A Better Idea

Promote democracy and prevent terrorism–but don’t conflate the two.
As an editorial in The Wall Street Journal recently asked: “Anyone out there have a better idea” than the Bush administration’s policy of high-profile democracy promotion in the Arab and Muslim worlds as a means to fight terrorism? Well, yes, there is one. That better idea consists of separating the struggle against radical Islamism from promoting democracy in the Middle East, focusing on the first struggle, and dramatically changing our tone and tactics on the democracy promotion front, at least for now.

The essential problem with the administration’s approach is that it conflates two issues that are separate. The first has to do with violent, antimodern radical Islamism (on display both in the reaction to the Danish cartoons and in the mosque bombing in Samarra); the second concerns the dysfunctionality of political and social institutions in much of the Arab world.

It is, of course, the administration’s thesis that the latter condition causes the former. It is also its contention that U.S. Cold War policies of support for Arab “friendly tyrants” are mainly to blame for Arab authoritarianism. Thus did the president say in November 2003–since repeated several times by Condoleezza Rice–that we sacrificed freedom for stability in the Middle East for 60 years, and got neither. It follows from this view that if the United States stops supporting authoritarian regimes and instead does all it prudently can to bring about democratic ones, our terrorist problem will be dramatically reduced if not altogether solved.

Authoritarian political cultures do function as enablers of radical Islamism, but the essential cause of the latter–today as before, in dozens of historical cases concerning violent millenarian movements–is the difficulty that some societies and individuals have in coming to terms with social change. That is why rapid modernization is likely to produce more short-term radicalism, not less. Muslims in democratic Europe are as much a part of this problem as those in the Middle East. This is not a trivial point; it is a central one that directly challenges a key tenet of the administration’s view.

What the administration sees as one problem ought to be seen as two. Radical Islamism needs to be dealt with separately from democracy promotion. This involves doing everything we can to ensure the political success of the governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. It also involves killing, capturing or otherwise neutralizing hard-core terrorists in many parts of the world, and keeping dangerous materials out of their hands, in what will look less like a war than like police and intelligence operations.



But the threat above all lies on the level of ideas. Just as it proved possible to stigmatize and eventually eliminate slavery from mainstream global norms without having first to wait for the mass advent of liberal democracy, it should be possible to effectively stigmatize jihadi terrorism without having first to midwife democracies from Morocco to Bangladesh. The United States and its Western allies should be helping genuine, traditional and pious Muslims to reassert their dominance over a beautiful and capacious religious civilization in the face of a well-financed assault by extremist thugs. (This, of course, is not a new idea, but we have barely begun to take its implementation seriously.) We should also be vigorously supporting the Danes and genuine European liberals when they are attacked by illiberal and violent Islamists.
Promoting liberal and democratic institutions in the Middle East should be decoupled from this fight, since it is a much more long-term project–and a project in need of significant redesign. The Bush administration has not admitted to itself the degree to which it has been knocked off its own timetable by the chaotic situation in Iraq. Its Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative to promote democracy in the Middle East through high-profile rhetorical support for democracy and funding for local democratic organizations was originally conceived as a way of capitalizing on the momentum gained from a successful Iraqi transition to democracy. But there is no such momentum right now, only backlash. Many would-be democratic opponents of regimes in places like Syria or Iran now say they’d prefer the status quo to the situation the Iraqis are in. This does not paint a rosy picture for the Bush administration’s new initiative to promote democratic regime change in Iran; it will be hard to find any takers for the $75 million in new funding for this purpose.

To put it mildly, the Iraq war has not increased the prestige of the U.S. and American ideas like liberal democracy in the Middle East. The U.S. does not have abundant moral authority for promoting the rule of law, since the first thing people in the region associate with America today is prisoner abuse at Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib. Many Americans have explained these events to themselves by saying that the abuse was an aberration that has been hyped by enemies of the U.S., and that in any event such things just happen during wartime. Perhaps; but the fact remains that Guantanamo is still open, and nobody except for a couple of lowly enlisted soldiers have been prosecuted for prisoner abuse by the Bush administration. Fair or not, American insistence on rule of law and human rights looks simply hypocritical.

The Bush administration has indeed opened up new space for debate and political participation in the Arab and Muslim worlds. But recent elections in Iran, Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq have either brought to power or increased the prestige of profoundly illiberal groups like Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; even our putative friends in the Shiite alliance that did well in last December’s Iraqi elections have been busy institutionalizing an intolerant Islamist order in the parts of Iraq they control.

Administration principals speak of creating public space for dissent and debate lest it all be driven into the mosque, with the risk that this “might” bring illiberal groups into power. The tide of public opinion today is not running in favor of pro-Western secular liberals, however, but rather the Islamists. In many Arab countries this means that premature democratic elections will most definitely and predictably bring the mosque into the public square while driving out all other forms of expression. The tolerant are making democratic way for the intolerant, who in turn are very likely to block the possibility of any reverse flow of authority. How such dynamics promote liberal democracy in the longer run is hard to see. More likely, U.S. policies that foster pro-Islamist outcomes will delay political liberalization, help the wrong parties in the great debates ongoing in Muslim societies and, quite possibly therefore, make our terrorist problem worse.



We need to change tactics in the way we go about supporting Middle Eastern democracy. The administration’s highly visible embrace of democracy promotion as a component of its national security strategy (as outlined in last week’s official document on the subject), and its telegraphing ahead of time of intentions to bring about regime change in places like Iran, only hurt the cause of real democrats in the region. The effort to push countries toward early national elections, given the rising Islamist tide today, will invariably force us into the appearance of further hypocrisy when they produce results we don’t like. There are many other democratic institutions we can help foster, such as local elections or non-extremist civil society groups. Moves afoot in Congress to channel democracy support through the State Department are well-intentioned but counterproductive: The last thing that democracy activists need right now is more American fingerprints on outside funding. Private foundations and groups with some distance from the administration like the NED or private NGOs will have better luck disbursing money than U.S. agencies. There are many quiet ways we can and should support democratic groups in the region, by working, for example, with other countries that have recently undergone democratic transitions that may have greater credibility than Washington.
In a weird twist, despite its emphasis on democracy in Iraq, the administration would have let funding for long-term democracy promotion through groups like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute lapse but for a last minute congressional earmark. We are pushing too hard in the wrong places, and not hard enough in the one place where it matters most.

We should not even think about wanting to roll back recent election results; rather, the emphasis should be on pressuring newly empowered groups to govern responsibly. Islamist parties in Egypt and Palestine have gained popularity in large measure not because of their foreign policy views, but because of their stress on domestic social welfare issues like education, health, and jobs, and their stand against corruption. Fine, let them deliver; and if they don’t or turn out to be corrupt themselves, they will face vulnerabilities of their own not far down the road.

Democracy promotion should remain an integral part of American foreign policy, but it should not be seen as a principal means of fighting terrorism. We should stigmatize and fight radical Islamism as if the social and political dysfunction of the Arab world did not exist, and we should shrewdly, quietly, patiently and with as many allies as possible promote the amelioration of that dysfunction as if the terrorist problem did not exist. It is when we mix these two issues together that we muddle our understanding of both, with the result that we neither defeat terrorism nor promote democracy but rather the reverse.

Mr. Fukuyama is professor at Johns Hopkins and author of “America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy,” published this month by Yale. Mr. Garfinkle is editor of the American Interest.