The Danger and Promise of Democracy Promotion

I’ve been getting some interesting responses to my American Prospect essays (1,2) on the future of progressive foreign policy. In a spirited rejoinder to my piece (amusingly titled “Against Democracy”), Spencer Ackerman of The New Republic criticizes my “fetishization of democracy.” Even though I don’t think he intended this as a compliment, it does, I must say, have a nice ring to it. (My fetishes aside, Ackerman’s article is useful contribution to the debate, and I hope to respond to his points after I sufficiently digest them).

Heather, also yesterday, touched on what I think are some critical questions regarding my suggested move toward a “democracy-centric” foreign policy.  Heather asks: “why has the democratization project been mostly unsuccessful in the Middle East…?”

This assumes that there was, in fact, ever, a real democratization project, not just in words but in deeds. The Bush administration’s dramatic shift in pro-democracy rhetoric was never accompanied by sustained policy changes on the ground. For a brief three or four month period in early 2005, Bush did, to his credit, put significant pressure on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and a couple other repeat offenders. But, soon enough, the realist temptation became too tempting even for the self-anointed anti-Scrowcroft of our time. Well, then, why the reversal?

This brings us back to what I consider to be the fundamental dilemma for American policymakers – they want democracy but fear its outcomes. For too long, we’ve tried to avoid the question, get around it, or, worse, pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead of supposing that there is some mythical, silent Arab liberal majority that is just waiting to unleash its electoral potential, let’s try to ground our idealism in a fact-based assessment of Arab politics. As I point out in my article, Arab liberals have virtually no grassroots support in the Middle East. And as for “pro-American Arab liberals,” those don’t even exist. Mainstream Islamists, on the other hand, are as powerful as ever (at least partly because the Bush administration’s horrendous foreign policy has made gratuitous anti-Americanism such an easy sell). So, yes, Islamist groups will come to power if there are free elections. It’s going to happen whether we like or not. And it already has in Iraq, Turkey, and the Palestinian territories (and is likely to happen in Morocco next parliamentary election).

What we need, then, is a coherent policy toward political Islam.

We must begin to engage with mainstream, non-violent Islamists (better to get to know them now before they come to power). I spent this past summer meeting and interviewing a good chunk of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership. This is a topic for another time, but suffice it to say that there is a (for now, low-intensity) internal struggle within mainstream Islamism. For example, there are competing factions within the Muslim Brotherhood: pragmatists and ideologues, reformers and conservatives, moderates and hardliners. Unfortunately, in Egypt and Jordan (and particularly in today’s hail-Nasrallah polarized environment), the ideologues grow stronger (“Hawks” and “Hamasists” now dominate America Jordan’s Islamic Action Front. This wasn’t the case two years ago). We must find ways to reverse this trend and to draw the balance of power toward those “relative moderates” who are more predisposed toward rapprochement with the US. This requires some creative policymaking (or is that an oxymoron?) by policymakers willing to acknowledge the inevitable but necessary risks of a “democracy-centric foreign policy.”

Heather also asks: “What is the process by which democratic change happens?”

We can be patient, and wait for democracy to take its course and come on its own. If we take this route, then we might as well wait forever. Patience is a virtue. Inaction is not.

Democracy cannot and will not come on its own in the Middle East. They said it would come in the early 1980s, the mid-1980s, the early 1990s, so on an so forth. It never came. The perpetually under-watered flowers of the “Arab spring” failed to blossom. Instead, they died, at least partly because we, as Americans, did so little to help them grow.

Or we can take action and start using our leverage to get our Arab “friends” to get their act together (otherwise, why do they call it leverage?).

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