The real perils of an undemocratic Middle East
U.s. democracy promotion in the Middle East has suffered a series of crippling defeats. Despite occasionally paying lip service to the idea, few politicians on either the left or right appear committed to supporting democratic reform as a central component of American policy in the region. Who can really blame them, given that democracy promotion has become toxic to a public with little patience left for various “missions” abroad? But as the Obama administration struggles to renew ties with the Muslim world, particularly in light of the June 2009 Cairo speech, it should resist the urge to abandon its predecessor’s focus on promoting democracy in what remains the most undemocratic region in the world.
Promoting democratic reform, this time not just with rhetoric but with action, should be given higher priority in the current administration, even though early indications suggest the opposite may be happening. Despite all its bad press, democracy promotion remains, in the long run, the most effective way to undermine terrorism and political violence in the Middle East. This is not a very popular argument. Indeed, a key feature of the post-Bush debate over democratization is an insistence on separating support for democracy from any explicit national security rationale. This, however, would be a mistake with troubling consequences for American foreign policy.
A post-Bush reassessment
The twilight of the Bush presidency and the start of Obama’s ushered in an expansive discussion over the place of human rights and democracy in American foreign policy. An emerging consensus suggests that the U.S. approach must be fundamentally reassessed and “repositioned.” This means, in part, a scaling down of scope and ambition and of avoiding the sweeping Wilsonian tones of recent years. That certainly sounds good. Anything, after all, would be better than the Bush administration’s disconcerting mix of revolutionary pro-democracy rhetoric with time-honored realist policies of privileging “stable” pro-American dictators. This only managed to wring the worst out of both approaches.
For its part, the Obama administration has made a strategic decision to shift the focus to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which it sees, correctly, as a major source of Arab grievance. This, in turn, has led the administration to strengthen ties with autocratic regimes, such as Egypt and Jordan, which it sees as critical to the peace process.
Some might see such developments as a welcome re-prioritization. However, by downgrading support of Middle East democracy to one among many policy priorities, we risk returning to a pre-9/11 status quo, where the promotion of democracy would neither be worn on our sleeve nor trump short-term hard interests. The “transformative” nature of any democracy promotion project would be replaced by a more sober, targeted focus on providing technical assistance to legislative and judicial branches and strengthening civil society organizations in the region. In many ways, this would be a welcome change from the ideological overload of the post-9/11 environment. But in other ways, it would not.
Those who wish to avoid a piecemeal approach to reform and revive U.S. efforts to support democracy often come back to invocations of American exceptionalism and the argument that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, has a responsibility to advance the very ideals which animated its founding. These arguments are attractive and admirable, but how durable can they be when translated into concrete policy initiatives? In the wake of a war ostensibly waged in the name of democracy, can a strategy resting on gauzy moral imperatives garner bipartisan support and therefore long-term policy stability? In an ideal world, there would not be a need to justify or rationalize supporting democracy abroad; the moral imperative would be enough. But in the world of politics and decision-making, it rarely is.
Democracy and terrorism after 9/11
After the attacks of September 11th, a basic, intuitive proposition surfaced — that without basic democratic freedoms, citizens lack peaceful, constructive means to express their grievances and are thus more likely to resort to violence. Accordingly, 9/11 did not happen because the terrorists hated our freedom, but, rather, because the Middle East’s stifling political environment had bred frustration, anger, and, ultimately, violence. Many in the region saw us as complicit, in large part because we were actively supporting — to the tune of billions of dollars in economic and military aid — the region’s most repressive regimes. The realization that our longstanding support of dictatorships had backfired, producing a Middle East rife with instability and political violence, was a sobering one, and grounded the policy debate in a way that has since been lost. The unfolding debate was interesting to watch, if only because it contradicted the popular perception that Republicans were uninterested in the “root causes” of terrorism. In fact, they were. And their somewhat novel ideas on how to address them would begin to figure prominently in the rhetoric and policies of the Bush administration.
