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Tunisia, Iraq & U.S. Democracy Promotion

Via Larison, Jennifer Rubin asks:

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?

I think the provisional answer is nothing:

Ben Wedeman, probably the best TV reporter employed by an American channel (he works for CNN) when it comes to the Arab world, is in Tunis and had this to say about Ben Ali's stunning fall yesterday, the WikiLeaks theory, and the public fury that amounted to the first succesful Arab revolt in a long time: "No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It's all about unemployment, corruption, oppression."

Of course, it's quite possible that individuals were inspired by Iraq, but from all the reporting I've read thus far the major catalysts for the "Jasmine Revolution" had little to do with Iraq and its example. Rubin, parodoxically, helps explains why Iraq and the Bush administration's freedom agenda had little impact:

What should the U.S. do? Schanzer said he is concerned that "this administration will let an opportunity slip through its fingers." We should, he said, be setting out our clear expectations that Tunisia should not "lapse back into authoritarianism" and must not embrace an government run by, or sympathetic to, Islamists. He said that during the Bush administration, officials on the ground and in Washington would be saying "we expect this" -- meaning democratization, free elections. Schanzer noted that we have quite a lot of leverage in Tunisia: "It is pro-West and a small country." And we don't put at risk any major asset in Tunisia by being firm in our expectations (e.g. Tunisia doesn't control the Suez Canal, as does Hosni Mubarak).

In other words, when the region heard "freedom agenda" what it meant was that the U.S. dictated terms.

Rubin does raise a significant question, however, regarding U.S. policy towards Tunisia. It could be, as her source suggests, that there exists a wellspring of knowledgeable people in the U.S. federal government who understand Tunisian society and have a keen grasp of how to ensure that the country's revolutionary tumult is channeled toward a stable, sustainable representative democracy (provided it's not too Islamist, of course). If that is the case, telling whatever government does emerge "what we expect" makes some sense, as it presumes we know what we're talking about.

If, however, we don't actually know what's best for Tunisian society going forward, outside of a general desire for it to have a representative and relatively liberal government, should we really be butting in?

UPDATE:
Dan Murphy at CS Monitor weighs in:

One question in Ms. Rubin's column does have a clear answer however. "How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?" she asks.

Having covered Iraq and Egypt full time between 2003-2008, and having explored the question of whether the US invasion of Iraq would spur regional political change at length with academics, politicians, and average folks in and out of the region over a period of years (and talked to people in touch with current events in Tunisia the past few days) the answer to her question is clear: "Little to nothing."

The sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, the insurgency, and the US role in combating it claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and Iraq remains unstable today. The regional view of the Iraq war was and is overwhelmingly negative, the model of Iraq something to be avoided at all costs. Before I read Rubin's piece earlier today, Simon Hawkins, an anthropology professor at Franklin and Marshall, was kind enough to chat with me about Tunisian politics and history.

Hawkins, whose dissertation was about Tunisia, has been coming and going from the country since the late 1980s. He recounted (unprompted) how the word "democracy" had been given a bad name among many of the Tunisian youth (the same sorts who led the uprising against Ben Ali) because of the Iraq experience, "That's democracy," a group of Tunisian youths said to him in 2006 of Iraq. "No thanks."