A reader asks:
I agree that democracy and economic development are not panaceas for the Middle East, just as they are not for any other location on the planet. But aren’t they a start? And since it is possible to chew gum and walk at the same time, does it hurt to at least pay lip service to doing things to bring the rest of the Middle East into the 21st century? And what would those things be in your opinion?
Both candidates in the presidential election debates spoke of economic development as a top priority in their Middle East policy. This sounds good to voters but is pretty meaningless.
A typical example of this meme is given by Obama in his June 4, 2009, Cairo speech:
We … know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s why we plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who’ve been displaced. That’s why we are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend on.
But almost four years later, none of this massive expenditure has either changed the situation in those countries or even brought much benefit to their people.
A Western viewer might accept Obama’s claim that people just want good jobs, nice housing, and higher living standards for themselves and their children. Yet the appeals of radical ideology overcome material considerations. There are lots of people who would like their children to grow up to be suicide bombers or prefer piety to prosperity. Even though many don’t think that way, they might be persuaded that radicalism is the best route to better lives. Ayatollah Khomeini dismissively referred to this theory shortly after he took power in Iran by remarking that the West seemed to think the Iranian Islamist revolution was “about the price of watermelons” but that wasn’t true at all. And finally, when people and rulers see no real way to achieve prosperity, both the governments and the masses will turn to demagoguery, scapegoating, and foreign adventures.
It does make sense to the Western mind that material conditions will determine the political beliefs and loyalties of Arabs and Iranians. Yet over the span of the last century things have simply not turned out that way in practice. This was partly due to the fact that nobody delivered major increases in living standards except in the Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia, and in those places it was a highly traditional and religious way of life being reinforced.
Elsewhere governments mustered loyalty not by making the pie bigger, but by controlling who got what. So if you had the option, material well-being for the urban middle-class and certain ethnic segments meant supporting the dictatorship and getting some reward. That will also apply if the dictatorship is an Islamist one, which can offer spiritual exaltation as well. And at least for some years many voters — where people have the opportunity to choose — will believe that Islamism is the best chance for a stable, just, and relatively prosperous society.
Countries are not prepared for progress due to ideology, worldview, institutions, political culture, and many other factors. In particular, the presence of such large and powerful radical forces — willing, even eager, to use violence — is a huge problem. Demagoguery is potent. Such factors can override the kind of materialistic orientation and enlightened self-interest that Westerners expect, and that underpin the belief that democracy can provide stable polities and ensure moderation.