Is there a tyranny-terror link in the Middle East?

Is there a tyranny-terror link in the Middle East?

Steven Brooke and I have a new article out in Policy Review suggestively titled “Promoting Democracy to Stop Terror, Revisited.” We make the case for a causal relationship between the lack of democracy in the Middle East and the incidence of political violence and terrorism. If such a relationship exists, then the case for supporting democracy abroad becomes not only more important, but more urgent. In others words, it cannot keep on being postponed until we have single-payer healthcare or until Mr. Ahmadinejad cools down. We will have to live with terrorism but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what’s necessary to make its occurrence less likely.

There is a trend in progressive circles toward separating support for democracy abroad from any explicit national security rationale. This, we argue, would be a costly mistake. Put differently, we believe there is a strong empirical basis for the claim that our safety and security, and that of our allies, is directly tied to prospects for political reform in the Arab world.

And from the perspective of politics (as opposed to policy), democracy promotion needs a national security rationale, otherwise politicians simply won’t care – and, currently, they don’t.

We began conceptualizing and writing this article long before President Obama demonstrated his relative lack of interest in democracy promotion. Some have grown accustomed to calling Obama a “realist,” of some sort at least. However, realists are capable of aggressively supporting democracy abroad – as long as they recognize it as being critical to U.S. national security interests. And that is what we tried to do here – to assume nothing and make the national security case for democracy promotion, something we hope would appeal to “realists” and “non-realists” alike.

In the coming days, I’ll be writing more on the empirical side of our argument. Steven and I approached the piece from the standpoint of the political scientists we are. To our surprise, we  found that quite a few past studies on the “tyranny-terror link” are plagued by rather straightforward measurement problems, one example being F. Gregory Gause’s oft-cited 2005 Foreign Affairs article “Can Democracy Stop Terrorism.”

For those who like teasers, here’s one from our article:

Any long-term strategy must take into account an emerging body of evidence which shows that lack of democracy can be a key predictor of terrorism, and correlates with it more strongly than other commonly cited factors like poverty and unemployment. If understood and utilized correctly, democracy promotion can become a key component of a revitalized counterterrorism strategy that tackles the core problem of reducing the appeal of violent extremism in Muslim societies. It has the potential to succeed where the more traditional, hard power components of counterterrorism strategy have failed.

The link between lack of democracy and terrorism also has consequences for American domestic politics. It provides a unifying theme for Democrats and Republicans alike, one that honors our ideals while helping keep us safe and secure. To the extent that politicians have had difficulty selling democracy promotion to the American people, the “tyranny-terror link” provides a promising narrative for U.S. policy in managing the immense challenges of today’s Middle East.