In a landmark speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003, President Bush argued that “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.” This theme would become the centerpiece of his inaugural and State of the Union addresses in early 2005. In the latter, the president declared that “the best antidote to radicalism and terror is the tolerance and hope kindled in free societies.” In the summer of 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Cairo audience that “things have changed. We had a very rude awakening on September 11th, when I think we realized that our policies to try and promote what we thought was stability in the Middle East had actually allowed, underneath, a very malignant, meaning cancerous, form of extremism to grow up underneath because people didn’t have outlets for their political views.” The aggressive rhetoric was initially supported by the creation of aid programs with strong democracy components such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative (mepi).
But with a deteriorating Iraq, an expansionist Iran, and the electoral success of Islamist parties throughout the region, American enthusiasm for promoting democracy began to wane. One Egyptian human rights activist despondently told us in the summer of 2006 that Washington’s rhetoric “convinced thousands that the U.S. was serious about democracy and reform. We also believed this, but we were being deceived.” Perhaps the most disheartening sign of how far the democratic wave receded in the Middle East came during the 2007 State of the Union address. President Bush singled out “places like Cuba, Belarus, and Burma,” for democracy promotion, all safely away from his chaotic, failing experiment in the Arab World.
It is safe to say that the Bush administration’s project to promote Middle East democracy failed. It failed because it was never really tried. With the exception of a brief period in 2004 and 2005 when significant pressure was put on Arab regimes, democracy promotion was little more than a rhetorical device. But lost in the shuffle is the fact that one of the strongest rationales for the “freedom agenda” — that the way to defeat terrorism in the long run is by supporting the growth of democratic institutions — hasn’t necessarily been proven wrong, nor should it be so readily discarded due to its unfortunate association with the wrong methods and messengers. But this is precisely what seems to have happened.
In the Fall 2007 Washington Quarterly, Francis Fukuyama and Michael McFaul argued that “the loudly proclaimed instrumentalization of democracy promotion in pursuit of U.S. national interests, such as the war on terrorism, taints democracy promotion and makes the United States seem hypocritical when security, economic, or other concerns trump its interests in democracy, as they inevitably will.” Around the same time, Thomas Carothers, writing in the Washington Post, was more explicit in wishing to disassociate supporting democracy from the fight against terror: “Democracy promotion will need to be repositioned in the war on terrorism, away from the role of rhetorical centerpiece. It’s an appealing notion that democratization will undercut the roots of violent Islamic radicalism. Yet democracy is not an antiterrorist elixir. At times democratization empowers political moderates over radicals, but it can also have the opposite effect.”
Carothers and others are correct that democracy is not, nor has it ever been, some kind of panacea. To embrace such lofty expectations will only hasten disappointment. Promoting democracy is a difficult business with risks and consequences, among them the chance that emerging or immature democracies might, in the short-term, experience increased political violence and instability. And lack of democracy cannot take the blame for those, like the July 7th London bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan, whose paths to terrorism began in the freest nations in the world. As the histories of some of these jihadists illustrate, powerful cultural and religious forces cannot be ignored.
That said, decoupling support for democracy from the broader effort to combat terrorism and religious extremism in the Middle East would be a costly strategic misstep. If there is indeed a link between lack of democracy and terrorism — and we will argue that there is — then the matter of Middle East democracy is more urgent than it would otherwise be. The question of urgency is not an inconsequential one. Most policymakers and analysts would agree that the region’s democratization should, in theory at least, be a long-term goal. But, if it is only considered as such, then it will not figure high on the agenda of an administration with a whole host of other problems, both foreign and domestic, to worry about. However, if the continued dominance of autocratic regimes in the region translates into a greater likelihood of political violence and terrorism, then it becomes an immediate threat to regional stability that the U.S. will need to address sooner rather than later.
