Responding to Spencer Ackerman: Debate Over Democracy

 As mentioned yesterday, The New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman, in a response to my American Prospect article, questioned the wisdom of a “democracy-centric foreign policy” and, moreover, wondered aloud whether I had a democracy “fetish.”

Unfortunately, Ackerman is unable to grasp the fundamental nature of the “democratic dilemma” which has afflicted us for so long in the Middle East. For starters, he profoundly misunderstands the nature of political Islam. He claims that the US “is insane to promote democratic elections in which the victors proclaim eschatological hostility to it.” But not all Islamists proclaim “eschatological hostility” to America and to think so is to fall under the illusion that Islamists are uniformly crazy, irrational fanatics. This is simply not true. If we put aside the exceptional cases of Hamas and Hezbollah, mainstream Islamist groups – while they may in some instances be reactionary and/or exclusivist – are not, as Ackerman assumes, “radical.” Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, most Islamist groups – such as Turkey’s AKP, Morocco’s PJD, Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, and the Jordanian and Egyptian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood – are not armed or have military wings. Not only that, they have explicitly renounced violence and committed themselves to playing by the rules of the democratic game.

In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front is the largest opposition party in parliament and has generally had a working, if somewhat tense, relationship with the Hashemite monarchy. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has 88 seats in parliament and provides social services to millions of people. With that said, I’m not going to pretend that these Islamists (many of whom I have interviewed at length) are paragons of liberalism; they most certainly are not. Their views on women’s rights, status of minorities, and implementing Islamic law leave much to be desired. They have, however, evolved in recent years, focusing less on empty religious sloganeering and more on the importance of democratic reform. For better or worse, they are well-rooted in society and represent a broad sector of the Arab electorate. Ackerman, it appears, would like to wish these groups away. In doing so, he is guilty of the same thing he accuses me of: mistaking “the world that American liberals would like to live in for the actual one that American liberals must confront.” These groups exist and, if democracy ever comes to pass in troubled Arab lands, then Islamists coming to power will be part of the package, whether Ackerman and I like it or not (as has already has happened in Turkey and Iraq, both of them allies).

It seems Ackerman only wants democracy if it produces nice, docile pro-American Arab liberals. Well, I’ve made the point over and over – pro-American Arab liberals are pretty much a figment of our imagination. For all intents and purposes, they don’t really exist (although I suppose this depends on how you define “pro-American”). As a liberal and a believer in liberalism, I wish it were otherwise but there are facts on the ground and we have to, at some point, face the Middle East as it is, not as what we would like it to be. The democrat’s greatest test, after all, is supporting the democratic rights of those he disagrees with.

Building on his unsound foundation, Ackerman is essentially telling us that we shouldn’t promote democracy because Arabs hate us. He seems to forget that one of the reasons they hate us is because, well, we don’t promote democracy. Instead, we’ve been propping up the same ruthless dictators who have been oppressing and torturing their own people for decades. As long as we remain complicit in propping up these despicable regimes that betray everything our country has ever hoped to stand for, Arabs will never begin to trust us, believe us, or “like us.” Their rage will continue to fester with no outlet for expression. And I think we know what can happen if the rage of millions of young men has no political outlet. For all their faults, at least the neo-cons were able to recognize as much.

So what alternative does Ackerman offer us? He suggests we advocate “the promotion not of democracy, but of human rights.” He explains that “the classic American formulation of human rights is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.” It is unclear how you could have any of these four freedoms without also having democratically-elected governments that are accountable to their own people. How many liberal autocracies are there in the world? Try counting them on your hand. 

Furthermore, he brings up three cases – Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories – to demonstrate that promoting democracy can really mess things up. Well, this is a perfect example of cherry-picking your case studies and confusing causation with correlation. In social science, you can’t take three outliers and use them to generalize a set of patterns. Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories are explosive basket cases not because they are democratic, but because they have been consumed, in recent years, by war and/or sectarian conflict. There are perhaps few things more misleading then comparing these exceptional cases to, say, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.

One might be willing to indulge Ackerman if he was able to offer anything resembling a coherent alternative. He does no such thing. I have no idea what he wants us to do. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, for much of 2006, has been cracking down on the entire spectrum of opposition groups, liberals and Islamists alike (see here, here, and here). Baba Hosni and his goons have canceled scheduled municipal elections, terrorized Egypt’s venerable judges, and increasingly used force against protestors. Ayman Nour, one of the few Arab liberals who is both courageous and popular, has been silenced, languishing in terrible conditions in prison. This cannot be reduced to some academic debate where we theorize with abandon. This is not about dispassionately analyzing the tension between ideals and interests. There is a profound human element here that shouldn’t be ignored. This is about real people – more than 250 million Arabs – who continue to suffer daily under the grind of autocracy with little to hope for. We have abandoned the very Arab reformers we promised to help, using realism as our cynical justification after we realized that democracy is a bit more messy and untidy than we would have liked. There is nothing liberal about such abandonment.

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The Danger and Promise of Democracy Promotion – New York,NY,USA