On July 1, Morocco, became the first Arab country to peacefully vote itself into freedom–complete with a bicameral congress, elected president, protections for religious minorities (including the long-established Jewish community) and equal rights for women.
Yet the response from Washington was… cue the crickets.
The noisy silence is telling. President Barack Obama has said nothing about the first Arab country to become a democracy without U.S. tanks rumbling through its streets or mass uprisings of its citizens. Nor have congressional Republicans said much.
Washington, especially Obama’s State Department, has a democracy problem. Too many see democracy promotion as a Bush-era priority, others see democracy as “cultural imperialism,” and still others see dangers, not opportunities. The fear is that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other radical Islamist group may come to power.
The democracy doubters couldn’t be more wrong. The 19th century classical liberal thinkers were right about universal values being universal and people having a natural longing for natural rights.
Only by denying ordinary people their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly is mass support of extremists born. Give people rights and an outlet and the extremists will sidelined. Of course, this must be done gradually and with care, as Morocco has done steadily since 2000.
The Morocco democracy referendum won with the participation of 73.46% of eligible voters, according to Morocco’s constitution council, the government body that supervised the referendum. By contrast, the most recent national election (for an assembly with far weaker powers) attracted only 37.5% of eligible voters. Almost three-quarters of Moroccans did not see democracy as a foreign import, but as a natural right long delayed in arriving.
And the huge turnout was a remarkable rebuke to the radical Islamists who called for a boycott. Al Qaeda’s North African wing, Al Qaeda in the Magreb (AQIM), has repeatedly thundered its opposition to democracy, which, in their view, substitutes the views of the majority for the strict Sharia law of God. They lost, overwhelmingly.
Some 97.5% of voters voted yes, indicating that almost three-quarters of adult Moroccans want real, Western-style democracy. Another 1.5% voted no, with the balance casting blank or spoiled ballots.
But Washington’s mindset is mired in the late 1960s and 1970s, when many of the senior policy makers graduated from college. Perhaps they read too much Marx and too little Mill, leaving them mentally unprepared for a complex world.
Thus, the few official statements from the State Department have been clueless and damaging.
In the run-up to the July 1 referendum, a State department spokesman used a single tepid adjective to describe the move toward the Arab world’s first peaceful democratic revolution: “encouraging.”
When I went to the Casablanca office of Ahmed Charai, publisher of L’Observateur and number of other Moroccan newspapers and magazines, I could tell the adjective still stung. His English was good enough to know that “encouraging” is what you say about a D student who has finally managed a C+.
Over the next few days, I heard that word “encouraging” parsed by a number of other prominent Moroccans, including the Minister of Interior Saad Husar, who oversees the nation’s internal police forces. The word seemed insultingly small and careful; a word best reserved for a development in North Korea.
It is not a word for a dramatic shift from an absolute (though relatively gentle) monarchy with a weak consultative assembly to a constitutionally limited monarchy with a strong, sovereign parliament and an elected president who can remove executive branch officials without entreating the king.
On the campaign trail, Barack Obama promised to engage the world without Bush’s swagger. Instead, he offers the foreign policy of President Woodrow Wilson; a professor’s policy that is better at lecturing than listening.
Later, on July 1, the day of Morocco’s historic referendum, a State Department spokesman managed to squeak out a slightly longer statement: “We congratulate the people and the Moroccan leadership on the peaceful conduct of the referendum,” said Mark Toner, a spokesman for the State Department, during the department’s daily press conference.
And that’s it. Thanks for not rioting.
A few months ago, the State department seemed to see the big picture. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the King’s proposed transition as “a model for other countries in the region” that has “great promise, first and foremost for Moroccan people” in March 2011.
Significantly, Mrs. Clinton said these words at a joint press conference at State with her Moroccan counterpart, Taib Fassi-Fihri. When forced to be polite, the diplomats can do their job. Too bad she didn’t repeat these words when the referendum’s results poured in.
Of course, there are non-ideological reasons for Washington’s bland response.
One reason for Washington’s virtual silence is timing. Morocco’s democracy referendum was held during the July 4th weekend, when senior decision makers are away.
Another reason: Long lines of Muslims peacefully voting are of little interest to network television producers or print reporters. Just ask the Iraqis or the Afghans. Their messy, historic transitions to democracy (of sorts) got comparatively little attention. And most of it was devoted to the specter of violence from Al Qaeda and related terror groups. Take away the threat of bomb blasts and interest shrinks to nearly zero. If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead. Without media coverage, government officials are content to be silent.
Finally, Morocco has long been a stable ally of the United States. Indeed, it was the first nation to formally recognize the American republic. The kingdom has been a front-line ally in the wars on terror and narcotics. Unlike other African countries, it is not a pitiful theatre of genocide, civil war or fly-clouded refugees. Unlike other Arab lands, it is not a persistent enemy of Israel or America at the U.N. or in other international bodies. It is akin to Denmark, small, friendly, relatively prosperous and therefore boring.
But these reasons are, upon consideration, unsatisfactory. The referendum was not a surprise; policy makers knew about it for months and could easily have had a prepared statement ready. Lack of U.S. media attention doesn’t prevent State from weighing in on events in Ivory Coast or Sudan. And events affecting our boringly reliable allies get commented on all of the time.
No, the problem is deeper. The multicultural mindset comes with crippling relativism and misplaced humility. Who are we to say how others should live? They act as if multiculturalism was something other than a holding strategy deployed by center-left groups until their new majorities are finally eligible to return the Left to power in Europe and America. (Once in power, the tune changes.) Instead, they treat multiculturalism as a genuine philosophy, a means of re-ordering American foreign policy.
So we reach this strange impasse where the Obama administration is more comfortable preventing genocide in Libya (with bombs) than in promoting democracy in Morocco or elsewhere (with kind words).
Instead, the Obama Administration should be championing the Morocco model—peacefully adopting a pluralistic model with equal rights for non-Muslims and women—to the rest of the Arab world. In it, the king of Jordan should see a way to keep his throne while setting his people free. If the Syrian dictator, who has killed hundreds of people in the past few weeks, wants a peaceful resolution, this is it. If Kuwait and the other Gulf sheikhdoms want to move beyond embryonic assemblies into full democracy, here is the way.
It is not the referendum itself that is important, but the 10-year liberalization process that produced more than a half-dozen political parties and institutions ready to exercise power democratically. While a referendum tomorrow might be a disaster (consider Algeria in 1992, when radical Islamists won the election and touched off a civil war that devoured more than 100,000 lives), a patient march to democracy can work. Morocco’s vote this past weekend shows that it can.
The alternatives are worse: civil war (Libya, Yemen and perhaps Sudan), chaos (Tunisia), military rule masquerading as democracy (Egypt), or dangerous instability accelerated by Iranian or Qatari influences (Yemen, Bahrain).
Usually silence is safest. Not this time. The Obama Administration should be loudly praising every people that peacefully finds their way to freedom, starting with Morocco.
American words are both cheaper and more valuable than American bombs.