It is worth emphasizing that democracy promotion does not involve only our relationships with authoritarian allies like Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia. Our ability and willingness to understand the relationship between autocracy and terror is also intimately tied to future success in Iraq. Drawing on captured documents previously unavailable to the public, a 2008 study by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center found that “low levels of civil liberties are a powerful predictor of the national origin of foreign fighters in Iraq.” Of nearly 600 al Qaeda in Iraq fighters listed in the declassified documents, 41 percent were from Saudi Arabia while 19 percent were of Libyan origin. The study also notes that “Saudi Arabian jihadis contribute far more money to [al Qaeda in Iraq] than fighters from other countries.” According to the Freedom House index, the Saudi regime is one of the 17 most repressive governments in the world. Because the kingdom brooks no dissent at home, it has, since the early 1980s, sought to bolster its legitimacy by encouraging militants to fight abroad in support of various pan-Islamist causes.1 Since the late 1990s, those militants have tended to target the United States. In other words, Saudi Arabia’s internal politics can have devastating external consequences.
Democratic reform also holds out hope for confronting other Middle Eastern flashpoints. In recent years, the notion of incorporating violent political actors in nonviolent, democratic processes has gained some currency, particularly in light of the successful integration of insurgents in Iraq. Meanwhile, in the Palestinian territories, whatever else one wishes to say about Hamas, the group’s electoral participation since 2006 has coincided with a precipitous drop in the suicide bombings that had long been their hallmark.
Recognizing the relevance of democracy to some of the thorniest Middle Eastern conflicts — whose effects reverberate to our shores — makes democracy promotion much harder to dismiss as a luxury of idealism and a purely moral, long-term concern. In short, understanding the interplay between tyranny and terror can allow us to better judge — and, if necessary, elevate — the place of democracy promotion in the hierarchy of national priorities.
De-emphasizing support for democracy, on the other hand, will have significant consequences at a time when Arabs and Muslims are looking to us for moral leadership and holding out great expectations for an American president who many continue to see as sympathetic to their concerns. Obama’s Cairo speech, hailed throughout the Middle East, was a step in the right direction, but disappointment has since grown as the administration has failed to follow up with tangible policy changes on the ground.
Dropping democracy down on the agenda would ignore the fact that our ideals coincide with those of the majority of Middle Easterners who are angry at us not for promoting democracy, but because we do not. When we say we want democracy but do very little about it, our credibility suffers and we are left open to charges of hypocrisy. This credibility gap should not be dismissed. Ultimately, the fight against terror is not simply about “connecting the dots,” improving interagency coordination, and killing terrorists; it is just as important to have a broader vision that addresses the sources of political violence.
Any long-term strategy must take into account an emerging body of evidence which shows that lack of democracy can be a key predictor of terrorism, and correlates with it more strongly than other commonly cited factors like poverty and unemployment. If understood and utilized correctly, democracy promotion can become a key component of a revitalized counterterrorism strategy that tackles the core problem of reducing the appeal of violent extremism in Muslim societies. It has the potential to succeed where the more traditional, hard power components of counterterrorism strategy have failed.
The link between lack of democracy and terrorism also has consequences for American domestic politics. It provides a unifying theme for Democrats and Republicans alike, one that honors our ideals while helping keep us safe and secure. To the extent that politicians have had difficulty selling democracy promotion to the American people, the “tyranny-terror link” provides a promising narrative for U.S. policy in managing the immense challenges of today’s Middle East.
Is there a “tyranny-terror link”?
The post-9/11 emphasis on democracy promotion as an essential component of counterterrorism did not go unchallenged. A group of dissenters offered a number of provocative articles arguing the contrary. And as the “freedom agenda” began to stumble, their voices grew more influential.
