Saturday, April 28, 2007

Perils of even moderate, non-violent democracy-promotion

(Cross-posted at Ezra's.)

A few days ago as TAPPED, Garance Franke-Ruta quoted a TNR report from Iran:

The reform era, Amir explained to me, may not have accomplished all Iranians had hoped it would in terms of structural political change. But it had opened a space that had not existed before. Khatami had made it possible for some 37,000 nongovernmental organizations to take root, addressing a panoply of social issues and human rights concerns at a granular level....

But there was a problem. The government had become convinced that the United States planned to finance and train these activists to overthrow the Islamic Republic, much as it had done in Serbia and elsewhere. In leaked intelligence reports Amir had seen, the regime had meticulously documented its case: "They quote the American Enterprise Institute and Michael Ledeen, as well as the statements of President Bush about civil society," he told me.

And we also get this news from Russia:

Russian officials in recent months have complained that western countries are trying to meddle in the political process by funding protest groups, and Putin echoed those allegations.

"There is a growth in the flow of money from abroad for direct interference in our internal affairs,'' Putin said in his address, delivered to members of both houses or parliament.

"There are those who, skilfully using pseudo-democratic rhetoric, would like to return to the recent past – some to loot the country's national riches, to rob the people and the state; others to strip us of economic and political independence,'' Putin said.

Two points I'd like to make here. The first is about the costs of our actions. Now, in this case the governments of Russia and Iran are saying pretty much exactly what you would expect them to. But it's worth pointing out that, yes, the fall of Milosevic in Serbia was due largely to American-funded NGOs, and the various colored revolutions in the post-Soviet countries have similar backgrounds. So when Russia and Iran talk about US-funded NGOs trying to weaken them from within, it's not like they're part of the tinfoil hat brigades. We did these things, and part of the consequence of having done this is putting other democracy movements in harm's way – more so than they already were.

Secondly, it's always worth remembering that, to an unfortunate degree, America is represented in the Muslim world by the intellectually bankrupt crazies on the neocon fringe. When the Iranian government is quoting Michael Ledeen as evidence that America is trying to bring down Iran from within, my reaction is something like “yeah, but it's Michael Ledeen. Chill out, nobody cares what he thinks.” But of course, for people who already want to believe that America means Iran harm, he's a godsend. And when McCain sings “bomb Iran” to a military crowd, that's probably being noticed.

(Then there's the issue of whether or not the current American government does, in fact, mean to harm Iran.)

Finally, the corollary to all this is that Americans need to be careful who they let represent the Muslim world in their eyes, too. Letting bin Laden or Ahmedinejad stand in as icons of Muslim opinion doesn't do anyone any good.

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