Flaunting the banner of democracy in the Middle East is the latest fad in Washington. Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, so-called ‘democracy promotion’ has become one of the leading notions ostensibly guiding US policy in the Middle East. What transpires at closer scrutiny is that Washington’s old-new nonsense about spreading democracy in the Middle East is utterly fraudulent.
The Bush administration’s declared commitment to democratization came on the heels of the attacks in September 2001. US president George W. Bush proclaimed "a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," adding that "stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty." Addressing the UN General Assembly shortly after the first anniversary of the attacks, Bush told world leaders that the long-term objective of establishing democracy should take precedence over the short-term question of stability in the Middle East. He also acknowledged that the US, along with other nations around the world, had in the past opted for preserving the stability of friendly regimes no matter how oppressive they were. In the end, "oppression became common," Bush said, "but stability never arrived." One week later Bush declared a new national security strategy that promoted democracy as "right and true for every person in every society."
A chorus of commentators chimed in with articles, editorials and op-ed pieces in support of the Bush administration’s new-found interest in democratization. For instance, Michael Ledeen called for using American "political, moral, and military genius to support a vast democratic revolution to liberate all the peoples in the Middle East from tyranny" (Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2002).
No one should be duped by the lofty rhetoric from Washington about furthering democracy in the Middle East. It is not only that America’s record over the past six decades of its involvement in the Middle East provides good reasons for skepticism. Washington’s current involvement in the Middle East also demonstrates little real change of heart from the traditional US policy of realpolitik, in which furthering America’s ironfisted imperial reach takes precedence over promoting political reform. One only need take a cursory look at the map of the Middle East to realize that it is America’s military juggernaut rather than US-inspired democracy that is on the march in the region.
The main element of the "Bush Doctrine" is not democratization but the same old militaristic notion of ‘preventive’ war, which calls for unilateral pre-emptive military action against every perceived threat to US interests. In fact, the notion of supporting and promoting democracy figures as an appendage to US militarism. On March 19, the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Bush used his radio address to draw a connection between "regime change" in Iraq and democratization. In a pronouncement that defies satire Bush argued that "the victory of freedom in Iraq is … inspiring democratic reformers from Beirut to Tehran." One day earlier, Bush had made a speech to US military personnel at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in which he said: "Because America and our allies acted, all the world is now seeing democracy rising in the heart of the Middle East, and these historic changes are sending a message across the region from Damascus to Tehran: Freedom is the future of every nation."
As such, democracy-promotion emerges as the latest justification for the war in Iraq, rather than as an end in itself. This comes after all other justifications, such as disarming Saddam Hussein, preventing weapons of mass-destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists, or punishing Saddam for maintaining links to al-Qa’ida, have turned out to be spurious or outright baseless. The talk about Iraq as being the spark that set off the falling dominoes of democracy in the Middle East makes a virtue out of necessity. To begin with, it takes an enormous leap of faith to accept the Bush administration’s claiming credit for elections in Iraq on January 30. In fact, the US agreed to hold these elections, and to the entire political process in Iraq, only under concerted pressure. Opposition by various Iraqi groups to the US’s original plan to set up an occupation authority to govern the country compelled the US to allow the establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council. The US gave in to pressures generated directly by Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani and indirectly by the growing Iraqi insurgency. Mass street-protests called by Ayatullah Sistani torpedoed US pro-consul Paul Bremer’s plans for a US-dominated caucus system.
Although it is true that political transformation in Iraq coincided with changes elsewhere in the Middle East, this is not necessarily evidence that the former produced the latter. The link between political transformation in Iraq and political change elsewhere in the Middle East is plausible only if it can be shown that Iraq was a sort of a crystal ball in which pro-reform activists in the region could glimpse intimations of the future course of their movements. But the fact is that most pro-reform activists in the region are opposed to the war and the occupation of Iraq. For instance, protesters at demonstrations organized to call for political reforms in Egypt often shout slogans against the US’s intervention in Iraq.
