IN THE NEWS
If you want to peer through a clear window into the swirl of politics in the Middle East, see Brian Whitaker's series of articles in The Guardian. It's pretty non-partisan stuff, but it's a good tonic to two simplistic notions:
- There is something called "the Middle East" that's comparable to "Western Europe". Not even close. Sure, there are strains of cultural continuity here and there, but for the most part, it's hard to lump together the Sultan of Brunei, a Berber clan leader, the wife of a Western-educated Saudi engineer, and a religious scholar in Qum and have anything meaningful to say about all of them. The cultural boundaries that separate these societies are palpable, though, but that says more about how we feel different from them than, say, the four individuals cited above feel kinship to each other.
- Americans have an idea about elections: everyone in the world sees them the same way It's a nice idea, and to a limited extent, it's true. (I'm not one of those people, for example, who tries to twist the message of the Tienanmen Square protests into something it wasn't. I'm mortified by academics who argue, often to keep access as China specialists to the subject of their research, that these poor, beknighted Chinese students just didn't understand concepts like democracy and liberty the way we do.) However much people might agree about the mechanics of how elections work, not everyone sees their goals or outcomes as equally desirable. (In this vein, Frances Fitzgerald has an interesting discussion of the South Vietnamese elections in Fire in the Lake.) Elections certainly are not a silver bullet, and they're not necessarily as effective a tool of building national identity as, say, common service in the national military (one of the ways nationalism in Western Europe grew). In fact, elections can push societies in exactly the opposite direction: the electoral struggle over whatever tangible or intangible goods the government has to offer can aggravate animosities among different ethnic groups, clans, sects, or other divided parties. This is Fareed Kakaria's point in The Future of Freedom, and I think it's a hard one to dispute.
Whitaker's series is a great starting point for discussion, however, even if you or some of your friends take issue with anything in these articles. Certainly, these articles make it crystal clear that, like "the handover of sovereignty," elections in Iraq could happen in form, but in substance, they could be worthless, or even worse than worthless.