Can the US Have a Role in Promoting Democracy in the Arab World?

“Promoting democracy in the Arab world” is all the rage in the US these days. It has become a veritable cottage industry, with serious and not-so serious analysts and ideologues, all getting in to the act. Not a week goes by that there isn’t another forum held or a paper published on the topic.

This is the one foreign policy issue on which the Bush Administration and its critics agree. It is also a subject on which both sides are, all too often, dead wrong.

While advancing citizen rights and expanding participation in governance are positive goals worth embracing, there are fundamental flaws in the assumptions and intentions that form the underpinnings of the current US discussion about democracy promotion in the Arab world. They need to be explored.

First and foremost, there is the persistent belief that the US, itself, can be the agent of a democratic transformation of the Arab world. Behind this is the rather naïve notion that “Arab masses” see the US as freedom’s champion–”a transference from the days of the Cold War, when many in Eastern Europe, did, in fact, look to the US to help liberate them from Soviet domination.

Unfortunately, quite the opposite defines Arab attitudes toward the US today. Zogby International’s polling in the Arab world demonstrates that while public opinion still has a somewhat favorable view of American values (although they appear to be declining over time), the strong negatives attached to American policy in the Middle East, put the US and those who associate with it in a sometimes precarious position.

In fact, when we specifically ask “how helpful can the US be in supporting democracy in your country,” we get an overwhelmingly negative response. As a result, the public US embrace of Arabs deemed “moderate” can at times prove costly. This was the case with the ill-fated support the US gave to Fatah in the recent Palestinian legislative election. The revelation, in the last week of campaigning, that the US had provided funding indirectly used to support Fatah candidates was exploited by Hamas to their advantage.

A further extension of this same flawed assumption is the belief held by some in the US that anti-American sentiment is a fabrication created by Arab regimes as a diversion from their autocratic rule. It is further posited that extremism, born of the denial of political freedom in Arab countries, strikes out against the US because of the support the US has given to some Arab governments. It was this thinking that led to the famous Bush Administration apology last year for “60 years of misguided policy” in the Middle East.

While there is some validity to the notion that the relationship between the US and Arab government has fueled some extremists, the Bush Administration has framed the problem backwards. It is US policy, not Arab autocracy that has spawned extremism, and it is the support that Arab governments have given to the US, not the other way around, that has sometimes put them at odds with their own people and, therefore, at risk. In fact, as the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami noted at the advent of the Iraq war, a consequence of that conflict would not be the advance of democracy in the Middle East, but its contraction. With Arab anger at the US increasing, and Arab governments close to the US, facing domestic pressure, they would be less inclined and less able to open up their political systems.

It is no accident that al Qaeda and other extremist movements have targeted Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, not because of their lack of democracy, but because of their relationship with the US. In a perverse way then, when the US advocates policies based on assumptions such as these, we punish those who are at risk precisely because they have been our friends.

Then there is the non-empirical ideological belief, popular among neo-conservatives, that democracy, by itself, is the antidote to extremism and anti-American sentiment–the idea behind this being that with the transformations believed to be created by democracy (even if it is crudely imposed), societies and their component groups will put away their grievances and busy themselves in building a new order. In fact, quite the opposite is true. As we have seen in several recent elections throughout the Arab world, where populations are roiled by anger and a sense injustice, the freer the election, the greater the opportunity that this anger and sense of injustice will emerge victorious. Thus in the post-election period we see not a settling down, but a settling of scores. This clearly was the case with the Hamas victory in Palestine and gains won by some sectarian extremists in Iraq.

Another neo-conservative ideological non-empirical assumption that has sometimes been posited as a reason to support Arab democracy is the notion that democracies don’t make wars. This is a tough sell in the Arab world which lived through the 1956 and 1967 wars and in the wake of the US “war of choice” in Iraq.

Having said all of this, however, in no way negates the importance of expanding freedom and opportunity in the Arab world. Arab academics, professionals and the business community have shown that they can provide significant input in decision-making, if they are given the chance. Arab youth need to know that opportunities exist for their ideas and aspirations. And citizens and non-citizens alike need to know that their rights will be protected and their views respected.

These are important ends in themselves and they should be supported by all who care to see the Arab world progress. What I am suggesting here is that in pursuing these goals (and they should be pursued) it is important to recognize that democratic transformation is a process grounded in history, requiring social and cultural predicates.

What I am also suggesting is that if the US wants to be an agent of such positive change in the region, we must understand how we are viewed by Arab opinion and the impact our policies have on the Arab polity. When we change course in Iraq, pursue justice in Palestine, and demonstrate an understanding and concern for Arab needs and aspirations, then we will be in a position to be respected as partners in the pursuit of reform.