Between Democracy and Stability

Sunday, January 30, 2005
How do we balance two conflicting imperatives for U.S. foreign policy: preserving the short-term stability of Arab regimes that have been friendly—or at least not explicitly and intractably hostile—to the United States and promoting a deeper, more organic stability in the region through democratic reform?
Democracy Deficit
The problem is stark. The Arab world is the only major region that does not have a single democracy. If we look at the Middle East in general, only Israel and Turkey are democracies. Of the 16 Arab states, only Lebanon has ever been a democracy, and only a few could be described today as even semi-democratic. Whereas the rest of the world has been moving toward democracy and greater freedom over the past three remarkable decades, the Arab world has remained politically stagnant. In fact, the Arab region is the only part of the world where the average Freedom House rating of political rights and civil liberties is worse today than it was in 1974.
There is a serious problem with the nature of governance in the Middle East. The source of the problem, however, is not Islam as such. Forty-three nations in the world clearly have a Muslim majority. The 27 of these outside the Arab world have an average freedom score that is almost an entire point better, on the 7-point Freedom House scale, than the Arab states. Seven of those 27 Muslim nations are democracies; several other nations, such as Indonesia and Mali, are developing democracy; and democracy is visibly deepening in Turkey under a government led by a party that could be called in its orientation Islamic-democratic.
The growing body of evidence shows that Muslims desire democracy pretty much to the same degree that people of other faiths do, particularly when we control for education and income. That is clearly the case in Africa and Central Asia. Even in the Arab world, evidence shows that people in the region value democracy and that there is not much of a relationship between religious attachment and support for democracy.
These popular orientations among Muslims in the world correspond with the thinking of increasingly outspoken moderate Muslim intellectuals, who are making the case either for a liberal interpretation of Islam or for a broader liberal view that de-emphasizes the literal meaning of sacred Islamic texts while stressing the larger compatibility between the overall moral teachings of Islam and the nature of democracy as a system of government (based on such principles as accountability, freedom of expression, and the rule of law). Islam is undergoing a kind of reformation, with growing momentum among Muslim religious thinkers for a separation of mosque and state. Significantly, Arab intellectuals and civil society activists are themselves challenging the democracy and freedom deficit that pervades the Arab world.
Demographic Time Bomb
A growing number of Arab scholars, journalists, civic activists, and even some government officials, as well as numerous foreign observers of the region, are becoming convinced that the center cannot hold without democratizing political reform. The old cyclical games of tactical liberalization—opening today and repressing tomorrow—have run their course. Burgeoning populations—whose demographic profiles are tilted dramatically toward the young—are deeply frustrated by the pervasive economic stagnation, abuse of power, and social injustice. They are also better informed—or at least more independently informed—about what is happening in the world than they used to be, and they are better able to organize outside government control. And they are not going to sit back and take it any more: that is one message of 9/11. 
To the extent that Arab regimes do not reform politically and economically, they will erupt in one form or another over the coming years. What Thomas Friedman calls the “global supply chain” of suicide bombers is one form of eruption. The wave of venomous anti-Americanism is another. The rising tide of terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia is another. Sclerotic regimes that cannot generate jobs and hope at a faster rate than the population is growing cannot persist indefinitely. And the market-oriented economic reforms necessary to unleash economic growth are unlikely to occur without democratic change because, unless governments have much greater political
legitimacy, they will not have the nerve, or the autonomy from the decades-long accumulation of vested interests, to take bold and difficult steps. There is a demographic time bomb ticking in the Middle East, and it is going to
sweep away a lot of Western-leaning regimes sooner or later unless true reform begins soon.
Promoting Democracy
Of course, “later” could be a long time coming. Knowing that—knowing how efficient, cunning, and ruthless the state security apparatus is in many of these countries; knowing the opportunism and insecurity of middle-class opposition groups that do not want to rock the boat; understanding that change always carries short-term risks—American policymakers have tended to opt for the devil they know and leave the longer-term future to the next administration. That is why President Bush’s speech on November 6, 2003, to the National Endowment for Democracy, and his subsequent statements calling for a fundamental reorientation of American policy in the Middle East, was so visionary and courageous. Conceptually, the call for a broad shift in policy toward promoting democracy in the Middle East is bold and long overdue.
Normatively and conceptually, we are at a historic juncture, where moral imperatives—to support human rights and promote peaceful democratic change—and security imperatives converge as never before. After 9/11, the political transformation of Middle Eastern regimes toward greater freedom, responsiveness, transparency, accountability, and participation—and therefore a real capacity to achieve broad-based human development—has become not just a moral imperative but a necessary foundation for the security of Western democracies as well. Creating a new climate in the region that is much less conducive to hatred and terrorism requires a sweeping improvement in the character and quality of governance.
