“Losing” on Democracy Promotion in the Middle East, an American Foreign Policy Challenge

The August 2007 by-elections in Lebanon were held to fill the parliament seats that became vacant by assassinations earlier this year. Former president Amin Gemayel, whose son Pierre was slain in March, lost to a relatively unknown candidate in the early August elections. In the New York Times (10 Aug 2007) article, “U.S. Backs Free Elections, Only to See Allies Lose” by Hassan M. Fattah, describes how Mr. Gemayel’s demise was more than like attributed to his backing by the United States rather than a split Christian vote, the Armenian vote, and alleged election rigging. In January of 2006, the U.S. backed Fatah lost to HAMAS in the Palestinian Authority elections, and in August 2007, Amin Gemayel and his March 14 movement lost to Kamil Khoury and the Free Patriotic Movement. Why do United States backed/supported political parties and candidates come up on the losing side in their countries elections? Hassan Fattah points out the paradox of American policy in the Middle East [is that] promoting democracy on the assumption it will bring countries closer to the West; almost everywhere there are free elections, the American-backed side tends to lose (2007, A4).

In both instances free elections occurred in keeping with the promotion of democracy in the region as part of President Bush’s “Greater Middle East Initiative.” However, the rhetoric of the Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative did not translate into the interest of the United States and Israel. For example, when HAMAS came to power in January of 2006, everyone was taken by surprise. The HAMAS victory did not exactly figure into the political calculations of Washington and Tel Aviv while Mr. Gemayel’s defeat also was not conducive to western interest. Now in both instances the losing parties were backed by the United States, so back to the question to be addressed, why do United States backed/supported political parties and candidates come up on the losing side in their countries elections? Now one would think that with support of the world’s most powerful democratic country’s backing, an election victory should be a slam dunk for a political party or candidate in any free election. There are many answers and approaches to addressing the previous question, but, the failure of U.S. backed candidates stems from the fact that American interest are perceived as synonymous with Israel’s, the tumultuous administration of democracy in Iraq which has put PM Maliki between a rock and a hard place, and the interest driven tendency to support candidates, factions, and regimes with shoddy human rights records rather than institutions of governance.

America policy = Israeli policy

Traditionally, the United States unwavering support of Israel has always been source of contention for American foreign policy in the region. In part, regional analysts say, candidates are tainted by the baggage of American foreign policy from its backing of Israel to the violence in Iraq. Every president since 1947 has felt a special commitment to Israel’s security that has not been matched by a comparable commitment to any other state in the region. Many Arabs perceive the United States media and policy-makers as dominated by the Zionist lobby. United States policy in the region is viewed as biased through the sanctioning acts of Israeli aggression, unwavering support and funding for Israeli policy, and a general dehumanization and indifference toward the plight of the Palestinian people. The Bush administration has largely adopted a laissez faire approach to the Middle East peace process and in the course allowed Israel’s continued suppression of the Palestinian resistance. The United States’ long standing refusal to allow consideration for the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s agenda and, on balance, a biased sponsorship for the Israeli state, continues to send a destructive message to the neighboring Arab nations.

The Administration of Democracy in Iraq

The most formidable challenge for the United States has been the post war/Saddam processes of the Iraqis building a functional central government that can emanate authority from Baghdad. Although sectarianism pervades much of the government’s disarray, the presence of occupation forces and the strong “colonial” influence of the United States have not been conducive to Iraqi political cohesion. The involvement of an external power, especially the United States, for its invasion of Iraq and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib has complicated an already exceedingly difficult and often volatile situation. The difficulties involved in kick-starting the post-war process of political reconstruction in Iraq have demonstrated this point amply. The fact that Washington is the dominant force behind discussions over the future shape of the country’s political and constitutional framework means that groups whose support base is primarily contingent on their opposition to superpower machinations may find the cost of participation too high to bear. Some groups, such as Muqtada Al-Sadr and his supporters, realize they can generate greater political capital by remaining outside the U.S.-sponsored Governing Council and the Interim Government than they can from being on the inside. The perception that Washington is dictating the agenda and delimiting the sovereignty of the Interim Government has, for many Arabs, effectively discredited the process of implementing a liberal, pluralist political system in Iraq.

Maliki between a Rock and a Hard Place

Maliki’s strong backing by the United States has put him between a rock and a really hard place. The United States support of Maliki has caused other coalition groups in his government to become disaffected from him as Prime Minister while his nexus with Iran has made his Arab neighbors skeptical of buttressing his government in order to contribute to stability of the country and the region. A part of the above scenario is partly responsible for the disintegration of his government and the strong criticism for which has become a target. Some American officials privately describe him as a paranoid failure, while his only recent success has been a meeting… with senior Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders. It yielded little more than promises of future compromise. And yet, Mr. Maliki remains. That appears to be, in part, because neither the Americans nor the Iraqis can agree on who is supposed to lead. In the absence of a strong alternative to Mr. Maliki, both camps have come to rely on a game of criticize and run. The Americans bash him, and then say it is up to the Iraqis to decide what to do. The Iraqis call him a sectarian incompetent, and then say they are waiting for the Americans to stop acting as his patron. With sectarian concerns aside, the pervasive problem seems to be the perceived control and influence that Washington exerts upon the office of the Prime Minister.

In terms of replacing the PM, A few Iraqi politicians have already begun to look elsewhere. Shatha al-Musawi, a Shiite lawmaker close with aides to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said…that she had approached several people outside the known officials and asked them to campaign as potential prime ministers. All refused, she said, declining to name them. “They don’t want to be dirtied,” she said. “Being dirtied” more that likely meant being subject the American political hegemony and being perceived as an actor of Washington’s interest as opposed to Iraq’s.

