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Putting the Cart before the Camel?

A plea for Arab democracy.

· 9 min read
Putting the Cart before the Camel?
March for Mahsa Amini, Washington DC, United States. 29th Oct, 2022. Alamy

Every new US administration is required to issue a national security strategy—a solemn document meant to communicate the executive’s vision for America’s priorities in the wider world to the legislative branch. For decades, the NSS has represented the most comprehensive effort of any given White House to describe and defend its grand strategy.

Among close observers of public affairs, the publication of the national security strategy is an occasion for intense discussion and debate about the rights and wrongs of contemporary US foreign policy. The latest report, delayed last winter on account of Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine, is no exception. Running to 48 pages, the Biden administration’s strategy embraces an expansive role for the United States, seeking to preserve US global primacy, underwrite global security, and promote the spread of democracy.

That last item is notable. Neglect of democratic values has been the rule in US foreign policy in the Middle East for almost as long as there has been a US foreign policy in the Middle East. Put simply, America’s traditional approach in this tumultuous region has been to arm or assist allies, assail adversaries, and make no meaningful appeal to democracy whatsoever. With the briefest of interludes—the flurry of post-9/11 activism—US policy in the Middle East has been remarkably consistent in emphasizing “stability” at the expense of liberty.

Biden’s national security strategy reproduces this cynical embrace of a sordid order in which the citizen is presumed to be the property of the state. To paraphrase Talleyrand, this anti-democratic posture has been worse than a crime, it has been a blunder. The system of authoritarian rule pervading the Middle East has been a font of atrocity and aggression that has fueled lethal radicalism for decades. Pledging to strengthen our “allies and partners” as a means of “advancing regional peace and prosperity,” the NSS pretends that somehow this isn’t the case.

The strategy document gives short shrift to any notion of political evolution in Arab and Muslim lands, let alone encouragement to civil and democratic forces there. This comports with a longstanding fear that the alternative to “Oriental despotism” would be free elections empowering Muslim fundamentalists—“one man, one vote, one time.” It also reveals a strong desire among the American governing class to “pivot” away from the Middle East and focus on other pressing concerns such as Russia’s aggression in Ukraine or China’s looming aggression in Taiwan. Whatever motivates the Biden administration to uphold this authoritarian compact, it confirms the worst tendencies of American diplomacy by undermining the cause of democracy in the world’s most undemocratic region.

A new book offers a stinging rebuke to this glaring hypocrisy in US foreign policy. In The Problem of Democracy, Shadi Hamid exposes the mounting costs of keeping democracy at bay in the Muslim Middle East. A senior fellow and analyst of political Islam at the Brookings Institution, Hamid is a rare voice that at once defends the necessity of American power in the international system without hesitating to decry its manifold crimes and blunders.

Shadi Hamad, author of The Problem of Democracy 

Hamid acknowledges that the world is a harsh place and that the United States has legitimate interests in tension with its proclaimed ideals. It’s thus hardly remarkable, let alone reproachable, that the US occasionally undertakes morally hazardous actions to protect its way of life and uphold a decent international order. Such is the complex fate of any serious world power.

Nonetheless, as The Problem of Democracy makes clear, one need not believe America to be a uniquely nefarious power to feel a blush of shame when reviewing its behavior in the Middle East. The United States is not—and cannot be—a humanitarian organization compelled by every outrage to reorient its grand strategy. But nor does it have to back gruesome authoritarians unconditionally. Nowhere in the modern era has the contradiction between US actions and its assertions been more glaring than in the Middle East, where Hamid castigates the United States for making “a mockery of its own ideals in full public view.”

The habit of paying homage to liberal values while supporting illiberal dictatorships east of Suez began in earnest during the Cold War as a means of keeping Soviet influence at bay, preserving the security of Israel, and maintaining the flow of oil (at a time when the Saudis sold the US over 2 million barrels of oil per day). Cold-blooded realpolitik has continued almost unabated ever since, justified by the all-consuming fear of Islamists claiming control through free elections. Fearful resistance to representative rule culminated in the appalling complacency displayed by Washington during the popular revolts that swept Arab lands in 2011.

In the midst of this once-in-a-lifetime upheaval, US officials professed support for democracy and human rights while maintaining warm relations with morbid client regimes that waste their national resources—and billions of dollars of US aid—on parasitic military oligarchies. President Obama, who gave little succor to demonstrators and instilled little fear among dictators—and who privately joked that he needed “a few smart autocrats”—is deservedly reprimanded in Hamid’s account. One can only marvel that at this fertile moment for Arab reform, the leader of the free world struck such a feeble and reactionary pose.

It wasn’t long before these popular uprisings that the lethal perils of the status quo were made painfully apparent. In the wake of September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration undertook an ambitious reorientation of American policy to advance universal suffrage in the greater Middle East. This isn’t to suggest that America’s post-9/11 wars were solely predicated on “exporting democracy.” The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were primarily strategic: In the former, to bring al Qaeda to justice and punish the regime that harbored it; and in the latter, to conclude unfinished business with Saddam Hussein, a serial aggressor who provoked not one but three consecutive American presidents to order military action against his regime. But once the decision to address these threats was taken, it was further decided that only participatory politics could fill the vacuum.

The Bush White House believed that in the struggle against holy warriors, the battle of ideas could not be forsaken. It was clear that the phenomenon of jihad had arisen as a tolerated “opposition” under the roof of America’s runaway allies. The “realist” policy of sponsoring a decadent and anti-democratic order stood revealed as something more than an ethical error; the reach and potency of Muslim totalitarianism also exposed it as a monumental strategic failure.

