James Traub on a Democratic Middle East
James Traub is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, where he has worked since 1998. From 1994 to 1997, he was a staff writer for The New Yorker. He has also written for The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and elsewhere. His articles have been widely reprinted and anthologized. He has written extensively about international affairs and especially the United Nations.
In recent years, he has reported from Iran, Iraq, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Vietnam, India, Kosovo and Haiti. He has also written often about national politics and urban affairs, including education, immigration, race, poverty and crime.
His books include, The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power; The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square; City On A Hill, a book on open admissions at City College; and The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did). He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
James Traub: So, you say the Middle East, they’ll never going to have democracy, they never have. China, they never had. Now, before you so confidently say that though, you have to remember that people would have said, in the 1970s, look at the Latin America, it is run by generalissimos. Or all political theorists virtually agreed, as of, let’s say the early 1960s, you can’t have a democracy until you have a middle class. So, first you develop a middle class, you develop this middle class institutions and expectations. They then begin demanding a voice [in a row] 23:03, people then arise to satisfy that and overtime you get a democracy. And so, that meant democracy was limited to a very small number of countries that have achieved that level of development. Well, even then, that wasn’t so. I mean, India has been a democracy since they gained independence to the British. Now, there are lots more countries like that, so you look around at the major third world countries, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, India these are the big fast growing developing countries. They’re all democracies but they’re all impoverished democracies. And so, it turns out there just is not a formula for how you become a democracy. There is no… I don’t think there’s a place or region where it is impossible, but culture, history, geography matter. And one of the terrible, one of the pernicious fantasies of the Bush Administration was to skip lightly over this immense facts and think, “Well, what could happen in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell? They all became democracies. So why can’t it happen in Iraq and so on.” Was not that it can’t ever happen. It’s that there are enormous impediments to causing it to happen, and so, one would have to go about this enterprise with great care, caution, expectations or frustrations so forth. So, the time will come when some Middle Eastern countries will become quasi-democratic and then they’ll become democratic and then some others will too. But it’s going to be a long time because the impediments are very big.
James Traub says Latin America seemed an unlikely candidate for democracy in he 1970s, so there's no reason the Middle East can't go the same way.