Should America Promote a Liberal, Democratic Middle East?

Martin Kramer, “Can America Promote a Liberal, Democratic Middle East?,” in Bush Administration Middle East Policy: A Mid-Term Assessment, 2002 Weinberg Founders Conference, October 4-6, 2002 (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2003), pp. 72-75. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

Can there be a liberal, democratic Middle East? This is very much a loaded question. It reminds me a bit of the famous exchange between a journalist and Mahatma Gandhi. The journalist asked Gandhi: what do you think of Western civilization? To which he replied: I think it would be a good idea. Gandhi’s point was that the modern West had failed to live up to the promise of the rich legacy of its civilization.

If I were asked today what I think of modern Arab civilization, I would probably answer the same: it would be a good idea. Here, too, there is a great legacy that the contemporary Arab world has been unable to renew. And nowhere has that been more apparent than in the failure of the Arab world to create the climate of free inquiry without which modern civilization is impossible. In our times, it is difficult to create such a climate without democracy.

If the 20th century has left us with a lesson, it is that the civilizations that will flourish in the 21st will rest on democracy. Every form of dictatorship, from communism to fascism, was discredited in the 20th century. We are approaching the point in human history where democracy will be deemed a prerequisite of modern civilization itself, and its absence, the most obvious symptom of modern barbarism. If that becomes so, then there is little doubt which side of the divide the Arab world will occupy. Freedom House ranks it as the least free part of the globe. And certainly there is a high correlation between the prevalence of despotism and a whole range of barbaric outrages, from the gassing of Kurds to 9/11. We know from experience that despotism generates terror. And has there ever been a form of despotism in modern times that did not encourage and even nurture anti-Semitism?

Since 9/11, many commentators have looked at the Arab world, made similar observations, and then drawn a conclusion. The conclusion is this: the United States should use its vast power to promote democracy in the Middle East. Not only should it plan to replace hostile despotisms, like Iraq’s, with democratic regimes. It should compel our allies, such as the Egyptians and the Saudis, to open up their politics. The theory is that if these were more open systems, this would drain away the intolerance and hatred that pervade these societies, including the hatred of America and the desire to eradicate Israel.

The argument for such a policy draws on two reservoirs: one, the can-do missionary optimism that has always colored the American approach to the Middle East; and two, the success of the United States in turning other parts of the world toward democracy.

Let me say that I am sympathetic to the intentions behind the promotion of democracy in the Middle East. I am also profoundly skeptical about what its consequences might be. Sympathetic, because I too believe that a truly democratic Arab world would more easily align itself with the champion of democracy, the United States. A truly democratic Arab world might even find it easier to accept Israel, another democracy, in its midst. But skeptical because I believe the underpinnings of such a transformation are completely lacking in the Arab world. Any attempt to promote democracy, far from making things better, might make them worse.

For you see, ladies and gentlemen, I do not believe that the only alternative to the existing authoritarian order is democracy. Certainly it is the desirable alternative. But if we set ourselves the mission of democratizing the Arab world—especially if we decide to begin with our putative friends—there is more than a risk of unintended consequences. There would almost certainly be unintended consequences. This is what happened in the Balkans, in the aftermath of the collapse of communism. This is what has happened in parts of Central Asia in the aftermath of communism. We owe it to ourselves, if not to the Arab world, to be frank with them and with ourselves: the Arab world doesn’t yet have the basic building blocks of democracy.

The most basic building blocks are not elections, or political parties, or a free press. You can have elections in countries that are not free—the Arab world has them all the time. These countries have voting; they just don’t have counting. Or let’s just say they have selective counting, which produces those famous 99-percent votes in favor of the ruler. As for political parties, the Arab world also has them—mostly in the form of ruling parties. There are lots of those. And thanks to the proliferation of technologies, the press has never been freer in the Arab world—freer to disseminate hatred, lies, and incitement. These are not the building blocks of democracy.

The basic building blocks are attitudes—above all, a tolerance of political differences, indeed even a celebration of political differences, debated openly and decided freely.

Arab society lacks that tolerance. It is very sharing of many things—but not of political power. That power is like the honor of one’s women: it cannot be compromised without being lost. And in the Arab world, historically, the loss of power has meant the loss of everything: honor, possessions. home, life itself. I do not claim here that the Arab world is imprisoned by Islam, as some might argue. I do claim that it is burdened by its history—history transmuted into memory, and preserved as a mindset. And I would summarize the mindset in a simple axiom: rule or die.

