Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Freedom is Crawling

If this is our idea of spreading freedom and democracy throughout the Arab world, well…

Call it a case of why you should be careful what you wish for.

President Bush’s efforts to spread democracy to the Middle East have strengthened Islamists across the region, posing fresh challenges for the United States, according to U.S. officials, foreign diplomats and democracy experts.

Islamist parties trounced secular opponents in recent elections in Iraq and Egypt.

Hamas, the armed Islamic Palestinian group, appears set to fare well in Palestinian parliamentary elections Jan. 25, posing a quandary for how the United States and Israel pursue peace efforts. Hamas has carried out suicide bombings against Israel and calls for the country’s destruction.

In Lebanon, the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah is part of the government for the first time.

Washington considers Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which have Iranian support, to be terrorist groups.

“In the short run, the big windfall winners … have been the Islamists,” said Michael McFaul, a Stanford University expert on democracy and development

[…]

Islamist groups espouse Islam as the answer to their countries’ problems. They appeal to large segments of Arab societies, particularly when the only alternative is the repressive state apparatus. They have proved adept at providing social services that governments often don’t, and they largely are free of the financial corruption found in many Arab countries.

Most strongly oppose U.S. foreign policy in the region and don’t acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Their long-term commitment to the give-and-take of the democratic process is largely untested.

[…]

“Freedom is crawling — over broken glass,” said a State Department official, scaling back the president’s frequent contention that “freedom is on the march.” The official requested anonymity in order to speak more frankly.

There are countries we are content to allow to live under strict religious rule — Saudi Arabia comes to mind — or under brutal dictatorships — China and Vietnam. So it would seem that as long as we can buy their oil or sell them cars, freedom is something we can walk away from.