A revolution from above seemed a fitting response to the pathologies and antagonisms generated by this dominant order. “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,” President Bush declared before the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003. “In the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. … Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.”

True to its word, the United States bribed and bullied friendly Arab regimes into offering more responsible and responsive government. Under American pressure, Egypt held more open elections in 2005, and in 2006, Hamas was permitted to contest Palestinian elections in the occupied territories. But Washington wanted reform on the cheap, empowering the Arab masses without jeopardizing America’s strategic interests. The results were mixed, to say the least. The war in Iraq—where the forward strategy of freedom was handed its ultimate test—was an unexpectedly bloody affair and eventually ended in tears. And resistance from within the American government, combined with Arab regimes determined to wait out the storm, ensured that the “freedom agenda” held out for the Arabs was dead on arrival.

Retreating from grand ambitions in this forbidding landscape, the United States has fallen back on authoritarian regimes to diminishing returns. The region remains decidedly inhospitable to the ballot box. The sole democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring protests, Tunisia, is already backsliding to dictatorship. Illiberal forces have continued to fester while the old client states have become increasingly unchecked and menacing in their own right.

Hamid contends that with the advent of Donald Trump, the gap between American interests and ideals “closed considerably”—not because its actions came into line with the values it claims to hold, but because it no longer bothered to speak on behalf of human rights at all. This omits that it was Secretary of State Clinton who, in 2009, pronounced the need to set aside “ideology” in US foreign policy, a thinly veiled reference to the Bush doctrine’s defining feature: the “freedom agenda.”

But whatever its provenance, American skepticism of popular sovereignty in the broader Middle East runs deep. It conceives the risk of the democratic franchise letting loose illiberal sentiments and vicious policies too great to countenance. In his 2014 tract, America in Retreat, Bret Stephens gives voice to a theoretical basis for this bias in US policy. Stephens argues that liberal autocracy is to be preferred to illiberal democracy, “because the former is likelier to evolve into democracy than the latter is to evolve into liberalism.” I hold no brief for illiberal majoritarianism, but this elides a crucial point: America’s presumed allies in the Arab world are neither liberal nor democratic. After decades of brutish authoritarian rule, where is the liberal fruit?

Reversing the longstanding demotion of principle in US foreign policy will not be measured by lofty words but by meaningful deeds. The need to promote pluralist politics in the Muslim Middle East is long overdue, but neither the public nor the governing class should have any illusions about the sort of politics this will yield. Free elections should be supported not on the presumption that Islamists will lose. As has been the case in Gaza and Lebanon, they will likely win. Nor should anyone imagine that Islamists will jettison their convictions once in power and morph into a Muslim version of Germany’s Christian Democrats.

Instead, classical liberals should push for the ballot box while taking refuge in a more mundane expectation: namely, that Islamists will struggle to govern well. The wrenching debates that will take place in these circumstances will bring acute anxiety to the Islamists, who will discover that their cherished notion of God as the sole legislator of laws and ethics is a ruinous proposition. The resulting jockeying for position will likely set them against each other, and discredit the most zealous of their number in the court of public opinion. It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine a functioning democratic leader at the head of an elected parliament endorsing and enacting a policy of aggression against, say, Israel, in full knowledge of the costs such adventurism would soon impose at home.

Hamid cites Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, who has said: “The most dangerous thing for the Islamists is to be loved by the people before they get to power and then hated afterward.” In a volatile region, the prospect of Arab democracy is fraught with danger, and the risks are more evident than its benefits. But the hinge of Hamid’s case is that the maintenance of cruel dictatorships has plenty of hidden costs—instability, radicalization, the flourishing of anti-American resentment—that were widely acknowledged at the turn of the century, but no longer are. These dangers continue to mount.

Confronted with a choice of profoundly unappealing options, Hamid argues that the United States should resist the temptation to prevent anyone from voting to determine their own fate. In 1991, the United States and France tacitly supported the Algerian military’s decision to annul the election results and crack down on Islamist parties. This, Hamid argues, offers an example of exactly what not to do, since that unhappy country devolved into savage civil war shortly after the coup. And as Libya and Syria have both demonstrated in their different ways, awaiting revolutionary rather than democratic change is unlikely to produce congenial results.

A more encouraging example, counterintuitive as it may seem, appears to lie in the experience of revolutionary Iran. Although the last four decades of Shiite theocracy have been a calamity for US interests, not to mention for the Iranian people, the experience of theocratic rule has produced a profoundly liberal and pro-American disposition among the Iranian people. As analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht has observed, “even though Iran’s ruling clergy has so far successfully thwarted the growth of democracy, it has not stopped the growth of a democratic culture.” Even if Iran still menaces international order, the jihadist culture behind its sinister regime lost all legitimacy long ago, as evidenced by the near-permanent agitation against the clerical dictatorship on the streets of Tabriz and Tehran.

A measure of incongruity between ideals and interests is inevitable in foreign policy, but as far as possible the United States should pursue its objectives while keeping its moral compass in good use. In the Middle East, there is little to lose from elections since the authoritarian status quo is a proven failure from the viewpoint of either principle or practice. As The Problem of Democracy cogently argues, it’s time to give “the people’s verdict” its due. The next national security strategy should say so, and the custodians of American power should mean it.

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