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How Americans Can Support Democracy in the Middle East--Without War and Without the U.S.-Middle East Free Trade Area

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Part I of II: Democratic Aspirations in Iran and the Middle East

I agree with one thing Condoleeza Rice said: we shouldn't give up on the democratic aspirations of the people of the Middle East!

I'm an American married to an Iranian American. We live several months of each year in Tehran, Iran. Over the years I've come to realize that the people in this region are very unhappy with oppressive governments. Though few Americans know this, the Middle East has a long history of people striving and even giving their lives for freedom and democracy. To understand why the region is plagued with dictators and monarchs, it is necessary to study history, including the role of the I-word, imperialism.

SETTING AN EXAMPLE OF DEMOCRATIC CITIZENSHIP. If we American citizens don't want to give up on the democratic aspirations of the people of the Middle East, and we don't believe the Bush-Cheney-Condi program is really about democracy, is there anything we can do to help? Yes, and it's easier than you might think.

To enable Middle Eastern people to achieve democracy, we must get our military out of their faces and work on improving democracy in our own country. We need to quit pointing fingers (and missiles!) at people in other countries and start looking in the mirror. Instead of focusing on what's right or wrong with the Middle East, we need to concentrate on what's right and wrong in our own country's foreign policy and in our own model of democracy.

For Iranians I've talked with over the years, more democracy would mean freedom from fear of repression, freedom to speak their minds, freedom to build a country that puts the good of its citizens first. However, given the history of colonialism and dictatorship in the Middle East, many people in the region are a little foggy about the nuts and bolts of citizenship in a democracy. For example, a lot of folks have picked up the habit of passively blaming their government (or foreign governments) for their problems without being able to envision what citizens might do about it. That's why our example of active citizenship could really make a difference.

People in the Middle East read books and articles, use the internet, watch satellite TV, go to college, discuss politics. They may lack experience with the practice of citizenship in a democracy, but they don't lack interest. Most Iranians I talk with, for example, think Americans are incredibly lucky; they watch us and they envy us. In my opinion, the least we can do is to practice the democracy we preach. We need to demonstrate the difference between what we citizens mean by democracy and the "unitary-presidency, corporations-running-wild" model Bush and Cheney represent. Working out the bugs in the democratic model could be our most generous gift to the world and to history.

FREE TRADE IS NOT THE SAME THING AS DEMOCRACY. Currently, a counterfeit of "freedom and democracy" for the Middle East is being peddled by the Bush administration: "liberal economic reform," that is, "free trade" for the U.S. with the region and a set of laws allowing U.S. companies to invest in and profit from local resources. This is all laid out by Antonia Juhasz in The Bush Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time (see http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/2979/spoils_of_war/). 

The proposed U.S.-Middle East Free Trade Area (U.S.-MEFTA) is like NAFTA by force, and with countries that are not even our neighbors. Occupied Iraq is becoming a U.S.-MEFTA showcase. Twelve countries have taken steps toward "free trade" with the U.S. since the invasion. Is it a surprise that the two countries that have so far resisted joining are Iran and Syria? For some Iranians, however, what "rich and democratic" America is proposing for the region may look like the only way forward. Nevertheless, I've yet to meet anyone who wants America to "help" Iran like America "helped" Iraq.

Although American democracy is widely admired, the fact is that the US and the big powers do not have a good history of supporting democracy in the Middle East. Quite the contrary, some might argue. Why are we, who would never accept a king on American soil, so quick to become friends and allies with Middle Eastern kings? Don't we recognize the double standard? Do we think these throwbacks to a bygone era are "good enough" for the "natives"?

Or is it more insidious? The fact is, democratic movements in resource-rich areas have often been unpopular with the rich and powerful foreign interests that have grown accustomed to cheap access to those resources. We talk about democracy, but our government has often given generous military and political support to kings and dictators who keep their own citizens down and keep the climate favorable for, to use the polite phrase, foreign investors.

WHAT DOES DEMOCRACY LOOK LIKE? The democracy movement in the U.S. is already working toward goals that provide the best possible support to the democracy movement in the Middle East:

1. Impeachment of members of the executive branch who break the law, as explained by Abraham Lincoln when, as a Congressman, he sought impeachment of President James Polk for starting an illegal and imperialistic war with Mexico (http://www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_david_sw_070216_what_lincoln_really_.htm)

2. Election reform (transparency, paper trails, campaign finance reform, etc.)

3. Education about the history and peoples of the Middle East.

4. Withdrawal of American troops (and mercenaries, and military aid) from Iraq and the Middle East and promotion of a nuclear free Middle East.

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Rosa Schmidt is an American married to an Iranian, hence the second last name, Azadi.  She's a long-time peace activist with a background in anthropology, education, and public health.  She's also one of the people who walked away (more...)
 

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