Yet nothing reveals the hypocrisy of the Bush administration better than the fact that Washington is highly selective in its choice of countries to highlight as targets for its promotion of democracy. Washington’s allies in the "war on terror" are largely exempt from the pressures to democratize. Such an exemption applies to pro-US autocrats such as General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, who has for years turned a deaf ear to demands by the elected parliament to take off his uniform if he wants to be president, Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, who has just ordered his troops to massacre hundreds of protesters in Andijan, and president Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali of Tunisia, who has recently won a fourth term in sham elections. This hypocrisy is born of the same ersatz concern for democracy and human rights that characterized US foreign policy during the Cold War. Back then, the US pretended to champion the cause of freedom in the Eastern bloc while it went about engineering coups, overthrowing elected governments, and propping up dictatorships.
The US government’s propaganda about democratization in the Middle East is also guilty of the same double standards that have characterized US policies in general. US government officials have applauded minor measures adopted by pro-US regimes to provide a pretense of reform, while turning a blind eye to truly representative mechanisms in countries opposed to US hegemony. During her recent visit to the Middle East, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice praised Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, for proposing a constitutional amendment to allow contested presidential elections. "President Mubarak has unlocked the door for change. Now, the Egyptian government must put its faith in its own people," Rice said. However, one day earlier Rice had criticized the first round of the Iranian presidential elections as being out of step with democratic norms. She said: "An election that took place with an unelected few having decided who could run, with thousands of people having been disqualified, with women having been disqualified altogether, I find it hard to see how this election could certainly contribute to the sense of legitimacy of the Iranian government, and it certainly is out of step with the way that elections are being held in the region."
Rice’s statements on Iran do not stand the test of analytical scrutiny. Since the Islamic Revolution (1979), Iranians have voted in seven parliamentary, eight presidential, four Assembly of Experts, and two municipal elections. All of these polls were multi-candidate and were based on a system of universal suffrage with a voting age of 15. The reference to the "unelected few having decided who could run" is also inaccurate. Rice was here referring to the Guardians Council of the Constitution, which vets candidates in Iranian elections and interprets the constitution. The 12-member body is composed of six ulama selected by the Rahbar; the other six are lawyers proposed by the country’s head of the judicial branch and voted in by parliament.
Changes in Egypt are minor and in no way imperil Mubarak’s re-election. The concession from the Mubarak regime to allow multi-candidate presidential elections next year is little more than window-dressing. It permits only candidates from parties vetted by the parliament to run in these elections. Because Egypt’s parliament is a rubber-stamp body dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, this in practice amounts to allowing Mubarak to choose his own opponents. Moreover, the referendum held to approve the constitutional amendment allowing multi-candidate presidential elections in Egypt was boycotted by major opposition groups, including the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood).
The discourse of democracy promotion has always been used to claim a spurious justification for America’s drive for imperial hegemony. In the Spanish-American war of 1898, when America took a turn from being a republic to being an empire, US officials described the conflict as a war of liberation aimed at freeing the peoples of the Philippines and Cuba from Spanish tyranny. Yet in fact rhetoric and reality clashed: the US colonized the Philippines and Cuba, quashing in the process the legitimate right of the peoples of both countries to self-determination.
Likewise, in 1917 US president Woodrow Wilson justified America’s involvement in the first world war as a necessary measure to make the world "safe for democracy", to fight "a war to end all wars", and to establish "an international system of collective security". In a similar vein, US officials characterized America’s involvement in the second world war as taking part in the fight of democracy against fascism; later the Cold War was justified as a conflict between democracy and communism.
The current Bushy notion of ‘democratic messianism’ is condescending, if not outright racist. It is rooted in the doctrine of "manifest destiny," America’s version of the "white man’s burden" thesis that animates all modern imperialist projects. It results from (and aggravates) the arrogance of secularism, and regards the peoples of the Middle East and elsewhere as child-like ‘natives’ waiting for the ‘civilizational’ forces of the West to liberate them from tyranny and misery. But this hubris seems to have blinded American proponents of democracy promotion to the fact that genuine political change cannot be imposed. They also seem to be oblivious of the fact that whenever unadulterated and meaningful enfranchisement takes root in the Middle East, "free and fair elections" will inevitably bring to power governments hostile to the US, or at best indifferent to it. That is why it is safe to predict that, despite all the seeming to the contrary, when genuine political change takes root in any part of the Middle East, imperial America and its neo-conservative architects will certainly be found promoting the same old trajectory of oppression and exploitation that has long been holding its peoples back.