudan and Zimbabwe faced similar resistance by China and Russia, which generally object to interference in a country’s internal affairs, as well as African countries.

But Britain and the U.S. slipped them onto the agenda, and now problems in both African countries are being addressed by the council.


December 16, 2005

Kurds vote, first and foremost, for Kurdistan (Edward Wong, 12/16/05, The New York Times)

By all appearances here, the elections Thursday for national parliamentary seats may as well have been about Kurdistan and Kurdish dreams. Iraq, or the idea of Iraq, seemed as distant as the moon.

“I will vote for 730,” said Fakhri Muhammad, 32, referring to the ballot number of the main Kurdish coalition, as he stood in line outside the village’s primary school. “The list is Kurdish, and it represents the Kurdish people.”

So went the refrain throughout much of the north, with Kurdish voters shying away from Arab candidates and siding only with Kurdish groups, particularly the Kurdistan Alliance, the coalition made up of the two main Kurdish parties. It was a stark illustration of how much the vote across Iraq had split along ethnic and sectarian lines. For many Kurds, a vote for the Kurdistan Alliance was first and foremost a bid to secure autonomy for the mountainous Kurdish homeland in the north, and only secondarily a vote for the general welfare of Iraq.

Political fervor was especially rampant here in dry, windswept Tamim Province, whose capital is Kirkuk, about 25 kilometers, or 15 miles, south of Altun Kopri. Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, the government deported Kurds and Turkmens and moved in Arabs to better control the oil fields.

Kurdish leaders have made no secret of their desire to incorporate Kirkuk and other parts of the province into Kurdistan, rather than allowing the central government to administrate it.


December 15, 2005

Iraqis vote for first full-term parliament amid tight security (Bassem Mroue, December 15, 2005, Associated Press)

Iraqis voted Thursday in one of the largest and freest elections in the Arab world, with strong turnout reported in Sunni areas and even a shortage of ballots in some precincts. Several explosions rocked Baghdad throughout the day, but the level of violence was low. […]

Officials were forced to extend voting for one hour, until 6 p.m. (10 a.m. EST) as long lines were reported in some precincts, which election commission spokesman Farid Ayar called a sign that the balloting “was successful and turnout was good.” Results will be announced within two weeks.

Police guarding a polling place in eastern Baghdad’s Zayouna neighborhood fired shots in the air to celebrate the end of voting there. […]

[V]iolence was light overall and did not appear to discourage Iraqis, some of whom turned out wrapped in their flag on a bright, sunny day, and afterward displayed a purple ink-stained index finger — a mark to guard against multiple voting. One jubilant Shiite voter in Baghdad proudly displayed all 10 of his fingers stained with ink.

Katherine Harris supervised that polling place….

Turnout Strong in Iraqi Elections: Reports of Violence Isolated as Insurgents Suspend Attacks, Encourage Voting (Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer, 12/15/05, Washington Post )

Iraqi voters turned out in force countrywide Thursday to elect a parliament to remake their troubled nation, with Sunni-led Iraqi insurgent movements suspending attacks for a day so that Sunni Arabs could vote en masse for the first time.

The voting appeared to split along sectarian lines as expected, with many Sunni voters in the Sunni-dominated far west saying they were voting for Sunni candidates. Long lines were reported among Sunnis, most of whom boycotted elections earlier this year or were frightened away by threats.

There were no boycotts this time and insurgents were providing security at some polling places. In Ramadi, for example, guerrillas of the Iraqi Islamic Army movement took up positions in some neighborhoods, promising to protect voters from any attacks by foreign fighters.

For today’s voting, Sunni clerics not only lifted a boycott call that had suppressed Sunni turnout in January’s national elections but actively encouraged voting.

“Right now the city is experiencing a democratic celebration,” Mayor Dari Abdul Hadi Zubaie said in Fallujah, where voters streamed to the polls. “It’s an election wedding.”


December 15, 2005

U.S. ambassador: Iraq turnout appears high (AP, 12/15/05)

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said first indications were of a very high turnout in Thursday’s parliamentary elections, which he hoped would result in a broad-based government that could address the “legitimate” concerns of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority.

“The number of people participating is very, very high and we have had very few irregularities,” Khalilzad told The Associated Press. “It is a good day so far, good for us, good for Iraq. This is a first step for integrating the Sunni Arabs and bringing them into the political process and integrating them into the government.”

Khalilzad accompanied Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to the city of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

Nevermind the high turnout, just having Joe Biden, who’s notoriously sensitive to every shift in the political winds, show up suggests that Zarqawi and Murtha are losing.