The most noteworthy of these efforts was F. Gregory Gause’s 2005Foreign Affairs article “Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?” Gause offers what, at first blush, appears a systematic dismantling of a convenient myth:
Yes, Gause is correct: There is no relationship between, as he puts it, “the incidence of terrorism in a given country and the degree of freedom enjoyed by its citizens.” But this is the right answer to the wrong question. It is certainly true that democracies, such as the United States and Britain, are often targets of terrorism. But Gause’s argument tells us nothing about how, why, and when terrorists resort to violence. The tyranny-terror hypothesis is concerned with which kinds of countries — specifically what regime types — are more likely to produce terrorists. This requires us to examine individual terrorists’ country of origin, rather than their targets.
Other scholars have essentially replicated Gause’s findings. In a 2006 article in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, James A. Piazza argues that higher levels of democracy are actually associated with increased incidence of international terrorism. He comes to this conclusion because, like Gause, he is interested in which states are terrorist targets, not which states produce the terrorists in the first place. In a later 2008 International Politics article that expands and modifies his arguments, Piazza continues to record terrorist attacks “based on the country of occurrence, not the nationality or national legal status of the perpetrator.” While this approach may tell us whether democracies are more likely to experience terrorism, it does not answer the question the tyranny-terror hypothesis seeks to explore.
A second concern is that Piazza, like Gause, uses data from the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism serial publication. There are deficiencies with this data set.2 Primarily, it tracks only “global terrorism” and therefore tells us nothing about domestic terrorism (e.g., an Egyptian citizen attacking the Egyptian government). This is not just a casual oversight. Before the rise of al Qaeda, radical Islamist groups were doctrinally committed to attacking only their own governments. The original objective of most jihadist groups, such as Egypt’s al-Jihad, the Armed Islamic Group (gia) in Algeria, and Juhayman al-Otaibi’s ragtag group of fighters who took over the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979, was to overthrow ruling elites. Before there was the “far enemy” of the United States, there was the “near enemy,” those regimes seen as traitors to Islam.
In another effort worth noting, published as a 2006 Harvard University working paper, Erica Chenoweth attempts to tackle the terrorism issue. She states in her introduction that one of her goals “is to contribute to the growing policy literature endorsing democracy as a way to eradicate terrorism. This project is a critique of the latter perspective, offering some considerations for scholars and policymakers who advocate democratization without taking into account all of its potential ramifications.” But, again, the fact that she is interested primarily in where terrorists operate, rather than how and why countries produce terrorists in the first place, makes her study, while commendable for other reasons, less relevant for our purposes.
Meanwhile, Michael Freeman, in a thought-provoking 2008 study that appeared in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, attempts to disaggregate the effects of democracy on the underlying factors he contends motivate al Qaeda and affiliated networks, one of them being frustration over illegitimate authoritarian regimes. The article is a step forward in attempting a more focused analysis of the relationship between democracy and global jihadism, but it contains a significant flaw in its rejection of the tyranny-terror link. Freeman argues that for jihadists, “their own governments are illegitimate because they are insufficiently religious; secular democratic governments would be even worse.” First of all, with mainstream Islamist parties likely to do well in free elections, democratically elected governments in the Middle East would almost certainly be more religiously-inclined rather than less. In any case, proponents of a link between autocracy and terror have never argued that progress on political reform will completely eradicate terrorism. Democracy, whether in its liberal or Islamist manifestations, will not convince al Qaeda to give up arms or channel its efforts into the political process. Those in the jihadist hardcore can only be defeated through military and law enforcement means. For them, it is too late. What democracy can do, though, is prevent those most susceptible to extremist recruitment — tens of millions of frustrated Arabs and Muslims throughout the Middle East — from turning to political violence, by giving them alternative outlets for peaceful political expression. This recognition is crucial to moving our counterterrorism strategy beyond crisis management and towards prevention.
By choosing to focus specifically on the motivations of al Qaeda jihadists, Freeman neglects the Muslim population at large. It is true that among most doctrinaire Salafists, democracy is seen as an intrusion by man into God’s sacred domain.3 But neither these Salafists, nor al Qaeda, are representative of Islamists, let alone the broader Muslim community. Polls have consistently shown widespread support for democratic ideals among Muslims worldwide, while popular Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have, in recent years, publicly committed to many of the foundational components of democratic life.4 The 2006 Pew global attitudes survey notes that:
This is America’s audience, not the jihadists who refuse to accept the legitimacy of anything other than the most restrictive interpretations of Sharia law.
