Penguin Press, 2008, 480 pp., $26.95
In the spring of 2002, I made my first post-9/11 visit to Cairo as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs. The trip’s purpose was a soup-to-nuts review of the large U.S. economic aid package to Egypt. I had been asked specifically to look at what the United States and Egypt had been doing to support democratic development. The short answer was “not much”, but the Egyptians have been around a long time and so do not lack a studied sense of humor. As they saw it, dredging the Nile as it opened to the Delta counted at the time as an act of democracy building.
As may be inferred from this example of pharonic wit, those early discussions did not go so well. Until the United States gave up its “double standards”, stopped supporting Israel “unequivocally” and resolved the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, our counterparts told us, issues of domestic political reform in Egypt were off the table.
That the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had nothing to do with educating young Egyptians or ending market-distorting subsidies or making the Egyptian judiciary truly independent was a long-standing fact that our colleagues simply preferred to ignore, as usual. On the other hand, the idea that we Americans assembled in Cairo believed that such matters actually had a bearing on U.S. national security seemed to genuinely baffle them. The Egyptian government, like many others in the region, did not yet believe that the United States was serious about pushing internal reform as a facet of U.S. national security policy.
They soon became believers. In November 2003, in the shadow of the fall of the Iraqi Ba‘ath regime, President Bush gave a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy that encapsulated the direction the President was determined to take. “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty”, the President said. No longer would the U.S. government see the region merely as the world’s gas station or as a place to park or transit warships. From now on, U.S. policy would seek to stimulate a new dynamism in a region sinking into a rising sea of Islamic extremism under the weight of sclerotic political and economic systems that routinely failed to deliver for their people. This would be difficult, involve many resources and much time—“the work of a generation”, many in the President’s Cabinet said—but the United States was committed to this course.
By June 2005, when Condoleezza Rice reprised the President’s remarks in a Cairo speech intended to echo “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, the policy seemed to be paying off. In the twenty-month period between the two speeches, Saddam Hussein had been taken into custody and his two loathsome sons killed. Muammar Qaddafi had given up Libya’s weapons of mass destruction. Syria had been compelled to leave Lebanon and important elections had taken place—including the first competitive presidential election in Egypt, the first free elections in Iraq and the first free elections in Lebanon in decades. An “Arab Spring” seemed to be thawing decades of autocratic winter. Even Le Monde was provoked to ask, on its front page, no less: “Faut-il remercier Bush?”
Alas, a hopeful spring did not give way to a verdant summer. As had also been the case in Prague in 1968, the Arab Spring gave way instead to the stormy grip of violence and reaction. Hamas won the January 2006 elections in Palestine, Lebanon’s march to democracy was derailed by demons old and new, and the sectarian war al-Qaeda wanted in Iraq seemed to start in earnest. Doubt suddenly replaced conviction in Washington, and slowly the President’s Freedom Agenda asphyxiated, with no little encouragement from friendly governments in Cairo, Riyadh, Tunis and elsewhere.
Although she wouldn’t put it in these terms, it is this extraordinary few years that Robin Wright covers in her latest book, Dreams and Shadows: the Future of the Middle East. She is no innocent abroad. Drawing on more than three decades of reporting on and from the region, Wright returned during 2005 and 2006 to determine for herself what is actually happening there. What she found surprised, encouraged and, at times, frightened her. In eight engaging chapters organized around a country-by-country scheme Wright captures the vibrancy and dynamism evident everywhere in the region, for better and worse.
Wright’s method, a favorite of journalists and the commercial houses that sell their wares, is largely biographical. She provides deeply etched portraits of individuals on the front lines of Middle Eastern change, whisking the reader along from Morocco to Iran in a travelogue leavened with historical background, decent analysis and even the occasionally profound insight. Wright introduces the reader to many of the heroic characters active in the region today: Ghada Shahbandar, the Egyptian creator of the human rights website “We’re Watching You” (www.shayfeen.com); Riad Seif, a Syrian dissident member of parliament; and Latifa Jbabdi, the indefatigable Moroccan feminist activist, to name but a few. Wright also limns the region’s many anti-heroes, like Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Khaled Mishal, all of whom Wright interviewed and here allows to speak for themselves.
Members of Egypt’s Kefaya (“Enough”) movement protest in Cairo in 2007. [credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic]
Wright tries hard to be objective as she moves between the heroes of her “dreams” and the anti-heroes who represent the “shadows” in her title. But as she moves, she cannot help but note that something has changed for the better since the last time she published a book-length treatment of the region, Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam, in December 2001. “Islamic extremism is no longer the most important, interesting, or dynamic force in the Middle East”, she writes. “In the early 21st-century, a budding culture of change is instead imaginatively challenging the status quo—and even the extremists.” Wright manages to get beyond the headlines to describe the competing forces in the region that are struggling over the destiny of their countries: Governments that recognize the need for reform; inchoate liberal and moderate democrats who are anti-extremist but also anti-government; and extremists nihilistically bent on upsetting the entire apple cart.
Wright is capable of nuance, and also of conceptual thinking. In her chapter on Morocco, for example, she raises the three thorniest issues she believes will determine whether the monarchy—and by extension the other autocracies in the region—will find a way to accommodate the thirst for change and still survive: political prisoners, women’s rights and the role of political Islam. Morocco, she writes, “is the only country that has attempted action on all three—although largely in reaction to imaginative local actors and strong outside pressure.”
Wright’s list is a plausible one. Confronting the truth about the macabre mukhabarat horrors deployed by governments against their own people is critical to renewing the social contract between citizens of the Middle East and their governments. How Islam and women’s rights are ultimately reconciled will in turn largely define the ultimate reconciliation between Islam and democracy. Most important is the prospect of absorbing Islamist trends into democratic politics, a complex matter reflected in debates about the wisdom of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in elections.
