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August 31, 2006

Responding to Spencer Ackerman (or, how to cure my democracy "fetish")
Posted by Shadi Hamid

As mentioned yesterday, The New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman, in a response to my American Prospect article, questioned the wisdom of a “democracy-centric foreign policy” and, moreover, wondered aloud whether I had a democracy “fetish."

Unfortunately, Ackerman is unable to grasp the fundamental nature of the "democratic dilemma" which has afflicted us for so long in the Middle East. For starters, he profoundly misunderstands the nature of political Islam. He claims that the US "is insane to promote democratic elections in which the victors proclaim eschatological hostility to it.” But not all Islamists proclaim “eschatological hostility” to America and to think so is to fall under the illusion that Islamists are uniformly crazy, irrational fanatics. This is simply not true. If we put aside the exceptional cases of Hamas and Hezbollah, mainstream Islamist groups - while they may in some instances be reactionary and/or exclusivist - are not, as Ackerman assumes, “radical." Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, most Islamist groups – such as Turkey’s AKP, Morocco’s PJD, Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, and the Jordanian and Egyptian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood – are not armed or have military wings. Not only that, they have explicitly renounced violence and committed themselves to playing by the rules of the democratic game.

In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front is the largest opposition party in parliament and has generally had a working, if somewhat tense, relationship with the Hashemite monarchy. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has 88 seats in parliament and provides social services to millions of people. With that said, I’m not going to pretend that these Islamists (many of whom I have interviewed at length) are paragons of liberalism; they most certainly are not. Their views on women's rights, status of minorities, and implementing Islamic law leave much to be desired. They have, however, evolved in recent years, focusing less on empty religious sloganeering and more on the importance of democratic reform. For better or worse, they are well-rooted in society and represent a broad sector of the Arab electorate. Ackerman, it appears, would like to wish these groups away. In doing so, he is guilty of the same thing he accuses me of: mistaking “the world that American liberals would like to live in for the actual one that American liberals must confront.” These groups exist and, if democracy ever comes to pass in troubled Arab lands, then Islamists coming to power will be part of the package, whether Ackerman and I like it or not (as has already has happened in Turkey and Iraq, both of them allies).

It seems Ackerman only wants democracy if it produces nice, docile pro-American Arab liberals. Well, I’ve made the point over and over – pro-American Arab liberals are pretty much a figment of our imagination. For all intents and purposes, they don’t really exist (although I suppose this depends on how you define "pro-American"). As a liberal and a believer in liberalism, I wish it were otherwise but there are facts on the ground and we have to, at some point, face the Middle East as it is, not as what we would like it to be. The democrat's greatest test, after all, is supporting the democratic rights of those he disagrees with.

Building on his unsound foundation, Ackerman is essentially telling us that we shouldn’t promote democracy because Arabs hate us. He seems to forget that one of the reasons they hate us is because, well, we don’t promote democracy. Instead, we’ve been propping up the same ruthless dictators who have been oppressing and torturing their own people for decades. As long as we remain complicit in propping up these despicable regimes that betray everything our country has ever hoped to stand for, Arabs will never begin to trust us, believe us, or "like us." Their rage will continue to fester with no outlet for expression. And I think we know what can happen if the rage of millions of young men has no political outlet. For all their faults, at least the neo-cons were able to recognize as much.

So what alternative does Ackerman offer us? He suggests we advocate “the promotion not of democracy, but of human rights.” He explains that “the classic American formulation of human rights is Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.” It is unclear how you could have any of these four freedoms without also having democratically-elected governments that are accountable to their own people. How many liberal autocracies are there in the world? Try counting them on your hand. 

Furthermore, he brings up three cases – Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories – to demonstrate that promoting democracy can really mess things up. Well, this is a perfect example of cherry-picking your case studies and confusing causation with correlation. In social science, you can’t take three outliers and use them to generalize a set of patterns. Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories are explosive basket cases not because they are democratic, but because they have been consumed, in recent years, by war and/or sectarian conflict. There are perhaps few things more misleading then comparing these exceptional cases to, say, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.

One might be willing to indulge Ackerman if he was able to offer anything resembling a coherent alternative. He does no such thing. I have no idea what he wants us to do. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, for much of 2006, has been cracking down on the entire spectrum of opposition groups, liberals and Islamists alike (see here, here, and here). Baba Hosni and his goons have canceled scheduled municipal elections, terrorized Egypt's venerable judges, and increasingly used force against protestors. Ayman Nour, one of the few Arab liberals who is both courageous and popular, has been silenced, languishing in terrible conditions in prison. This cannot be reduced to some academic debate where we theorize with abandon. This is not about dispassionately analyzing the tension between ideals and interests. There is a profound human element here that shouldn't be ignored. This is about real people – more than 250 million Arabs – who continue to suffer daily under the grind of autocracy with little to hope for. We have abandoned the very Arab reformers we promised to help, using realism as our cynical justification after we realized that democracy is a bit more messy and untidy than we would have liked. There is nothing liberal about such abandonment.


