• November 17, 2008

Re: The False Hope of Democracy Promotion

Re: The False Hope of Democracy Promotion

Greg Scoblete at RealClearWorld is right to flag a potential contradiction in a post I wrote last week on the need for the new administration to make clear to Arab regimes that we’re serious about democratic reform. I say:

Committing ourselves to real support for democracy and democrats in the Middle East is urgent for other reasons. Obama has a window of opportunity. Like all windows, this one will close… This isn’t to say we’re going to stop working with the Egyptian government (we need their cooperation on key national security issues).

Greg asks “Can you really have it both ways? I think that you”re either serious about democracy promotion (i.e. regime change) or you”re serious about cooperating with the existing rulers to advance key national security issues. You are not going to have both.”
The two goals in question are not mutually exclusive. After all, during any transition to democracy – which could last, say, 10, 15, or 20 years – you will have to work with the regime that’s currently in power. Also, no one is advocating “regime change,” which has the implication of some kind of forceful foreign imposition. It is true that any transition to democracy, to be considered as such, will have to ultimately result in peaceful rotation of power, but this would happen within the framework of an understanding between regime and opposition about the rules of the game, and would probably include power-sharing guarantees that would ensure that erstwhile autocrats maintain some influence in the new regime. But all of that is far, far down the road.

In the meantime, any process of political reform in Egypt is not going to be done behind the back of the Mubarak regime, or by explicitly and actively undermining it. What I have suggested is simply for America to make clear to incumbent regimes, in both word and deed, that it is serious about human rights and democracy. This means providing various incentives to encourage regimes to open up political space and respect opposition rights. It can also mean using economic and military aid as leverage, by making a certain percentage of aid conditional on progress on political reform.

In any case, alienating the Mubarak regime and threatening them with “regime change” is a nonstarter for us, them, and even the Egyptian opposition itself, which is very careful in how it articulates its political objectives.