The upheaval in Yemen and the possibility that al-Qaeda might take over, turning that country into a stronger terrorist base than it already is, should give pause to American and European policy in the Arab world.
At its recently concluded G-8 meeting of industrial economies in Deauville, France, Western governments pledged $40 billion to "newly democratic" nations in North Africa and the Middle East. One might as well throw money at Chicago and hope for electoral reform so the dead are no longer allowed to vote on Election Day.
In spring, one usually cultivates a lawn so that new vegetation can take root and grow. In the Arab world where this money is targeted the only roots you'll find are the roots of oppression and terrorism. If Western nations think what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt will lead to real democracy where competing political parties, ideologies, and faiths have a fair and equal opportunity of being debated, they are seriously deluded. The money would have a better chance of financing a winning streak in a Las Vegas casino.
If these countries were seriously pursuing democracy and needed only money to complete their transformation, there is plenty of money in the region that could be used to help them. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, OPEC income is expected to rise this year above the $200 billion increase of 2010. That would be around $833 billion, the Energy Information Administration forecasts. That's money the United States and the rest of the G-8 have paid oil-producing nations at prices ranging from $4 to $7 a gallon, depending on the country.
If money alone could foster democracy in North Africa and the Middle East, there are plenty of Arab countries with loads of it-chiefly Saudi Arabia. Yet the Saudis have shown very little interest in an "Arab Spring," preferring to remain instead in the doldrums of an Arab winter.
Democracy doesn't spring up of its own accord. It must have a base from which it can blossom. That was a point made by Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and political science at Duke University, in a recent op-ed column for The New York Times titled "The Weak Foundations of Arab Democracy." Kuran wrote, "Democracy requires checks and balances, and it is largely through civil society that citizens protect their rights as individuals, force policy makers to accommodate their interests, and limit abuses of state authority. Civil society also promotes a culture of bargaining and gives future leaders the skills to articulate ideas, form coalitions and govern."
None of this exists in any of the nations to which the G-8 has pledged its support. In Egypt, supposedly the most progressive of the Arab states, fundamentalist Muslims still persecute Coptic Christians. The radical Muslim Brotherhood, which at the start of the revolution claimed no interest in political power, is now active in its pursuit of victory in the upcoming election and hints that it might revoke Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
The problems in North Africa and the Middle East can't be solved by money. What's needed is a change in outlook. Radical Islam forces women into second-class status; it is rooted, not in optimism, but in pessimism. Radical Islamists appear to serve an angry God who commands them to kill those who do not believe as they do, but this belief will do little to lift the Arab world out of the religious and political deep freeze that holds it back from true progress.
In C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Narnia has been transformed by a white witch into a land where it is "always winter, but never Christmas." That pretty much describes the lands of North Africa and the Middle East where the "white witch" is radical Islam and spring will never arrive as long as it holds sway over the minds and hearts of the people.
© 2011 Tribune Media Services Inc.