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» Continuing The Foreign Policy Debate from Eteraz
Few days ago I evaluated Shadi Hamids progressive foreign policy ideas here. Spencer Ackerman, an editor at TNR has now written a response to Hamid. I wrote an email to Ackerman and said this: However, what I dont understand is why you an... [Read More]


Shadi- with all due respect I don't think you fully address Ackerman's critiques and your rebuttals are not persuasive:

1. Answer this: would you like democratic elections right now in Saudi Arabia? How about Pakistan? Are you sure?

2. Ackerman does offer an alternative- human rights promotion- which you don't address- the fallacy of your reasoning is that since all free societies are democracies all democracies must ultimately produce free societies- this is wrong and we have centuries of history where democratic regimes promoted oppression, imperialism, and disregarded for human rights that you seem to ignore- the sad fact is that democratic elections in countries without any basic respect for human rights, where religious extremism reigns (sorry, political Islam is almost all radical by any reasonable norms), and there is no civil society is a recipe for LESS U.S. SECURITY AND LESS HUMAN RIGHTS

3. Arab masses don't hate us primarily because we don't support democracy- what nonsense- they hate us for a variety of reasons- some rational and some not- and inconsistent support of democracy is nowhere near the top of the list- support of Israel, invading their countries, a perceived hostility towards Islam, etc. are much more prominent

I will be posting a more lengthy response to your piece on my website: this Sunday. I invite everyone, including you, to join in the ongoing dialogue. It's the key issue of the day, whether we like it or not. Even though I think your ideas are wrong I thank you for raising them.


I never said that I wanted to see free elections in Saudi or Pakistan take place today. In my article, I tried to make it clear that "a successful democracy promotion policy consists of more than just a statement of intent. It requires a sustained commitment, clear objectives, and detailed policy prescriptions tailored for each country’s particular needs and challenges."

Different countries must be dealt with differently. A one-size-fits-all policy (something which I have never advocated)would be unwise and counterproductive.


I sent an email to TNR, specifically to Ackerman, where I stated the following:


Let me try that again:

"However, what I don't understand is why you and Shadi believe that your positions are at odds with one another's. You are correct, that a democracy free for all would create illiberal democracies putting hardline Ikhwani types in place who would be jerks to deal with. He is correct, that sustaining tyrannies, will create the conditions for further illiberalism such that we should bet on the hope that an open society will make us safer. He represents the Jeffersonian view; you represent the Montesquieuean view. Those two views are not inconsistent."


Can I interest you in reading my response to a blog-debate involving Pakistan and Democracy, initiated by Oxblog?

Here's a question for our democracy-promoters: You are the Secretary of State, sitting in a room with the American ambassadors to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states in the region, with the option of telling them to exert pressure on the governments to which they are accredited either to a) reform themselves and make their societies more democratic or b) pressure the Arab government of Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force for Darfur and (for the oil-rich Arab states) provide some of the funding for such a force. What do you tell them to do?

Obviously these are not the only two subjects an American ambassador might want to discuss with the government of an Arab country. But for the life of me I can't understand how it is consistent either with American interests or American values for our government to emphasize the changes we want countries in this region to make in their political systems over the external conduct we ought to expect of any civilized country when genocide is occurring right over its border. How does it help anyone if Arab countries that are fine with mass murder -- as long as the victims are not Arabs and the perpetrators are -- become more democratic?

There are worse things than the absence of democracy. Judging from what he has written on this site, Shadi Hamid either does not believe this or does not think it relevant to the Arab countries of the Middle East. I don't know that he has ever taken up the implications of Darfur for the idea of spreading democracy in the region. He ought to.

Shadi- of course, you didn't say anything about free elections in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan- the facetious comment was to highlight the absurdity of democracy as the central element in advancing security and human rights when you have societies where in their current state of development the majorities favor repressive ideologies- sometimes sarcarsm doesn't come through so well electronically- sorry. But what about all of the other points that Ackerman, I, and others have mentioned- I hope you get a chance to address them in more detail- thanks a lot.


The notion that the US has propped up represive regimes in the Mid East is entirely overblown. For most of the post war period half of the Mid East were client states of the Soviet Union and the other half did not hold on to power due to US support. In fact a case can be made that US support undermined Iran and led to that nations revolution- unless you buy into the whole CIA really did the Shah in line.

However, the real issue is not who supports who but rather whether a nation of people desires to be free- even if that at times means free from the current regime. There have been successfull revolts in Algeria, Iran, and Afganistan. Thus the people are capable, at times, to fight for their own freedom.

To some degree the demonstrations in Lebanon during the cedar revolution were in favor of democracy or some manner of self determination. Many nations of the world had to endure bloody revolution and/or civil war to be free.

Not everyone is willing all the time to fight for one's own freedom. This might be a tragedy at times but it's a fact. To say the people of a given nation will not rise up and demand their freedom because some outside force props up their goverment, or something to do with Isreal, or some thing is simply an excuse for why they do not wish to demand their freedom.

The willingness to fight for one's own freedom could easily be a pre-requisite for democracy. Trying to hand it to a people not willing to fight for it is probably counter-productive. Long term of course the ONLY answer is democracy. Nothing else means self-determination and without that one is merely a slave.

"For all intensive purposes, they don’t really exist (although I suppose this depends on how you define "pro-American")."

For all intensive purposes, this phrase doesn't really exist. It's 'for all intents and purposes.'

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