Bush’s New Arab World: The president’s Mideast-democracy project is faring better than you might think. (Duncan Currie, 12/15/2005, Weekly Standard)

The Iraqi political process continues apace. For those keen on “timetables,” America has yet to miss a single deadline in managing Iraq’s post-Saddam transition. The Sunni Arabs, who now realize how foolish their election boycott proved last winter, turned out in droves to vote in the October 15th constitutional referendum (albeit, in most cases, to cast a “no” ballot) and are expected to vote in even greater numbers in this week’s parliamentary poll. After a recent visit to Iraq, Sen. Joe Lieberman wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he “was thrilled to see a vigorous political campaign, and a large number of independent television stations and newspapers covering it.”

Elsewhere in the Mideast, Egypt held its first multi-candidate presidential election this past September, which, though tainted by the ruling party’s shenanigans, nevertheless marked a watershed. “The country’s old authoritarian system has broken apart,” reported Washington Post columnist David Ignatius from Cairo. Absent the Bush administration’s “nagging,” opined the Economist, “Mr. Mubarak would never have considered for a second that he should let himself be challenged at the polls for the top job. However clumsy in its promotion and debatable its motives, America’s campaign for democracy in the Middle East is making progress.”

Indeed, we’ve also had parliamentary elections in Lebanon, baby steps toward reform in Saudi Arabia, amplified pressure on Syria, and liberal sproutings in Morocco, Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. On the hearts-and-minds front, a July 2005 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that “large and growing majorities” of Moroccans (83 percent), Jordanians (80 percent), and Lebanese (83 percent) “say democracy can work well and is not just for the West.” Meanwhile, more than 200,000 irate Jordanians responded to last month’s Amman hotel bombings by pouring into the streets to protest. Chants of “Burn in hell, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi!” and “Death to al Qaeda!” could reportedly be heard. […]

“To venture into the Arab world,” observes Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami, “is to travel into Bush Country.” Ajami–who earlier this year spent several weeks in Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, and Iraq–reports encountering “people from practically all Arab lands” engaged in “a great debate about the possibility of freedom and liberty.” He also “met Syrians in the know who admitted that the fear of American power, and the example of American forces flushing Saddam Hussein out of his spider hole, now drive Syrian policy. They hang on George Bush’s words in Damascus, I was told: the rulers wondering if Iraq was a crystal ball in which they could glimpse their future.”

So what explains all the pessimism stateside? It could be that many Americans expected ballots, purple fingers, and Muslim people power to summarily quell the Iraqi insurgency. If so, they were disappointed. Car explosions, suicide bombers, mortar blasts, and kidnappings remain a pervasive reality in the Sunni Triangle. And more than 2,000 U.S. servicemen have now made the ultimate sacrifice. That this number is comparatively low by the standards of prior American wars offers no comfort to families who’ve lost a relative or friend.

But what if U.S. intervention did create “a new Arab world,” as Walid Jumblatt claimed? What if it did vanquish the Middle Eastern “Berlin Wall”? And what if it saved untold Americans–and Arabs–from far deadlier wars in the future? While we mourn each and every U.S. casualty, we must never lose sight of what the American military has accomplished. Despite all the setbacks, Iraq’s budding democracy continues to move ahead. So does the training of Iraq’s fledgling security forces, a prerequisite for any significant withdrawal of U.S. troops.

As for the Bush Doctrine’s loftier goal–to reform Arab politics and drain the swamp from which Islamic terrorism draws its chief ideological firepower–that no longer seems a fool’s errand. Even the most determined naysayer must acknowledge what American policy–coupled with felicitous circumstances–has wrought. George W. Bush deposed Saddam to remove a dangerous tyranny and promote U.S. interests in a vital region. He may wind up creating the first Arab democracy and changing the political culture of the Middle East–which would deal a severe blow to the forces of militant Islam.


December 14, 2005

Baghdad falls quiet as Zarqawi threatens poll (Anton La Guardia Diplomatic Editor and Oliver Poole in Baghdad, 15/12/2005, Daily Telegraph)

The terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi vowed to disrupt today’s general election in Iraq as a nationwide travel ban was imposed to reduce the threat of car bombings.

With Iraqi exiles starting to cast their ballots, including in Zarqawi’s home town of Zarqa in Jordan, a statement issued by his branch of al-Qa’eda announced “a blessed conquest to shake up the bastions of non-believers and apostates and to ruin the ‘democratic’ wedding of heresy and immorality”.

Nice of him to put down a marker by which whether we can determine quite easily whether he’s prevaili8ng and John Murtha is right, or whether democracy is prevailing and the President right.