Michael Totten

Honey or Vinegar in the Middle East?

Posted by Jeremy Brown
Couldn’t we try for something like this?
Steven A. Cook, writing in Foreign Affairs (I read it in the New York Times), urges the U. S. to use an incentive-based approach to sparking democratic reform in the Middle East, rather than the usual ‘punitive policies’ (by which phrase, in the context of the article, he seems to lump together the current war in Iraq with all previous U. S. military actions and threats of military action in that region).
I don’t know anything much about Cook except that he is a thousand times more qualified to write about the Middle East than I am. And his arguments generally seem extremely reasonable. This, for example, struck me as a pretty good (because it sounds so obvious as to be even a bit banal) way of articulating something that a lot of my Lefty friends have had great difficulty hearing, or that they hear as yet more convoluted nonsense from the far Right wing:

For most of the last five decades, Washington has done little to promote Arab democratization, relying instead on the autocratic leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries to help protect vital U.S. interests in the neighborhood.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, U.S. priorities in the Middle East changed. Suddenly, the Bush administration came to see democratization, which it had previously ranked below security and stability in its list of concerns for the Arab world, as the critical means by which to achieve these other goals. Indeed, the toppling of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon fundamentally shifted the underlying assumption of U.S. Middle East policy. Arab authoritarianism could no longer be viewed as a source of stability; instead, it was the primary threat to it.

That was worthy of a ‘thumbs-up’ post all by itself. But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have something negative to say as well. This gets back to Cook’s reasonableness. Sometimes he’s reasonable to a fault:

The reason that the promotion of civil society, economic development, and sanctions have not led to political reform in the Arab world is that none of them addresses the real obstacles to change in the region: flawed institutions.

It depends, of course, on what countries he’s thinking of when he writes that, but that sounds a tad understated to me. Try these on for size: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of flawed institutions!” “Give me unflawed institutions or give me death!” “Mr. Gorbachev: reform your flawed institutions!” My point is not ideological, just that sometimes a flaw is more than just a flaw.

Washington should therefore focus on coming up with ways to make it easier for democratic politics to emerge. Although this might be easier said than done, with some creative thinking, Washington can figure out how to use its massive financial, military, and diplomatic resources to drive institutional change.
The best way to do so would be to move away from negative pressures and toward more positive, incentive-based policies. In the abstract, such policies involve getting others to do what you want by promising them something valuable in return.

I’m not trying to make Cook sound naive. The following sentence seems to be a tip off that what he is writing is something like fiction:

To be realistic, there are limits to what incentive-based policies can achieve…

The key phrase there is ‘to be realistic.’ I don’t think I’m reading too much into that to conclude that being realistic was not otherwise what he was trying to do in this essay. He’s brainstorming policy ideals, which is fine by me. But I think ‘realistic’ is what we need post 9/11. And we need it to run from paragraph one and never stop.
Wouldn’t it seem to you, for instance, that if incentive-based policies are indeed the way forward, that this is because of Bush’s willingness to lay the groundwork by first facing ugly military necessity, and that you therefore cannot separate one from the other? If Cook had started with that premise in mind he would not have had to interject a special dose of realism into the third to last paragraph.

…[but] the fact remains that incentives are a critical–and critically underused–tool for effecting reform and spurring democratization in the Arab world… If it is serious about finally spurring progress in the Middle East, the United States needs to focus more explicitly on political targets and embrace a more positive set of means. An incentive-based approach offers a more coherent, less intrusive, and ultimately more promising strategy toward the Arab world. As the attacks of September 11 showed, the old approach is broken. It’s time for a fix.

Here’s my problem with all of that reasonable stuff: a nation is not a person. Military coercion and incentive-based approaches are neither mutually exclusive nor necessarily parts of a carrot-and-stick cosmic psych out.
Coercion as it has most recently been used in Afghanistan and Iraq is not a method for winning friends and influencing people; it is the necessary and morally imperative reaction to the horrors and the very real dangers of a poorly contained, worldwide fascist cancer.
And if the United States finds ways to offer incentives to Arab countries that are more successful than oil-for-food (i.e. something better than an orgy of blood-tainted graft) then I think we have to be clear about what this should mean. We would have to be sure that this would help build momentum for a people’s urge toward democratization rather than simply grease the palms of tyrants to get them to sign back on to that bloody pre-9/11 quid pro quo.
The notion of the U. S. deploying honey and vinegar in an effort to shepherd the world forward is, indeed, not realistic. Military action is sometimes the only responsible way for a the U. S. to respond to a crisis. Sometimes it will be morally necessary to pour huge sums of money and resources into a struggling country’s economy, as has been needed after the Asian tsunami — which seems to have helped the view of America in Indonesia, by the way. But using measures like these as conscious tools for manipulating the future of the Middle East — as if we had that kind of power anyway — strikes me as the stuff of Nixon and Kissinger. So I see even the most intelligent and well meaning arguments regarding the various permutations of carrot/stick/honey/vinegar as tempting the discourse backward rather than forward.