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Debate: "Democracy Is about More Than Elections"
President George W. Bush has made democratization a central focus of his administration’s Middle East policy. He declared during his second-term inauguration: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of en
Tuesday, July 25,2006 00:00
by Middle East Quarterly

President George W. Bush has made democratization a central focus of his administration’s Middle East policy. He declared during his second-term inauguration: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."[1] But how successful has this effort, known as the Bush doctrine, been? Elections in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority favored Islamists, many of whom embrace violence and consider liberal democracy anathema. Does the instability inherent in democratization undercut U.S. and European security? Is the U.S. government pushing democracy too quickly? Or not fast enough? On March 9, 2006, Patrick Clawson, senior editor at the Middle East Quarterly and deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, convened a roundtable to discuss U.S. democratization efforts in the Middle East. Joining him were Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny,[2] Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, Michael Rubin, also a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly, and Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

How Hard Should the U.S. Push Democracy?

Middle East Quarterly: Joshua Muravchik, in Exporting Democracy, you argued that democracy promotion should be a central theme, if not the central theme, of U.S. foreign policy. What is the advantage of democracy promotion given the risks that open elections might empower Islamist radicals in Middle East countries?

Joshua Muravchik: Democracies are more peaceful than non-democracies; they are friendlier to the United States than non-democracies. Democracy also encourages fulfillment of other important goals, such as development, good government, human rights, and so on. Passage to democracy in the Middle East may be fraught with danger. The Middle East has been a terribly problematic region for a long period of time. It is a region rife with extremism, fanaticism, violence, and hatred toward the United States and the West. But even though democratization may be a perilous passage, democratization offers long-term hope that the Middle East will become both more civilized and safer to live in.

MEQ: Daniel Pipes, you have been skeptical that democratization is worth the trouble that it causes us. Why do you feel that democratization is a misguided use of resources, time, and effort?

Daniel Pipes: I agree with the democratization process in principle as Josh delineated it. I applauded[3] the president’s November 2003 speech.[4] Stability as an end in itself is a mistake. My problem is not with the principle of bringing democracy but rather the implementation. Democratization is a long, difficult process. The British required six centuries between the Magna Carta and the Reform Bill. Democratization in the United States took decades. More recently, it took Turkey, Taiwan, Chile, and Mexico decades. U.S. policy is pushing the Middle East to democracy too quickly in a spirit of "get it done yesterday." It would be better if elections in Iraq took place twenty-two years, not twenty-two months after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, as was the case.

MEQ: Is the U.S. government pushing the governments of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia too quickly towards democracy?

Pipes: The Saudi model, where democratization begins at a low level, with municipal councils, is a good one. It gives the Saudis ample time to get to learn the ways of democracy and to build the institutions of civil society. Begin with voting for dogcatcher, not for prime minister.

Are Elections Enough?

MEQ: Rob, you argue that the State Department should push hard on governments such as that of Hosni Mubarak, yet you have been quite discontent with the U.S. willingness to begin engagement with the newly-elected Hamas-led government in the West Bank and Gaza.

Robert Satloff: So far, the conversation has focused on elections as the principal element of democracy. I agree with much of what Daniel and Josh have said about the importance of pursuing democracy as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. Daniel’s critique of the haste with which we are promoting elections has merit. But I would not only focus on the speed with which we promote elections as the principal element in judging our democracy project. Democracy is about much more than just elections. It includes all the elements of constitutional life from rule of law to minority rights to good governance. The latter especially needs special exploration.

U.S. policymakers should also examine the ground rules that govern elections. The elections in Iraq, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza were anarchic. They were "Come as you are." If you come with a rocket propelled grenade or a machine gun, that’s fine! But that is not the way democracy should function. In almost all advanced, and even not-so-advanced, democracies, there are ground rules for participation in elections. We cannot sacrifice these important elements of the electoral process in our haste to get elections going. It is not only speed but also the context of elections that is important.

Lastly, the U.S. government should not be indifferent to outcomes. The State Department should not focus only on the ground rules but not be concerned with whom the participants are and what the outcomes are likely to be. The U.S. government should have a strong interest in both defining the rules and in supporting those elements of society that share our basic outlook.

