Democracy Arsenal

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August 31, 2006

Latin America

Still swatting flies in Colombia
Posted by Adam Isacson

Iraq has made plain that the United States is really, really bad at dealing with insurgencies. Helping elected governments assert control over territories dominated by people who murder civilians sounds like a noble goal. But our fundamental misunderstanding of "counterinsurgency" - viewing it as a mainly military effort, neglecting poverty and civilian governance, treating the locals with suspicion or even abusing them - keeps making the situation worse.

In what is currently the nation's number-two best-selling non-fiction book, Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks takes the U.S. defense establishment to task for "unprofessional ignorance of the basic tenets of counterinsurgency warfare." Warned expert Andrew Krepinevich in a year-old Foreign Affairs article, "Having left the business of waging counterinsurgency warfare over 30 years ago, the U.S. military is running the risk of failing to do what is needed most (win Iraqis' hearts and minds) in favor of what it has traditionally done best (seek out the enemy and destroy him)."

This is a big, fundamental problem, because the "war on terror," as currently fought, keeps leading us into difficult counterinsurgency missions. Right now, the Bush administration is facing insurgents directly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's not going well. Israel, the United States' closest ally in the Middle East, just confronted a locally popular irregular army (Hezbollah doesn't really fit the definition of an insurgency) with a strategy based on aerial bombing, with hugely frustrating results. Meanwhile, Washington is supporting other governments' counterinsurgency campaigns in Colombia, the Philippines and Nepal.

I work a lot on Colombia, which is by far the biggest U.S. military aid recipient outside the Middle East - $3.8 billion in military and police aid since 2000, making up 80 percent of our entire aid package to Colombia during that period. This aid, under a framework called "Plan Colombia," started out as an effort to reduce the flow of illegal drugs from Colombia. In the wake of September 11, though, the Bush administration got permission from Congress to allow the aid to be used to fight Colombia's insurgency, principally two Marxist guerrilla groups founded in the mid-1960s.

Continue reading "Still swatting flies in Colombia" »

Democracy, Progressive Strategy

Responding to Spencer Ackerman (or, how to cure my democracy "fetish")
Posted by Shadi Hamid

As mentioned yesterday, The New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman, in a response to my American Prospect article, questioned the wisdom of a “democracy-centric foreign policy” and, moreover, wondered aloud whether I had a democracy “fetish."

Unfortunately, Ackerman is unable to grasp the fundamental nature of the "democratic dilemma" which has afflicted us for so long in the Middle East. For starters, he profoundly misunderstands the nature of political Islam. He claims that the US "is insane to promote democratic elections in which the victors proclaim eschatological hostility to it.” But not all Islamists proclaim “eschatological hostility” to America and to think so is to fall under the illusion that Islamists are uniformly crazy, irrational fanatics. This is simply not true. If we put aside the exceptional cases of Hamas and Hezbollah, mainstream Islamist groups - while they may in some instances be reactionary and/or exclusivist - are not, as Ackerman assumes, “radical." Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, most Islamist groups – such as Turkey’s AKP, Morocco’s PJD, Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, and the Jordanian and Egyptian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood – are not armed or have military wings. Not only that, they have explicitly renounced violence and committed themselves to playing by the rules of the democratic game.

In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front is the largest opposition party in parliament and has generally had a working, if somewhat tense, relationship with the Hashemite monarchy. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has 88 seats in parliament and provides social services to millions of people. With that said, I’m not going to pretend that these Islamists (many of whom I have interviewed at length) are paragons of liberalism; they most certainly are not. Their views on women's rights, status of minorities, and implementing Islamic law leave much to be desired. They have, however, evolved in recent years, focusing less on empty religious sloganeering and more on the importance of democratic reform. For better or worse, they are well-rooted in society and represent a broad sector of the Arab electorate. Ackerman, it appears, would like to wish these groups away. In doing so, he is guilty of the same thing he accuses me of: mistaking “the world that American liberals would like to live in for the actual one that American liberals must confront.” These groups exist and, if democracy ever comes to pass in troubled Arab lands, then Islamists coming to power will be part of the package, whether Ackerman and I like it or not (as has already has happened in Turkey and Iraq, both of them allies).

It seems Ackerman only wants democracy if it produces nice, docile pro-American Arab liberals. Well, I’ve made the point over and over – pro-American Arab liberals are pretty much a figment of our imagination. For all intents and purposes, they don’t really exist (although I suppose this depends on how you define "pro-American"). As a liberal and a believer in liberalism, I wish it were otherwise but there are facts on the ground and we have to, at some point, face the Middle East as it is, not as what we would like it to be. The democrat's greatest test, after all, is supporting the democratic rights of those he disagrees with.

Building on his unsound foundation, Ackerman is essentially telling us that we shouldn’t promote democracy because Arabs hate us. He seems to forget that one of the reasons they hate us is because, well, we don’t promote democracy. Instead, we’ve been propping up the same ruthless dictators who have been oppressing and torturing their own people for decades. As long as we remain complicit in propping up these despicable regimes that betray everything our country has ever hoped to stand for, Arabs will never begin to trust us, believe us, or "like us." Their rage will continue to fester with no outlet for expression. And I think we know what can happen if the rage of millions of young men has no political outlet. For all their faults, at least the neo-cons were able to recognize as much.

Continue reading "Responding to Spencer Ackerman (or, how to cure my democracy "fetish")" »

Latin America

What is Lula Doing Right?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

With elections just weeks away, Brazilian President "Lula" Ignacio da Silva is well-ahead in the polls.  He is bucking not just a string of corruption scandals but general dissatisfaction with incumbents across the Americas, and I might say, globally.  (I'm h