Should America be involved in Democracy Promotion in the Arab World?

For the past three decades, democracy promotion has been a staple, though oftentimes understated arm, of overall US foreign policy. President Jimmy Carter advocated this agenda. Ronald Reagan advanced it as a weapon in the Cold War. And Presidents since then have embraced democracy promotion initiatives, though none with the ideological fervor of George W. Bush.

Of late, this agenda has become a topic of heated debate here at home and abroad. Some of these programs are under assault in Arab countries, while in Washington, Bush-era critics of the Obama Administration are attacking the President saying that he hasn’t done enough to promote democracy in the Arab World, nor has he acted to defend US democracy efforts abroad.

Some of these Bush Administration officials were on hand for a conference on democracy promotion at Kenyon College this past week, making their case. I was a participant at the event.

The advocates of democracy promotion advance a number of arguments to make their case: “it’s about being true to our values,” “it’s in our interests,” “it is our moral obligation to improve the human condition”–”all of which resonate with American audiences who reflexively respond to any mention of “our ideals” and appeals to “American exceptionalism.”

But as vigorous and at times passionate as this entire US conversation might become, it ignores one fundamental question that must be addressed at the outset, and that is, “should America even be involved in democracy promotion in the Arab World?” In my remarks to the Kenyon College event, I provided a contrarian view that said, quite simply, “no.”

I have a number of reasons for taking this stance. First and foremost, it is because I believe that America is not in the position to be the democracy promoters we fashion ourselves to be. We fail to recognize the damage that has been done to “brand America.” While many Americans still want to see ourselves as “the shining city on the hill,” we simply do not understand that is not how most Arabs see us. Two disastrous and bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the blind eye we have shown to Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and life; Guantanamo and the horrors of Abu Ghraib; torture, rendition, and “black sites”; and the treatment of Arabs and Muslims in America all have taken a toll on our credibility as advocates for democracy and human rights.

Our polling across the Arab World shows that not only has America’s favorable rating hit bottom, but when asked to name “the biggest threat to peace and security in the region,” more often than not, the U.S. is named.

As our polling makes clear, what most Arabs want from America is not democracy, it is for Washington to play a role in pressuring Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands. Additionally, many Arabs believe that U.S. investment can help create employment and build capacity in their countries. And despite the fact that in a number of Arab countries, reform and democracy concerns have emerged in the top tier of political priorities, in no case do Arabs indicate that they want American help in advancing these concerns. This they see as an unwanted intrusion into their domestic affairs.

There are, of course, those elements who do seek American support. Some in the Libyan and Syrian opposition have reached out in desperation, basically hoping that the U.S. would do a “job” for them. There are also some “democracy” activists who have found it useful to cultivate U.S. patronage. But none of these change the reality that for strong majorities across the Arab World, American involvement in democracy promotion is not wanted or seen as credible.

The reality is that because we don’t listen to Arab voices or respect Arab public opinion, we operate blindly in the region, seeing what we want to see and hearing only those voices who say what we want to hear. We don’t understand Arab society or the Arab people’s political priorities or their real aspirations. Because of our sense of cultural superiority, we assume a “one size, fits all” model. Those who want what we have to offer, we celebrate as democrats, “just like us.” Those who do not, we decry as backward.

In the end, we have too little knowledge about the history, culture, and people of the region to play a constructive role in transforming their societies. Our mistake in Afghanistan and Iraq was not just that we believed that we could use force to create a democratic order. It was that we assumed that we could play any constructive role in changing countries and peoples about whom about whom we knew so very little in the first place. This was true for our failed wars, and it is also true for our efforts at democracy promotion.

To his credit, President Obama got it right a year ago when he spoke about America’s role in the “Arab Spring.” He noted that we needed to approach these developments with a sense of humility. We hadn’t created the Arab Spring (despite the vain attempts by some former Bush Administration officials to claim credit), nor could we lead or direct its course. What we could do is help with economic assistance to provide the promise of a better future and by solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The President was right. But this, sadly, is what we have yet to do.