In short, although the articles by Gause, Piazza, Chenoweth, and Freeman purport to cast doubt on tyranny-terror linkages, a close reading reveals flawed methodologies that lead them to fall short in addressing the relationship between autocracy and terrorism.
A 2006 paper in the Economics of National Security by Harvard’s Alberto Abadie attempts to address some of these limitations. He correctly notes that international terrorism represents only a small fraction of the total amount of terrorist activity. According to the mipt Terrorism Knowledge Base, from 1998 to 2008, only 9.2 percent of recorded terrorist events were international in nature. Limiting the field to the Middle East reveals a similar percentage of international attacks: 10.1 percent. To help account for this deficiency, Abadie uses a data set from an international risk agency — the World Market Research Center’s Global Terrorism Index — that has, as Abadie explains, “the advantage of reflecting the total amount of terrorist risk for every country in the world” by considering a number of factors, including presence, motivation, efficacy, scale, and prevention of terrorism. While risk ratings do not say much about the perpetrators’ country of origin, the fact that they take into account not only international but also domestic terrorist attacks means they provide a more balanced sample. For example, if autocracies are more likely to produce terrorists, then we can expect the risk ratings of repressive dictatorships, like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to be relatively high. Abadie’s findings seem to support the existence of a link between authoritarianism and terrorist activity. He observes that “over most of the range of the political rights index, lower levels of political rights are associated with higher levels of terrorism.”
A 2005 Freedom House study went further and found a strong correlation between autocracy and terrorism, noting that “between 1999 and 2003, 70 percent of all deaths from terrorism were caused by terrorists and terrorist groups originating in Not Free societies, while only 8 percent of all fatalities were generated by terrorists and terror movements with origins in Free societies.” In addition to this quantitative difference, the study noted that terrorists from “not free” societies were even more brutal and their attacks over twice as lethal as those of their counterparts from “free” societies.
In our view, of the recent studies on autocracy-terror linkages, a relatively early 2003 article by Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova stands apart (Krueger builds on the article in his excellent 2007 book What Makes a Terrorist?).5 The authors employ innovative methods to get around the data limitations highlighted earlier. Using the descriptions of terrorist attacks in the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terror, they try to determine the perpetrator’s national origin. For instance, instead of recording the September 11th attacks as occurring in the U.S., they look instead at the nationalities of the 19 hijackers, which for their purposes, and ours, is the more relevant measure.
Like many other scholars, Krueger and Maleckova do not examine domestic terrorism, which is obviously a matter of concern. However, their study, which explores the effects of several different factors on terrorism including education and poverty, is nearly alone in addressing the implied causal hypothesis of the tyranny-terror link as it relates to recent developments in the Middle East — that one’s political environment has a bearing on whether he or she will resort to political violence. Drawing on their results, Krueger and Maleckova conclude that “the only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties.” In What Makes a Terrorist? Krueger notes the same finding, that “terrorists are more likely to come from countries that suppress political and civil rights.”6 Krueger and David Laitin build on this argument in their chapter in Terrorism, Economic Development, and Political Openness(2008), again observing that “countries that afford a low level of political rights are more likely to be the springboards of terrorism.” These findings suggest that democracy promotion and the fight against terror should not be treated as discrete policy concerns.
There is still much work to be done. The very nature of autocratic regimes makes gathering data on domestic terrorist events difficult, because governments have strong inducements to either suppress or exaggerate the incidence of violent opposition in the service of their political goals. Still, no compelling evidence debunks the tyranny-terror link and, instead, the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction.
