‘Region change’

Not surprisingly Jonathan Freedland’s column in the Guardian yesterday The war’s silver lining We need to face up to the fact that the Iraq invasion has intensified pressure for democracy in the Middle East has prompted much debate on Stopper message boards and there are a couple of critical letters in the Guardian today.

And, further proof of the conversational merits of the blogosphere, David Hirsh has already produced a response to the two letters.

The problem for those of us who opposed the war is this: many of our predictions and our fears did not in fact materialise. An unexpected consequence of the war is, at the moment, a wave of hope sweeping across the Middle East, the emergence and strengthening of democracy movements and a situation in Iraq where it is sometimes possible for people to organise, to discuss and to think openly about a better future.

Either we can recognise the truth of what is happening in the Middle East or we can turn our eyes away and pretend that our predictions and fears came true when they didn’t. Jonathan Freedland chooses truth and an effort to make sense of a complex and contradictory situation.

Some of the anti-war movement cannot bear truth, complexity and understanding. They opt instead for narratives that tell half of the story and narratives that tell an untrue story. Nothing good is possible, they say, in an Iraq oppressed by a bloodthirsty imperialist occupation. This just does not reflect the reality of what is going on in Iraq today.

While I disagree with Freedland’s (and Hirsh’s) opposition to the war and don’t consider the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq and the recent elections to be a ‘silver lining’ but rather more simply the achievement of the main war aim (I’m less certain about the link to the events in Lebanon btw), the position put forward in the Guardian column and Hirsh’s defence of it should be welcomed by those of us on the pro-liberation left.

The key question now is not ‘did you support the war’ but ‘are you pro-democracy?’ Are you in favour of regime change and giving your backing to emerging democratic movements or are you on the other side, with the dictators and their direct and indirect allies in the region?

Are you with the developing components of Iraqi civil society and new statehood or with the murdering fascists and theocrats who wish to destroy that civil society and hamper the building of a new democratic state? Are you for intensifying the efforts towards a negotiated two-state settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue or are you on the side of the extremists on both sides who want to continue conflict?

But, while there are indeed encouraging signs, I think it is worth injecting some caution into the excitement about the changes that may be underway. The ‘winds of change’ may blow a little more gently than some of the hyperbolic media commentators have suggested this week – they may change direction and bring some foul smells with them at times. There will be setbacks and even defeats. The process of liberalisation is not inevitable.

In particular I think there is a danger in taking the 1989 example as something we can expect again – those changes in Eastern Europe were extraordinarily quick, largely peaceful and mostly successful in establishing liberal democracies.

The process of ‘region change’, of democratisation in the Middle East, will surely be much more complex, there are more factors at play, including a religious/political ideology that is hostile both to the Arab dictatorships and liberal democracy – that wasn’t the case in Eastern Europe where even anti-Western nationalists and old school communists peacefully accepted democratic norms. With the exception of Romania and Serbia, the regimes didn’t put up a fight and backed down in the face of people power. Who is confident that the same will happen across the Middle East?

And then of course there is the question of how the powers outside the region behave. Hopefully the Americans will continue to take a pro-democracy position. But hopefully they will have also learnt one key lesson from the Iraqi election – that the dynamic changes when the central question is not any longer about America but about the future of your own country and your own and your family’s future. The evidence for this is also seen in Lebanon. I spoke with a Lebanese neighbour the other day who is extremely anti-American, believing GW Bush wants to “destroy Islam” but who is also an enthusiastic supporter of an end to Syrian occupation and full democracy and independence for his country. Hopefully there won’t be any blunders which make America the central question in Iran rather than how things stand at the moment – do you support theocracy or democracy?

Just as there might be setbacks inside the Middle East, there might also be reversals in the attitude of democratic governments. There could be a creep backtowards the politics of ‘stablity’ and ‘realism’ in US foreign policy. In Europe it is not yet clear whether EU governments will adopt a pro-democracy position or cling to the comforting illusions of status quo politics. Nor should those of us on the pro-liberation left assume that the British government will continue to support region change after the next election, regardless of who wins.

And what about the left in the west? Well, clearly some need to also be able to do what my Lebanese neighbour has done and realise that its not all about America.

As for those of us who are supporters of region change and backers of democracy, we need to step up our solidarity and start doing much more to assist. Not only helping trade unions, vital though that is, but also supporting dissidents across the region who have yet to find the kind of backing that, for example, Czech opponents of Stalinism received.

Perhaps we also need to learn something from the slogan ‘regime change begins at home’ and make sure that our own government’s and political parties are committed to supporting democratisation – supporting them when they do give practical assistance and criticising them when they turn away from internationalism.