Washington’s Interest At The Expense Of Good Governance

For decades the United States primary security interest in the Gulf region has been the safe passage of petroleum energy resources to the West and the stability and security of those countries that produce them. Washington, in promoting its interest in the region, has unconditionally backed the state of Israel and certain Sunni Arab states in the region. For years

America has tolerated non-democratic, unreforming Middle Eastern allies, trading liberty for

stability. It was often more convenient to befriend autocrats than condemn them for their

oppressive policies. America’s new-found enlightenment may be undermined by a record of

defaulting to the higher politics of oil, military basing rights, and alliances of convenience. The

application of double standards, supporting friendly Arab nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and

Tunisia, while censuring others for similar infringements of political freedom, civil liberties and

human rights, undermines U.S. standing as the champion of universal freedom.

The current war on terrorism has further fueled the argument as the United States

indulges Pakistan (self-appointed military government) and Uzbekistan (repressive authoritarian

government) as convenient neighbors in the Afghanistan war. Treatment of prisoners in Iraq,
Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, justified or not, has tarnished America’s standing as a

defender of human rights. Finally, the issue of favoritism toward Israel is central to the Arab

states’ claim of an uneven United States policy in the region. Supporting the leaders of regimes, with questionable and shoddy human rights records, makes the promotion of freedom and democracy appear hypocritical and incongruent with the American ideal of it. The citizens that live under authoritarian military, monarchial, and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East clearly see the incongruence between the American rhetoric of freedom, democracy, and their governments’ actions towards them, for example, in the suppression of political opposition and freedom of the press.

Choosing Sides, Factions, and Candidates As Opposed to Supporting Institutions

The concept of divide and conquer and promoting one group over another was a key tenant of colonial governance and imperial rule for European countries that had established colonies in Africa and Asia in the 19th century. The concept of choosing sides and promoting one group over another for the sake of the interest of the colonial power laid the template for disunity, mistrust between ethnic groups, and sectarian strife after former colonies had gained independence from their European patrons. The colonial paradigm of divide and conquer, or moreover, the backing and supporting of particular groups, factions, and candidates has inevitably caused the recipients of American patronage to not fare so well. In part…, candidates are tainted by the baggage of American foreign policy from its backing of Israel to the violence in Iraq. But more important…, American support is often applied to one faction instead of to institutions, causing further division rather than bringing stability (Fattah 2007, A4).

“The Americans think that supporting democracy should create positive reactions,” said Nicola Nassif, a columnist with the left-leaning Lebanese daily Al Akhbar. “No one can be against democracy, sovereignty, independence and freedom. But not if it upsets the internal power balance, not if it empowers one party against the other, especially in a country where supporting one group can lead to violence and even civil wars.” Lebanon’s Christians are generally more sympathetic to the United States than are other Arabs. But the tension between Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s American-backed faction against an Iranian-backed one was palpable in…the election. And despite an expected sympathy vote, Mr. Gemayel was running to fill the seat vacated by the assassination of his son Pierre, and the former president’s name recognition. Lebanese Christians in the mountainous Metn region, along with a smattering of Shiites and others who live there, voted for the more unlikely team: one allied to Hezbollah, seemingly sympathetic to Iran and Syria, and most of all, in opposition to America.

Considerations for Further Democratic Development

The promotion of democracy in the Middle East does present challenges to American policy in the region especially in the aftermath of the Iraq war and other events of concern in the Persian Gulf. To be considered are the following concerning democracy development in the in the region: 1.) the outside imposition of a western template for democracy in the region will prove non-conducive for democratic development in the Middle East. Turki al-Rasheed, a Saudi reformer for democracy, states that “Voters invariably frown on strength coming from abroad; the only legitimate sources of strength any Arab politician can turn to are based on either tribal power or religious ties.” Any American or Westerner who has visited the Middle East in the last three years has heard Arabs protest time and again that “democracy cannot be imposed from the outside.” Democratic development in the Arab world will ultimately be the result of internal dynamics, pressures, and contradictions.

2.) Secularism has lost currency in the politics of the region. For years, the United States has depended upon secular pro-western regimes to promote its interest in the region, for example, the Shah of Iran, and even the late Saddam Hussein. Secularism lost currency, if it really ever had any, due to the fact that it simply was viewed as a western construction by a majority Muslims that put them at social and cultural odds with the westernized elites that formed the upper strata of certain post-colonial Middle East societies.

3.) Islam has become a political force to be reckoned with and will continue to pervade the politics of the region, as a matter of fact; it is the new political currency in the greater region. The AKP’s decisive victory in Turkey, which for the record is not an Arab country, underscores this point; the late 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections, in which the Muslim brotherhood fared well against Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, is exemplary of the future impact of Islam in the political spheres of the Middle East, and a harbinger for secular, authoritarian, and undemocratic regimes that have been long resistant to change or reform.

End Notes

1. Hassan M. Fattah, “U.S. Backs Free Elections, Only to See Allies Lose” New York Times, nytimes.com, (10 August 2007), p A4, here

2. John C. Buss, Democratization as a United States Strategy for Middles East Security USAWC Strategy Research Project (18 Mar 2005), 12,  . here

3. Daniel Neep, Dilemmas of Democratization in the Middle East: The Forward Strategy of Freedom, Middle East Policy Council, Vol. XI, Fall 2004, No.3 .here

4. Damien Cave, “Iraqi Premier Stirs Discontent, Yet Hangs On,” New York Times, nytimes.com, (18 Aug2007), here

5. Ibid.

6. Buss, 11.

7. Fattah, A4.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Steven A. Cook, U.S. Democracy Promotion in the Middle East: Is it Working, Council on Foreign Relations, Op Ed (16 Aug 2005), . here