I am less sanguine than Wright on all three prospects, particularly the last one, at least in the near term. But that difference of perspective stands apart from the one main flaw in Dreams and Shadows. Wright recognizes that strong external pressure was needed to stimulate reform in the region; indeed, she says so on more than one occasion. But she fails to acknowledge the particular roles that external actors, particularly the United States, played in contributing to the political and cultural opening she describes. Except for her final chapter dealing with the “disastrous” effort in Iraq, and a passing reference to its “discredited” democracy efforts, she touches on the U.S. role not at all, as if it were inconsequential to the people she interviews or the dynamism she describes. There are, in fact, more indexed references to the United Nations in her book than to the United States.
Every author has to make choices, and some feel obliged to justify them. When explaining why she has not included a chapter on Saudi Arabia, Wright explains that “the voices of change are not yet noisy enough” there. That is arguable. What is not arguable is that it is deflatingly difficult for any female American journalist, particularly one who is not fluent in Arabic, to get around in the Kingdom. The larger question, however, is that if things are supposedly quiet in Riyadh, how did they suddenly become so raucous nearly everywhere else?
Wright tells us that Dreams and Shadows “reflects the voices in the region, not the pundits from afar.” Genuine Middle East experts familiar with the punditry of which Wright speaks can only praise her decision to ignore it. But the policies of the U.S. government cannot be reduced to mere punditry. By failing to acknowledge the U.S. role, she robs her own book of any policy relevance. In an election season in which “realists” are once again arguing that it is not in the U.S. national security interests to be concerned about how the governments of the region govern their people, Wright is unable to offer any counsel on how the United States should try to shape the evolution (or revolution) there.
Why has she done this? It is not because she is innocent of the policy world; to the contrary, as the Washington Post’s State Department correspondent for many years, she knows the process and the players far better than most pliers of her trade. Sitting in the high-numbered rows of Air Force 2, for all its discomforts, is part and parcel of a practical education. No, the reason may be guessed from Wright’s judgment that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, despite freeing tens of millions of people and giving hope to many more, has so severely damaged U.S. credibility that it no longer speaks with moral authority and cannot promote political openings in Arab states.
One wonders how Wright would size up present difficulties had they issued from a Gore or a Kerry Administration. But, in any event, this is simply wrong. The United States remains a superpower deeply involved in the region. When there’s trouble there, the phone still rings here. Wright can’t know with any more certainty than the rest of us how Iraq will turn out, and to make judgments about the ultimate consequences of policies so close to their origins indicates a failure to grasp the rhythms of history. U.S. policy toward nearly all aspects of political and economic reform in the region still matters enormously, and will continue to shape it either in its aggressive promotion or in its weak-kneed absence.
As I read Wright’s final chapter on Iraq, I couldn’t help but wonder if she might have produced a less ambivalent book had 2005 rolled smoothly into 2006 as she traveled the region, and particularly had the Bush Administration come up with a “surge” on behalf of the Freedom Agenda after the Hamas election debacle—if, in other words, it had doubled down politically throughout the region as it did militarily in Iraq.
Of course, this did not happen, for reasons having mostly to do with Secretary Rice’s determination to pursue the phantasm of a Middle East peace accord, but also with the challenge posed by Iran and its regional allies and proxies. The Administration’s shift in priorities allowed the governments of the region to once again insist that the United States not pressure them on reform when we “need them” to support the peace process and close ranks against Iran. Whether anyone really understood how the dots connected and whether altered priorities really meant having to accept such excuses are interesting questions. But clearly, the result is that many would-be Arab and Muslim reformers have been left disillusioned.
Case in point: One of the people Wright encounters in her travels is Egyptian newspaper publisher Hisham Kassem. Kassem is the founder of Egypt’s first truly independent newspaper and a long-time advocate of press and political freedoms in Egypt and throughout the region. I last saw Hisham in October of last year when he came to Washington to receive the National Endowment for Democracy’s annual Democracy Award. During our visit he shared his concern about how the Egyptian government was clearly trying to turn back the clock now that the Bush Administration was no longer interested in reform. He told me, showing a small gap between the thumb and index finger of his raised right hand, “You know, you were this close. If the United States and others had continued your pressure for another two years, things would have changed. A new democratic horizon would have been opened in the entire area. . . . We will not trust you easily again.”
Kassem’s plaint, whatever else it tells us, suggests that Wright’s title is a good one. These are indeed times in which dreams and shadows in the Middle East are competing for the souls of great civilizations—Egypt’s, Iran’s and possibly Turkey’s, too. One gets the feeling that Wright wants to be optimistic, but cannot quite bring herself to say which will triumph, the shadows or the dreams. While she probably invests too much hope in the smatterings of change she has witnessed up close, she needn’t have hedged about the long term. Medievalism cannot survive alongside modernity, and Islamic extremism will topple in due course into the dustbin of history.
What will take its place, then? The “model authoritarianism” of China or Russia that Egypt and others in the region are so enamored of at the moment? Or something more genuinely liberating and respectful of human potential? That is an open question, dependent as are most things on human agency. But I believe that, eventually, some variety of democracy, warts and all, will prevail in the Middle East. Wright’s local heroes will define what their respective democracies come to look like, but the United States will play a role, too, as it always has. The next president would therefore do well to read Dreams and Shadows to understand the aspirations of Middle Eastern liberals and moderates, and the opponents they face. But he should not do so as a disinterested observer: The United States cannot afford to be indifferent to whether dreams prosper or shadows deepen in one of the most important regions of the world. We cannot afford that kind of innocence abroad.