Pipes: Would you have excluded Hamas from the Palestinian elections?

Satloff: The issue is not exclusion but rather definition of ground rules. The White House should have insisted on the implementation of the requirements that are in the Oslo accords. After all, it was the Oslo accords that created the body for which the elections were held. The Oslo accords mandated that parties and candidates cannot participate if they advocate violence, racism, or non-peaceful means to achieve political aims. If a party wants to stipulate that it has given up that agenda, that’s fine. But Washington did not even try. Alternatively, U.S. policymakers could have tied Hamas participation to the same demands Washington is applying to the Hamas-led government today—recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements. It is absurd that U.S. policymakers did not make Hamas’s participation in the 2005 political process conditional upon accepting the same requirements demanded of the Palestine Liberation Organization for the previous quarter century.

MEQ: If I can shift the grounds to Iraq, where Michael Rubin has much experience, I’m interested in your comments on a couple of themes brought up here about the appropriateness of foreign actors promoting one group versus another. Should the United States actively promote liberals in Iraq, and if we are going to be involved in that game, is it appropriate for the United States to say it wants to promote those who support its fundamental values?

Michael Rubin: I would adopt the formulation of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian scholar. He speaks of a dichotomy between autocrats and theocrats. The autocrats control media; the theocrats control the mosques. Autocrats—rulers such as Mubarak or Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali—point to the theocratic alternative as reason for Washington to support their autocratic regimes. U.S. diplomats should break out of that trap by doing more to lay the groundwork to support the liberals who fall in between the two extremes but are weak.

Specifically with regard to Iraq, the State Department’s insistence on maintaining an even playing field undercut liberals, for the arena included not only the United States and the Iraqis but also a number of anti-liberal interests who had no such qualms about evenhandedness. The Iranians promoted whom they wanted to win. What looks good on paper in a Washington boardroom does not always reflect reality. The U.S. government needs strategies not only to promote the outcomes it desires but also to shut down those opponents working to undermine U.S. interests and goals. Washington should not be embarrassed about trying to get the best outcome for U.S. allies and interests.

Democratization: Go Fast or Slow?

MEQ: Josh, what do you think about the go-slow approach and the idea that elections should be at the end of the democratization process instead of the beginning?

Muravchik: I am of two minds about the go-slow approach. If it can be done, fine. If there can be a five- or ten-year plan with a clear sequence leading to democracy, great. I do not know anyone in the Middle East who would not be happy with a ten-year plan to achieve democracy. But I am hard pressed to think of any place where that has actually happened. Freedom House has published a study in the last year called "How Democracy Is Won"[5] that looked at transformations. They found some sixty-seven countries that had been classified as "not free" and had some significant political change. They excluded any change too recent or in countries that are too small. If there was a political transformation, they looked at its outcome. They found that nonviolence correlated highly with a good outcome. When oppositions engage in violence, transitions end badly. One factor that surprised me was that the length of time of transition had no correlation with success; intuitively, this did not seem right.

The point that elections themselves do not make a democracy is true. Elections are a big part of democracy but far from being the whole ball of wax. Still, elections themselves have an educational and socializing effect. We have seen this in Iraq with the Sunnis who boycotted the first election and then found that their decision put them in a bad position. They said, "We’d better not do this again," and then turned out in large numbers in the next election.

Part of the democratization strategy is that as repeated elections breed accountability, people learn how to make wise choices and to carry on politics in a civilized way.

Pipes: The Magna Carta signatories did not realize a Reform Bill would eventually ensue; I do not think a plan is necessary. We should nudge the leadership; we should help the democratic forces and, in an unplanned way, press countries to democratize, as we did with Korea and Taiwan. Another example is the Helsinki Accords of 1975 that, unbeknownst to us, began the process that culminated in the democratization in eastern Europe. I do not see a time factor as necessary. But when you have a region such as the Middle East, which is so remote and unfamiliar to the counter-intuitive premises of democracy, it will take a great deal of time for democracy to succeed.

Must the United States Be Neutral?

MEQ: What about the idea that the United States should put its thumb on the scale to favor certain groups?

