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August 30, 2006

The Danger and Promise of Democracy Promotion
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I’ve been getting some interesting responses to my American Prospect essays (1,2) on the future of progressive foreign policy. In a spirited rejoinder to my piece (amusingly titled "Against Democracy"), Spencer Ackerman of The New Republic criticizes my "fetishization of democracy.” Even though I don’t think he intended this as a compliment, it does, I must say, have a nice ring to it. (My fetishes aside, Ackerman's article is useful contribution to the debate, and I hope to respond to his points after I sufficiently digest them).

Heather, also yesterday, touched on what I think are some critical questions regarding my suggested move toward a “democracy-centric” foreign policy.  Heather asks: “why has the democratization project been mostly unsuccessful in the Middle East…?”

This assumes that there was, in fact, ever, a real democratization project, not just in words but in deeds. The Bush administration’s dramatic shift in pro-democracy rhetoric was never accompanied by sustained policy changes on the ground. For a brief three or four month period in early 2005, Bush did, to his credit, put significant pressure on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and a couple other repeat offenders. But, soon enough, the realist temptation became too tempting even for the self-anointed anti-Scrowcroft of our time. Well, then, why the reversal?

This brings us back to what I consider to be the fundamental dilemma for American policymakers – they want democracy but fear its outcomes. For too long, we’ve tried to avoid the question, get around it, or, worse, pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead of supposing that there is some mythical, silent Arab liberal majority that is just waiting to unleash its electoral potential, let’s try to ground our idealism in a fact-based assessment of Arab politics. As I point out in my article, Arab liberals have virtually no grassroots support in the Middle East. And as for “pro-American Arab liberals,” those don’t even exist. Mainstream Islamists, on the other hand, are as powerful as ever (at least partly because the Bush administration’s horrendous foreign policy has made gratuitous anti-Americanism such an easy sell). So, yes, Islamist groups will come to power if there are free elections. It’s going to happen whether we like or not. And it already has in Iraq, Turkey, and the Palestinian territories (and is likely to happen in Morocco next parliamentary election).

What we need, then, is a coherent policy toward political Islam.

We must begin to engage with mainstream, non-violent Islamists (better to get to know them now before they come to power). I spent this past summer meeting and interviewing a good chunk of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership. This is a topic for another time, but suffice it to say that there is a (for now, low-intensity) internal struggle within mainstream Islamism. For example, there are competing factions within the Muslim Brotherhood: pragmatists and ideologues, reformers and conservatives, moderates and hardliners. Unfortunately, in Egypt and Jordan (and particularly in today’s hail-Nasrallah polarized environment), the ideologues grow stronger (“Hawks” and “Hamasists” now dominate America Jordan’s Islamic Action Front. This wasn’t the case two years ago). We must find ways to reverse this trend and to draw the balance of power toward those “relative moderates” who are more predisposed toward rapprochement with the US. This requires some creative policymaking (or is that an oxymoron?) by policymakers willing to acknowledge the inevitable but necessary risks of a "democracy-centric foreign policy."

Heather also asks: “What is the process by which democratic change happens?”

We can be patient, and wait for democracy to take its course and come on its own. If we take this route, then we might as well wait forever. Patience is a virtue. Inaction is not.

Democracy cannot and will not come on its own in the Middle East. They said it would come in the early 1980s, the mid-1980s, the early 1990s, so on an so forth. It never came. The perpetually under-watered flowers of the “Arab spring” failed to blossom. Instead, they died, at least partly because we, as Americans, did so little to help them grow.

Or we can take action and start using our leverage to get our Arab “friends” to get their act together (otherwise, why do they call it leverage?).


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We can be patient, and wait for democracy to take its course and come on its own. If we take this route, then we might as well wait forever. Patience is a virtue. Inaction is not.

Democracy cannot and will not come on its own in the Middle East...

This astonishes me Shadi. If you truly believe waiting for democracy to come on its own in the Middle East means "waiting forever", and that democracy "cannot and will not come on its own in the Middle East," it sure sounds like you are saying that democracy is in some sense not a natural fit in the region, and that it is a political sytem toward which there is no historical tendency or popular disposition whatsoever.

Now I don't know whether that is true or not. But if you believe that, then how on earth can you recommend making democracy promotion in the Middle East the very centerpiece of US foreign policy? What next? Should we promote olive cultivation of olives in Antarctica, and strive to bring Lutheranism to the Vatican?

Dan, there's no need to be astonished. We have to fix what we broke, right? We've supported Arab dictators quite consistently since the 1950s. All I'm saying is that we should withold such support by making foreign aid conditional (is that really asking too much?).

How do you expect democracy to flourish on its own when we're giving Mubarak, Abdullah, and the others billions of dollars a year. Of course, it won't. There is, according to numerous polls, widespread popular support for democracy (although not necessarily liberalism) in the Arab world. But what do you want them to do? These are brutal regimes that will stop at nothing to destroy their opponents. In the face of such represssion, Arabs need help - our help.

Shadi- I too am amazed by your view that democacy could never come to the Middle East without outside intervention. Am I not mistaken that Iran actually did have a relatively democratic election in the 1950s? And that we helped to overthrow the democratically elected leader? I don't think so. And since Israel is a democracy in the Middle East are you saying that it is only Arabs/muslims who are incapable of generating democracy on their own?
I hope you take seriously Ackerman's much more substantive critiques, especially, that it is human rights which should be the focus, not democracy. I pointed this out in an email to you as well and an earlier piece I wrote demonstrates clearly the historical amnesia of those who think that democracy automatically=good.



