We have obtained permission to print the original English version of this commentary in the daily WELT of October 21, 2005, by the Aspen Institute Berlin's Jeffrey Gedmin. Another jewel in our collection of Gedmin articles...
After attending in Paris recently a meeting of pro-democracy Syrians, I returned sheepishly to Berlin. That’s because I have the strong impression that a majority of Germans think like Peter Scholl Latour, namely that a) the Middle East does not want democracy; b) the outside world could not help anyway; and c) that the Amis should definitely not interfere.
I always wondered why Chancellor Schroeder would pile on his plane all those business executives when he travelled to places like Saudi Arabia. I found one explanation--thanks to one of Germany’s top bloggers Ulrich Speck --in the words of Dr. Gunter Muhlack, the Commissioner for the Task Force for the Dialogue with the Islamic World in the foreign ministry in Berlin. Dr.Muhlack says: “We do not want to impose our view of the world and our philosophy on our partners. Here I have the feeling there is a big difference between the American and the European approach.”
Maybe Dr. Muhlack has a point. The French, to be sure, insisted on “the European approach” with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It turns out, of course, that in the case of the French this may not have been merely a matter of principle. Jean-Bernard Merimee, a former French Ambassador to the United Nations, was hauled before a French magistrate this week, alleged to have taken bribes from Saddam Hussein in the amount of 11 million barrels of oil. Also accused of being bribed by the former Iraqi regime are French senator and former interior minister Charles Pasqua; former secretary general of the French foreign ministry, Serge Boidevaix; and Jacques Chirac’s friend Patrick Maugein, who is also incidentally chairman of the oil company SOCO. Yes, you wonder where those “no-blood-for-oil” banners are when you need them.
I think it is time for Americans and Europeans to level with each other. In a pre-9-11
world, America’s policy toward Middle East dictators was, You pump oil; we’ll help maintain the status quo. It was not moral. Nor did it keep us safe as we found out.
September 11th changed the American view. The EU has tried meanwhile to cling to the status quo. It is silly when Europeans, like the good Dr. Muhlack, accuse Americans of wanting to impose their way of life on the peoples of the region.
Most Americans agree with the U.S. President, who says, “when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own (and) America will not impose our style of government on the unwilling.”
But Americans also tend to believe that Middle East Arabs (and the Persians of Iran) are no less entitled to freedom than the rest of us and here’s the real rub. This is where the Scholl Latour crowd rolls their eyes, because the Americans--when we are not bloody thirsty capitalists bent on world domination, are said to be naïve idealists, who simply cannot fathom the complexity of things. Maybe Middle East democracy is doomed. But I think the new "American approach" is wiser than the old.
Once upon a time the smart people told us that the Germans and Japanese could not be Democrats. They said the same later of the South Koreans, the Taiwanese and Portuguese. Experts told us that history and culture, tradition, religion and ethnicity would stop democracy in its tracks.
Somehow democracy keeps spreading. Islam per se seems not to be a problem. Of 27 muslim countries outside the Middle East, about a quarter are democratic. And who would have thought: municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, women allowed the vote in Kuwait, opposition candidates for the first time in Egypt, a revolution in Lebanon, and elections and a constitution in Iraq.
When old orders die, the process can be dangerous, chaotic, deadly. Surely we learned this from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the break-up of Yugloslavia. I hear Syrians now talking about the meltdown of dictatorship in Damascus.
Try telling them that the old system is good enough and incidentally more convenient for us in the West. (emphasis added)
Jeffrey Gedmin is director of the Aspen Institute Berlin.