Muravchik: The U.S. government should not weigh in in the midst of an election campaign. That is bound to backfire. We had some positive experience in Europe in the 1940s where we did some things publicly, but most of our action was covert. Taking similar action today is not possible. There is much more scrutiny of covert action. Journalists like to expose these things. When they get exposed, they backfire. But outside election campaigns, the single most important thing that we can do is to find ways to support genuine democrats and liberals. This means not only support of political parties but also of NGOs, publications, and so forth.

Rubin: It is important to remember that even flawed elections can be a catalyst for democratization. In some of the peripheral areas in the Middle East, in eastern Europe, in the Caucasus, and in the former Soviet Union, it took the realization that the ruling parties had tried to throw the election to really mobilize the opposition. In Egypt, Mubarak pulled out all stops to marginalize his secular opponent Ayman Nour. Mubarak won handily, but now Nour’s is a household name. In the next round of elections, Nour—if he is released from prison—will start from a higher base.

Satloff: Don’t we degrade the term democracy when we bless election processes in which a terrorist group is as legitimate a participant as other political parties? In Lebanon, for example, where we wanted to keep the momentum of the Cedar Revolution going, we acquiesced to reversing the demand to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which would have required Hezbollah’s disarmament. Instead, we blessed a flawed process in which this terrorist organization participates and gets elected. We said, fine, this is democracy. We may not deal with the minister from Hezbollah, now, but the reality is we blessed the legitimacy of a terrorist group.

Rubin: You’re right. The problem is we should not be blessing a lot of things. When Ambassador [Francis] Ricciardone got on Egyptian television and blessed the Egyptian elections, as flawed as they were, it undercut democratization. What we need to do is begin to alter the diplomatic convention in which we pay heed to the ruling party. We should point out specific election flaws so that our democratization policy retains credibility. We should create benchmarks for improvement. Likewise in the case of Lebanon, as flawed as that process was in which President Emile Lahoud received a third term, what was worse was when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Beirut and, for the sake of diplomatic convention, met with Lahoud, even though his third term was by most accounts illegal.

The Stability Debate

Satloff: There are several historians around the table. So let me add a word about the rhetoric of the administration, which I do applaud for changing how Middle Easterners think about these issues. The past six decades were not all bad. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. The communists never took over the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict was successfully contained so that by the end of the twentieth century it had become a local conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and not, as was feared for decades, the source of regional conflagration. Those successes were due to dealing with authoritarian leaders, among other things. Not everything that occurred in the last half of the twentieth century is necessarily appropriate for the world today, but I do have a historian’s disagreement with the president’s characterization that the last sixty years of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East was fundamentally mistaken.

Pipes: Stability has value.

Muravchik: Rob, saying that sixty years was not so bad is an interesting point that sounds sensible, and I would not automatically disagree with it. But it sounds a little like [Francis] Fukuyama’s current argument over how we should see where we find ourselves today.[6] Fukuyama says we overreacted badly to 9-11. He would say that 3,000 deaths were terrible, and that it was right to go after bin Laden, but that 9-11 was not something that should have propelled us into a fourth world war. The contrary view says that 9-11 was a cardinal moment in a larger trend of growing jihadism. Those who disagree with Fukyama would point to the fact that terrorists are growing more numerous, better trained, and better able to kill in large numbers. Countering this requires a big and long-term reaction on our part.

Satloff: I do not accept the Fukuyama thesis. I was making a simpler point: a different approach in the Middle East post 9-11 does not require rejection of the benefits of previous policies. Different eras, different policies. There is no reason to say retrospectively that we were mistaken all those years when, in fact, the top priority for the United States in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was different than it is today.

Do Elections Moderate Islamists?

MEQ: There has been some discussion about participation in elections by radical Islamists. I was intrigued by the Washington Post editorial of March 5, 2006, about the case for democracy. It says that "radical Islamism and others hostile to Western interests cannot be wished away …"

Satloff: But they can be killed.

MEQ: "… Over time, participation in elections is more likely than exclusion and suppression to moderate this political aim." Do you agree that elections will moderate Islamists?

Muravchik: There is no contradiction between wanting to kill radical Islamists and letting them participate in elections.

MEQ: Have elections and ruling moderated Islamists in Iran and Iraq?