Hence, the dearth of what is called civil society. Civil society is that panoply of associations that are greater than individual, family, clan, and tribe. These associations organize people around shared ideas and interests; democratic societies are replete with thousands upon thousands of such associations, from the PTA to the Pac.

In the Arab world, civil society is very thin on the ground. And the reason is this: civil society is regarded everywhere as a form of political opposition. The state therefore seeks to destroy or co-opt it. And the people? They also suspect the institutions of civil society, which cannot protect them from the state, and whose sponsors are often distrusted. The only exception is the mosque, and through the mosque, the Islamic movements, to which I’ll return momentarily.

Now an American policy devoted to promoting democracy could strip the existing order of some of its legitimacy. In places where that legitimacy is particularly thin, such a policy could even precipitate regime change. I give America that much credit. But the question is, what comes next?

And here we come back to the law of unintended consequences: if something can go wrong, it will. As the United States and Israel have just pursued a utopian peace process to its unintended consequence, it seems to me very appropriate to ask this: does anyone think that our tools of social engineering are any more precise when it comes to the democracy process? Are we so certain of the outcome that we can confidently take a jackhammer not only to the political structures of our enemies, but of our allies as well?

To the promoters of democracy, I say, promise one thing: that the existing order will not be replaced by civil war as in Bosnia or Algeria or Lebanon. For bad as the Arab world is, it could get worse, and in fact it has been worse at various times and places. Almost everywhere, beneath the coercive order enforced by the regimes, there are precisely the same ethnic tensions that produced war in Bosnia, the same inter-faith hatreds that gave us war in Lebanon, or the same struggle for Islam that ended in civil war in Algeria. Can the doctors of democracy promise, first of all, to do no harm?

Some of them offer democracy as an antidote to the Islamic movements I alluded to a moment ago. These movements are the opportunistic infections that have followed the failed social experiments of the Arab world. They are the poor man’s civil society, and a poor substitute for it, since these movements are tolerance-deficient in the extreme.

How can they be defeated? Some analysts suggest the answer to political Islam is democracy. Get the Islamists into the system, open the game to their participation, and they will lose their appeal.

I can assure you that from the vantage point of Israel, things look precisely the opposite. Israel has five immediate neighbors: Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority. Syria, Jordan, and Egypt are ruled without even a pretense of democracy. Syria is ruled by a hereditary dictator, Jordan is ruled by an absolute monarch, and Egypt is ruled by a president-for-life. And witness: Islamist movements are no great threat to order in any of these three autocratic states.

But look at Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. Lebanon actual has a measure of political pluralism, it has political parties, a relatively open press, elections. Yet this has not diminished the influence of Islamists. To the contrary, they flourish there in their most extreme form: the Shiite Hizbullah. This movement remains armed, it has taken over the most sensitive part of the country, and it operates as a state within a state, periodically nudging the entire region to the brink of war.

And what of the Palestinian Authority? Even under Arafat’s wretched and corrupt rule, it still was less oppressive than any other Arab state. It tolerated a wider range of political expression than Syria, Jordan, or Egypt—and of course it tolerated Islamists. And the result? Here again, the Islamists of Hamas and Jihad have gained an influence far in excess of their numbers, and they have grown murderous terrorist appendages, whose suicidal violence has infected the entire Palestinian body politic.

In short, political pluralism has not been an antidote to political Islam. Quite the opposite: the more pluralistic the system, the more likely it is to become the host of some cancerous Islamist movement combining incitement and terrorism. One can hardly blame Israelis if they express a strong preference for living alongside a dictator, a monarch, or a president-for-life. To live alongside a freer Arab society has so far meant to live alongside suicide bombers, flying rockets, and bottomless incitement.

I conclude. If there is one thing worse than an authoritarian state, it is a failed state. A pro-democracy policy could create them.

It could do so precisely in places ruled by your allies. It has happened before: the Carter administration’s promotion of human rights contributed to Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. You cannot impose political openings on all of your adversaries—the Asads and the Qadhafis and the Saddams. Are you prepared to try to impose them only on your allies? If you do, and it backfires (like the peace process did), this well-intentioned policy could leave us with a Middle East divided between radical nationalist dictators who you have failed to displace, and populist Islamist revolutions you will have failed to deflect. Our annual conference will have to run an entire week to cover all the threats.

Arab democracy? A good idea—provided the Arabs come up with it themselves. America’s role should be that of a shining model, the city on a hill. Make this democracy the best it can be, keep this society the freest on earth. And be patient. The rest will surely follow.