Promoting Democracy in the Middle East– Desirable or Not?

The debate over the efficacy and desirability of promoting democracy and "freedom" in the Middle East rages on.  The cover graphic and lead story of the February 4th-10th 2006 edition of The Economist asserts that the Bush administration’s unbridled advocacy for the establishment of democratic political institutions in the Middle East is "the one thing Bush got right".  In contrast, in an article in the September/October 2005 edition of Foreign Affairs, Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?, F.Gregory Gause III asserts precisely the opposite position.

Whereas The Economist article takes a "big picture" approach to why democracy is a good thing for the Middle East, the article in Foreign Affairs takes a pragmatic approach and argues that the stated goals of the U.S.– improved U.S. security– will not be well-served or enhanced by promoting democracy in the Middle East.

From The Economist:

"Mr. Bush has made many big mistakes in the Middle East.  They range from inept planning and follow-through in Iraq to supine neglect of Palestine.  But his democratisation policy is not one of them.  In fact, it may be the the one big thing that this president has got right in the region. . .. Holding elections is not a panacea.  Democracy cannot at a stroke heal national conflicts, create civic institutions or modernise traditional societies.  But whatever else people think of Mr. Bush, on this one thing– the universal potential and appeal of the democratic idea– he is on the side of history."

From Foreign Affairs:

"The Bush administration contends that the push for democracy in the Muslim world will improve U.S. security.  But this premise is faulty: there is no evidence that democracy reduces terrorism.  Indeed, a democratic Middle East would probably result in Islamist governments unwilling to cooperate with Washington. …The problem with promoting democracy in the Arab world is not that Arabs do not like democracy; it is that Washington probably would not like the governments Arab democracy would produce.  Assuming that democratic Arab governments would better represent the opinions of their people than do the current Arab regimes, democratization of the Arab world should produce more anti-U.S. foreign policies."

I remember studying this phenomenon in my undergraduate days at Harvard with Professor Samuel P. Huntington, who was also my thesis advisor.  At the time, his book "Political Order in Changing Societies" was the ruling treatise on this subject.  While Professor Hutington has added a great deal to the body of academic work on this subject over the past 25 years, most recently with his work on the clash of civilizations in a multi-polar world, the basic premise that he developed in "Political Order in Changing Societies" still holds.  Countries with weak political infrastructures and a history of weak or suppressed oppositions– particularly those with histories of strong authoritarian/dictatorial regimes (such as in South America) — ususally only transition to democracy in a very messy way and over a long period of time.

The Bush administration’s attempt to accelerate the pace of socio-political change in the Middle East without letting the cake bake sufficiently is clearly profoundly destabilizing for individual countries and carries ominous implications for regional instability.  Over the short term, these power transitions empower precisely the fundamentalist groups that are most inimical to the interest to the United States.

Why?  Because fanatical religious organizations also tend to have strong organizational infrastructures– through the strength of the mosques, the uniform curriculum of the madrassas, and, in the case of an organization like Hamas, the proven ability to deliver social services to citizens at a local level in the face of corrupt ruling elites.   

From the Foreign Affairs article–

"The trend is clear: Islamists of various hues score well in free elections.  In countries where a governing party dominates or where the king opposes political Islam, Islamists run second and form the opposition.  Only in Morocco, where more secular, leftists parties have a long history and an established presence, and in Lebanon, where the Christian-Muslim dynamic determines electoral politics, did organized non-Islamist political blocs, independent of the government, compete with Islamist forces.  The pattern does not look like it is about to change.  … The more democratic the Arab world gets, the more likely it is that Islamists will come to power.  Even if those Islamists come to accept the rules of democracy and reject political violence, they are unlikely to support U.S. foreign policy goals in the region."

The Economist hedges its wholesale endorsement of notional democracy by stating that  "in time, the realists may be proved right.  An Arab country might one day vote in an al-Qaeda government and make war on America.  But where is their evidence?  Having attempted an insurrection in Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda is growing less popular there.  Iraq under the dictator was neither at peace nor friendly to the West; the present haggling between elected parties may be the only realistic way to bind a fissiparous country together."

I find the following view from Foreign Affairs more convincing:

"Washington must realize that its democratization policy will lead to Islamist domination of Arab politics.  It is not only the focus on elections that is troubling in the administration’s democracy initiative in the Arab world.  Also problematic is the unjustified confidence that Washington has in its ability to predict, and even direct, the course of politics in other countries."

I have no problem with the U.S. trying to influence other countries to pursue policies that benefit the U.S.  I do have a problem with this country not doing so efffectively, especially when the history of U.S. foreign policy suggests, time and again, that we fail to support the right oppositions and  are naive if not culturally insensitive in our approaches.  I also don’t think we can afford to see the realists proven right "in time"–  we need to get it right, now!

So what should be done instead?  Gause suggests the following tactics–

"The United States must focus on pushing Arab governments to make political space for liberal, secular, leftist, nationalist, and other non-Islamist parties to set down roots and mobilize voters.  Washington should support those groups that are more likely to accept U.S. foreign policy and emulate U.S. political values.  The most effective way to demonstrate that support is to openly pressure Arab regimes when they obstruct the political activity of more liberal groups . . . But Washington will also need to drop its focus on prompt elections in Arab countries where no strong, organized alternative to Islamist parties exists– even at the risk of disappointing Arab liberals by being more cautious about their electoral prospects than they are."

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