Rubin: Elections are not going to moderate radical Islamists. If they derive legitimacy from God rather than from the people, there will be no inclination to moderate. Too often Europeans and Americans will mirror image their analysis of places like Iran in discussions of reformers versus hard-liners. But the ideology of the people at the top—men such as Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamene‘i—does not moderate.

Daniel brought up a good point at a recent Middle East Forum event when he noted that twenty-five years ago, everyone accepted the inevitability of modernization; the idea of reversion to theocracy was seen as inconceivable, yet it happened. It is dangerous to assume that power will moderate radicals. This is why it is necessary to hold radicals and Islamists in power accountable. We cannot accept a one-man, one-vote, one-time-system. Rather than just let a thousand flowers bloom, as the State Department Iraq mantra now has it, U.S. policy should create a template upon which real, independent, and liberal civil society can bloom.

Policymakers must also overcome their idea that any U.S. support to Arab liberals would discredit them. This is condescending. Let the liberals decide to accept or decline U.S. support and then judge their efforts.

Muravchik: It may not matter whether elections moderate the radical Islamists or anyone else. The question is whether elections moderate the electorate. Islamists may not change, but if they cannot deliver, then voters may choose differently.

Pipes: But it was a long, extensive run with the Soviet Union until the population sent a signal that it was not getting what it wanted. What the Washington Post editorial points to is the "pothole theory" of democracy, the idea that by having to run schools, fix streets and the like, Islamists will moderate. Michael puts it in terms of God; I put it in terms of totalitarian regimes. It is possible for totalitarian regimes to run a system and still maintain their utopian goals. Mussolini made the trains run, Stalin plowed the snow, Hitler built the Autobahn, and the Iranians run women’s sports competitions. That does not mean they abandon their purposes.

Turkey as a Model

MEQ: Doesn’t the Turkish experience suggest the opposite? Didn’t two decades of allowing Islamist participation in elections encourage their moderation?

Pipes. In a sense, they did moderate. The military forced Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan out in 1997 because of his radical edge. His lieutenant, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, learned from this experience and approached politics more softly and has done spectacularly well. But we are still very much in the middle of that story. Many signs suggest that while Erdoğan is very competent at governing, he is also clever in advancing an Islamist agenda. The Turkish experience does inspire optimism.

Satloff: Turkey can be seen in the framework of Hamas. Many commentators say that despite Hamas’s election, the group does not really reflect the will of the Palestinian people. The Turkish case is clearer because the ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] got 34 percent of the vote in contrast to the 45 percent that Hamas won. But, because of the Turkish system’s 10-percent threshold, the AKP victory translated into more than two-thirds of the seats in the parliament—a constitution-amending majority. I do not see Western officials counseling intervention to save secular parties from the AKP leadership.

Pipes: The AKP party is not engaged in terrorism.

Satloff: Fair enough. There are a lot differences. Another is the role of the army as the guarantor of fundamental principles in Turkey. Nevertheless, Islamist parties in various countries can take advantage of election systems unique to those countries to amplify their weight beyond their actual numbers.

Rubin: Actually, the AKP shows how dangerous Islamists can be. Under it, there is a wholesale assault on the system from within. When Erdoğan was mayor of Istanbul, he quipped, "Democracy is like a street car; you ride it as far as you need, and then you get off," an approach he has aptly enacted as prime minister. He has purged liberals from the banking board and replaced every member of this technocratic institution with specialists in and practitioners of Islamist finance, many of whom spent their careers in Saudi Arabia. Erdoğan is replacing 4,000 out of 9,000 judges with Islamist-leaning individuals. He has refused to uphold Supreme Court decisions until he can change the judiciary. After failing to win the endorsement of the higher education council for his Islamist program, he founded fifteen new universities with fifteen new rectors to win their fifteen new votes.

Satloff: Let me throw out a different model. Given the profound threat posed by Wahhabism’s tentacles around the world, I would be satisfied with a "Wahhabism in one country" solution. Let’s insulate Saudi Arabia from the rest of the world. What it does to infect the rest of the Middle East and beyond is very damaging. Let us strike a deal with the Saudis to keep their dangerous, malevolent, and treacherous ideology contained within Saudi Arabia but also preventing its spillover to any other country. This may be unfair to millions of Saudis, but it is not a bad bargain for the hundreds of millions of people spared from this ideology.