I guess I'm confused now. It sounds now to me like you do think democracy will come to the Middle East on its own: that it will happen on its own so long as we are not intervening in the region in such a way as to prevent it. So maybe this is just a semantic misunderstanding about the meaning of the expression "on its own."

Personally, I am eagerly awaiting the day when we learn how to run our cars and air conditioning on hydrogen or compost or dung, so we can withdraw support from Abdullah, Mubarak and the whole lot of them, bring our soldiers home, dismantle our bases, and leave the Middle East in peace to develop its own natural forms of government, on its own, without US tutelge or imposition.

The recent strengthening of hardline sentiment in the Arab world does not result from an absence of democracy but from recent events. The case for democracy addresses a deeper and longer-term problem.

Where you could make a real difference would be to think out (or discuss with your contacts) the practical question of how Arab states could begin the transition to more democratic forms of government. Could the post-1975 Spanish model work in places like Egypt and Jordan?

Let's face it, the US prefers to deal with strong, non-democratic leaders in the oil states. It is easier to negotiate long term deals, and there is no risk of sudden expropriation as is now happening in Latin America.

Without the support of the west the oligopolies in Saudi Arabia, Syria, etc. would collapse. Not only are they dicatorships, but the misuse of the revenue by the wealthy means that a resentful populace has to be kept in check by brutal means.

Iran's revolution was against just such a regime, it used a combination of nationalism and appeals to traditional religion to gain support. The fact that the religious faction became dominant is what can happen when pent up resentment is unleashed. The shah suppressed all political dissent, so the only organization ready to take command was the religious hierarchy.

Nothing will change until we stop propping up the regional dictatorships. All this talk of "democracy" is just political pablum for US consumption.

It is about oil, it was always about oil, and will continue to be about oil.

"And as for 'pro-American Arab liberals,' those don’t even exist."

Actually, I can think of dozens of such kindred souls, ironically enough in Iraq. This has, to me, always been the supreme irony of the and Michael Moore elements of the newer Left -- they don't seem to get that the sorts of Iraqis most disposed to their own brand of politics (the trade unionists, socialists, human rights advocates, feminists, et al) are those elements in Iraq, especially amongst the Kurds, who most championed the U.S. invasion.

They continue to flock to the nascent Iraqi military for idealistic reasons and could form the middle class basis of a civil society, if the war turns out well enough (which it might not).

"What we need, then, is a coherent policy toward political Islam."

Here, I think Shadi is being a tad bit coy because Shadi realizes that there's hardly a coherent body of thought inherent to "political Islam."

Now, I have many well-meaning friends in Iran and Iraq who will argue that the Qum revolution was necessary because only through a politicized Islam could Tehran transform into a fully modernized nation.

The problem, of course, is that the mullahs at some point realize that full modernizing means an end to their power, and they hardly become the ushering agent at that point toward change. Rather than the transformative, albeit transitory, agents, they become stalwart opponents to modernity.

If you were to sit down with Sistani in Najaf or Karbala, he likely would feign any vigorous interest in politics, and he might be honest. But he might also suggest, as my friends in Iran would say, identity theo-politics shall prove the only bridge to his country's peaceful co-existence with Iran and globalism.

Rather than find sort of accomodation with "political Islam" as some sort of platonic form, perhaps we should reach understandings with variously unique Islamist movements, picking and choosing amongst them.

This, of course, would prove poisonous to the very movements and leaders we "endorsed," at least as we have wielded our policy tools lately.

Want to delegitimize a "friend" of the U.S. in the Arab realm now? Say he's your "friend."

This, likely, won't change anytime soon. Perhaps not even for a generation or more, if Richard Clarke, Rand Beers, et al, are to be believed.

If the "progressives" can come up with some sort of policy menu different from fey Lamontism, then bully for you. I fear that even your best efforts will be compromised by the growing isolationism of your base.

But we'll see.

rdf, if "the US prefers to deal with strong, non-democratic leaders in the oil states" then why did we take out Saddam and try to install a democracy in its place?
"It is easier to negotiate long term deals, and there is no risk of sudden expropriation as is now happening in Latin America." You evidently don't know the history of the State Owned Oil Companies in the Middle East, who are all based on expropriated private oil companies. And the US doesn't negotiate long term deals on oil or anything besides trade and arms sales. Everything else is done by the private sector.
Lastly, if you think "Without the support of the west the oligopolies in Saudi Arabia, Syria, etc. would collapse" you evidently don't know very much about the US, and Western generally, relationship with Syria--or how much oil they have.

'"And as for 'pro-American Arab liberals,' those don’t even exist."'

'Actually, I can think of dozens of such kindred souls, ironically enough in Iraq. . . . especially amongst the Kurds . . .'

Kurds aren't Arabs.

You're right, Kurds aren't Arabs, although they're culturally influenced by Arabs or, as it happens, they live in Baghdad, which is one of Iraq's largest Kurdish cities simply because so many live there.

Are the Kurds in Baghdad, or Mosul, "Arab" or "Kurd" depends a lot on the time of the day you ask the question. Mostly, they're Kurdish, most often linguistically.

But not always even that.

I should have been a tad bit more careful with my wording nevertheless and said, 'A great many peoples in greater Iraq are quite liberal, and many of them live amongst the Kurds, although they're not solely Kurds. They include trade unionists, dissidents, journalists and others one would assume would appeal to similiarly minded souls in the West, but this is not always so.'

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