The question is, How do we do promote these changes in such a way that the search for an Arab Kerensky does not yield an Islamist Lenin instead?
The tone and style of our approach are absolutely vital. Today in the Arab world, the United States is virtually radioactive; Arab democrats who come too close to it risk being contaminated and burned. The people of the Arab world profoundly suspect our motives. They think we are only in Iraq for the oil. And it is hard to dissuade them when the only building we protected as Baghdad was being systematically looted after it fell was the oil ministry. They think we seek long-term imperial domination in the region, and it is hard to dissuade them when we do not renounce any intention of seeking permanent military bases in Iraq. They think we only want democracy when it produces governments friendly to the United States. And it is hard to dissuade them when we have taken no practical steps to follow up on President Bush’s bold speeches or to establish a dialogue with moderate Islamists in the region.
We must promote democracy in the Middle East. But we cannot do it rapidly, we cannot do it purely on our terms, and we certainly cannot do it alone. It has always been the case that success in this endeavor would require close coordination with our European allies. But in the wake of the mistakes and unilateralism of the Bush administration, I think we have no chance of fostering democratic change in the region without a truly transatlantic strategy that offers a true hope of economic and political progress. It is still the case that, if freedom is to advance in the world, the United States must lead. But, sometimes, we must lead more subtly—from behind—if we are to be effective.
In fact, we need unprecedented cooperation on three levels to promote democratic change in the Middle East: first, between Europe and the United States (as well as Canada and other democratic allies); second, between the governments and nongovernmental organizations of our democracies; and, third, between this new transatlantic alliance and reform-minded governmental and nongovernmental actors in the Middle East.
A group of European and American policy specialists (myself included), meeting over several months under the auspices of the German Marshall Fund, has recently laid out what its members consider to be a viable transatlantic strategy for promoting democracy and human development in the Middle East. Our strategy is based on five principles:
1. Regional ownership. Democratization and human development in the region must spring from indigenous roots. Western democracies should not seek to impose any formula for democratic change. But they can and must help from the outside—morally, politically, and materially.
2. Engaging rulers and the ruled. In identifying the “owners” and partners for reform, the West cannot look only to state officials, though they are important. We need to reach out directly to civil society.
3. Islam and democracy. We reject the argument that there is some intrinsic incompatibility between Islam and democracy or that the peoples of the region are incapable of democratic governance or do not want the same rights that are taken for granted in most other parts of the world.
4. Tailored policies. Each country in the region is unique and should be encouraged to come up with its own national reform plan for democratic change, resulting from an open negotiation between the government, the political opposition, and civil society. A gradual, mutually agreed-upon timetable and formula for democratic change can allow time for moderates to organize politically and allow a greater plurality of forces in civil society to flower, thereby facilitating a democratic transition that cannot be captured by radical Islamists.
5. Filling the credibility gap. Western governments need to overcome their past track records of inconsistency and double standards. The burden is on our own governments and societies to demonstrate that we are serious about promoting genuine democratic change and that we are willing to sustain a serious commitment even in the face of short-term risks and costs.
Among the specific policy courses we recommend are the following:
• The transatlantic democracies should do more to link their economic assistance directly to political reform and good governance, providing tangible benefits for countries that are making true progress on political and economic liberalization.
• Benchmarks for actual behavior also need to be extended to other areas of cooperation, such as trade liberalization, debt relief, and symbolic honors such as high-level state visits. Middle Eastern governments that are not serious about reform should know that they will not benefit in the same way that reformers will.
• The West must reexamine its relationships with the region’s security institutions. The United States and Europe should use their influence with friendly military and intelligence establishments to foster democratic change, to end repression against democratic forces, and to end the use of torture.
• The Western democracies should exhibit more visible, consistent, and effective solidarity with democrats and human rights activists in the region who are under threat or in detention.
• The Western democracies should increase substantially their support for civil society and political actors and institutions working to advance democracy within these societies.
• We urgently need to increase educational, social, and cultural contacts between the peoples of the West and the Middle East. This requires a new visa regime for travelers from the Middle East.
But, along with the above, a certain type of environment in the region is necessary to help foster democratic change. Crucially important are a
sustained commitment to political reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a more coherent and effective strategy to deal with Iran. But the highest priority in this regard is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The West cannot wave a magic wand to bring an end to this conflict. Nor can we allow aspirations for democratic change in the region to be held hostage by
this conflict. But many in the Arab world today see a Western (and especially American) commitment to renew the role of honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as a litmus test of Western intentions and credibility. It is vital that the United States resume this role. Advancing the peace process is not a precondition for being able to foster the democratic process, but if the two proceed on parallel tracks, each effort is likely to be more credible and effective.