Grading the Bush Administration

MEQ: Please, give one letter grade to the Bush administration on the democratization effort.

Pipes: I give the Bush administration an A for effort and for having the courage to break with six decades of a sterile, atrophied emphasis on stability. I give it a D for implementation. It has believed that democratization will work out with an ideological, almost theological, tenacity, ignoring the many signs of trouble. Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt are examples of trouble. (I do not place Saudi Arabia in this group because Islamists at the municipal level can be contained.)

Rubin: The problem with Saudi Arabia is that democracy is a chimera. Saudis have elected municipal councils, but these have no budgetary authority. Councilmen can vote, for example, in Jeddah to create a sewage system, but ultimately they remain dependent on the whim of the royal family to decide whether or not to do it.

Pipes: Exactly. I’m fine with that for now, with a model of very slow, very incremental learning the processes of democracy.

MEQ: The Kuwaiti parliament model over the last thirty years sounds like what you are advocating.

Pipes: Yes, I like the Kuwaiti model (and published a piece in this journal praising its virtues).[7]

Satloff: The Bush administration gets an A for making democracy a centerpiece of foreign policy, and I also give it an A for effort. But it gets an F for the actual process of translating that intellectual idea into policy. Islamists are now experiencing their greatest resurgence, in no small part due to the unfettered opportunities in places like Gaza and Lebanon thanks to the unconditional acceptance of flawed electoral processes by the Bush administration. Radical Islamists recognize that they can achieve power through means the administration is sanctioning, even if they do not adhere to democratic ideals.

Muravchik: I give Bush an A. I agree that the implementation has been poor, but I do not think that matters. Reorienting the policy is the main thing; everything else will fall into place. Democratization will ultimately undercut the Islamists in terms of the hold they have on the imagination of large segments of society. Bush may have spoken of changing the U.S. emphasis on stability, but what he did is more profound. He shifted U.S. policy away from cultural relativism. He does not tolerate terrorism, honor killings, and a variety of other kinds of practices that we find frightening and repellent. It is important to insist upon common standards of civilized behavior to be observed by Middle Eastern people as well.

Pipes: Decades of trouble sparked by destabilization does not bother you? Having Hamas legitimated in the Palestinian Authority is okay?

Muravchik: There has been no hope for peace for Israel and the Arabs because the Palestinians have not made up their minds, and they have wanted it both ways. They have wanted the benefits of peace and the benefits of war. That was an illusion encouraged by Arafat. This may be a necessary stage for the Palestinian public to learn accountability.

MEQ: Will the democratization policy outlive the Bush administration?

Satloff: The issue of how America and the West engage Muslim countries and the Muslim world—a term I do not like, because it plays into the hands of the Islamists, but will use for this discussion—will be the defining issue for the foreseeable future. In a narrower sense, advancing democracy in Arab and Muslim societies is becoming a staple of U.S. foreign policy and cannot easily be discarded by a successor president although there may be differences in implementation.

Rubin: An A for ideas, a C- for implementation. What troubles me most is the willingness of some of the implementers within the Bush administration to bestow legitimacy upon terrorist groups.

Satloff: C- is a passing grade.

Rubin: It strikes me as odd that some in the Bush administration are so willing to be cynical about Hosni Mubarak or Ben Ali making noises about democracy and yet are so willing to believe Hezbollah and Hamas on the same topic.

MEQ: Everyone agrees that the Bush administration democratization policy will have serious impact on the Middle East. Time will tell which grade it deserves.

[1] "President Sworn-in to Second Term," White House news release, Jan. 20, 2005.
[2] Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1991.
[3] Daniel Pipes, "Bush the Radical," The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 13, 2003.
[4] "President Bush Discusses Freedom in Iraq and Middle East," remarks at the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, United States Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C., Nov. 6, 2003.
[5] Washington, D.C.: Freedom House, 2005.
[6] Francis Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
[7] Kenneth Timmerman, "Kuwait’s Real Elections," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 1996, pp. 53-8.

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