A new strategy
A multitude of factors — economic, political, cultural, and religious — contribute to Islamic radicalism and terror. However, one important factor, and one that appears to have a strong empirical basis, is the Middle East’s democracy deficit. Any long-term strategy to combat terrorism should therefore include a vigorous, sustained effort to support democracy and democrats in a region long debilitated by autocracy. Obviously, this is an enormous challenge and should not be taken lightly. However, abandoning such a critical task would mean more of the same — a Middle East that continues to fester as a source of political instability and religious extremism. And, in today’s world, such instability, and the violence that so often results, cannot be contained; it will spill over and harm America and its allies.
A new democracy promotion strategy in the Middle East should include a variety of measures, including making aid to autocratic regimes conditional on political and human rights reforms; elevating democracy as a crucial part of all high-level bilateral discussions with Arab leaders; coming to terms with the inclusion of nonviolent Islamist parties in the political process; using membership in international organizations as leverage; increasing the budget for programs like the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the Millennium Challenge Account; deepening cooperation with the European Union to spread responsibility; and sponsoring initiatives that bring together Islamist and secular groups to forge inclusive pro-democracy platforms. The pace of democratization should take into account local contexts yet must maintain a consistent focus on expanding the rights of citizens, supporting the development of viable opposition parties, and moving toward free and fair elections.
But before moving in such a direction, the idea of Middle East democracy must be rehabilitated in the eyes of policymakers and the public alike. Absent a bipartisan political commitment, any new effort will falter. We realize that elevating democracy promotion will mean breaking with the last several decades of U.S. policy, which has relied upon close relationships with Arab regimes at the expense of Arab publics. But our long-term national security, as well as our broader interests in the region, demand such a reorientation. The first step, however, is to reestablish a consensus here at home on both the utility and value of democracy promotion. Once that happens, the discussion of how to actually do it can be conducted with greater clarity. If, on the other hand, we choose to continue along the current path — paying lip service to the importance of democracy abroad but doing increasingly less to actually support it — a great opportunity will be lost.
Turning away from the Arabs and Muslims who overwhelmingly support greater freedom and democracy will rob us of perhaps our strongest weapon in the broader struggle of ideas. For decades, the people of the region have been denied the ability to chart their own course, ask their own questions, and form their own governments. Lack of democratic outlets has pushed people towards extreme methods of opposition and made the resort to terrorist acts more likely. Recognizing this is a crucial step toward a sustained effort to promote Middle East democracy and represents our best chance at a durable and effective counterterrorism policy that protects our vital interests while remaining true to our ideals.
Shadi Hamid is deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Steven Brooke is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Government at the University of Texas. He was formerly a research associate at the Nixon Center.
1 See Thomas Hegghammer, “Jihad, Yes, But Not Revolution: Explaining the Extraversion of Islamist Violence in Saudi Arabia,” British Journal of Middle East Studies 36:3 (December 2009).
2 See, for instance, the criticisms made in Alan B. Krueger and David D. Laitin, “Misunderestimating Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs (September-October 2004).
3 However, even within this group only a small percentage will resort to violence to oppose a democratic system. Some Salafis even participate in the democratic process. See Samir Amghar, “Le Salafisme en Europe,” Politique Etrangere 1 (2006).
4 For more on Islamists and democracy, see Shadi Hamid, “Parting the Veil,” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (Summer 2007); Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke, “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood,” Foreign Affairs (March-April 2007); Marc Lynch, “The Brotherhood’s Dilemma,” Crown Center for Middle East Studies (January 2008); and Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament,” Middle East Report 240 (Fall 2006).
5 Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, “Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 17:4 (2003).
6 Alan B. Krueger, What Makes a Terrorist? (Princeton University Press, 2007, 75. In What Makes A Terrorist? Krueger bases his assumptions on a data set of 956 “events” from 1997 to 2003 with a specific focus on the “home country” of the perpetrators. This data is represented graphically on pages 73 and 74 (in table 2.3). While the limited time period is of some concern, it also reflects the labor-intensive nature of accounting for country of origin.