November 27, 2007

Do Arabs Fear Democracy More Than Israel?

With a number of Arab nations sending diplomats to engage Israel in peace negotiations today in Annapolis, the Wall Street Journal notes where Arabs so far have not gone: Baghdad. Despite the establishment of many other embassies in Iraq's capital, Arab nations have yet to send emissaries to their recently-liberated brethren. Even the feckless UN has begun planning their return to Iraq, so what keeps Iraq's neighbors away?

"Not a single Arab ambassador" is represented in Baghdad today, a senior U.S. diplomat in Iraq noted in a telephone interview last week. Ostensibly, the Arab complaint is that the Iraqi government is led by sectarian Shiites who have failed to look after the interests of Iraq's Sunnis. That would be more credible if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki weren't meeting regularly with the Sunni sheiks from the Anbar Awakening Council, and if billions in oil revenue weren't flowing from the central government to the provinces. ...

A functional Muslim democracy -- federalized, pluralist, majority-led and imposed by American arms -- is a worrying precedent for the autocratic houses of Assad, Saud and Mubarak. If these Arab leaders don't want the world to conclude they want a failed Iraq, it's time they sent envoys to work with that country's duly elected government.

The US has pressed its allies for action on this front for the last couple of years. The Saudis responded in August by promising to open an embassy, but demanded an American push for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The decision to host today's Annapolis conference could have come from this demand for a quid pro quo; it certainly fits the timing.

Sunni diplomats faced higher risks than others did in the sectarian warfare that rent Baghdad throughout most of 2006. As the WSJ acknowledges, security conditions gave the Arab nations a plausible reason to remain distant. The security improvements have removed that fig leaf, however. Iraqis can reasonably wonder why other Arabs can receive Israel but not send missions to fellow Arabs.

The US wants the Sunni states to have a significant presence in Baghdad, for two good reasons. We want Iraq to lean towards the more moderate Arab states in the region rather than ally with the theocratic Iranians. We also want to build the confidence of Iraqi Sunnis that they can engage politically with the central government, rather than act as outsiders and eventually fall back to violence for their aims. If we can hold Annapolis, they can open some embassies.


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