When I Hear “Arab Democracy,” I Reach for My Seat Belt

Over the weekend, I delivered an address on the prospects of democracy in the Arab world, at the annual Lansdowne conference of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The question: Should the United States promote liberal democracy in the Arab world after a victory in Iraq? (The presumption: The United States will replace Saddam with some semblance of a pluralistic order.) I answered this question with these questions:

As the United States has just pursued a utopian Middle East 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?

The argument that the removal of Saddam will topple the dominoes of despotism in the Arab world is really a third-tier rationale for war. If you don’t believe that Saddam has operational weapons of mass destruction, and you don’t think he had anything to do with 9/11 or Al-Qaeda, then this rationale is for you: regime change in Iraq will morph into regime change across the Middle East. It’s invoked to bring on board those Americans who can’t imagine resorting to force except in the selfless pursuit of some mission of mercy. The ending of “gender apartheid” in Afghanistan played a similar role in the war against the Taliban.

Frankly, my eyes glaze over when I hear Condoleezza Rice, James Woolsey, and Tom Friedman wax eloquent on the coming “march of democracy” in the Arab world. (Woolsey to James Fallows in the current issue of The Atlantic: “This could be a golden opportunity to begin to change the face of the Arab world. Just as what we did in Germany changed the face of Central and Eastern Europe, here we have got a golden chance.”) As a survivor of the Middle East peace process, which, we were told, would transform Israel, “Palestine,” and Jordan into a Benelux, I smell snake oil. Of all the rationales for war, this one is the least substantial and the most ideological, and those who make it cast doubt on whether they fully understand the regional context in which an Iraq war might be fought.

I’m not alone in my pessimism. There is a smart piece in The National Interest with the subtitle “Conjuring Arab Democracy,” that ends up here: “Our attitude toward promoting Arab democracy should be likened to playing the lottery: it’s no sin to wager, but it’s unwise to rely for one’s future on winning the jackpot.” A new policy brief from the Carnegie Endowment, with the title “Democratic Mirage in the Middle East,” ends up here: “The United States will be forced to work with existing regimes toward gradual reform—and this is a good thing. If a tidal wave of political change actually came to pass, the United States would not be even remotely prepared to cope with the resulting instability and need for large-scale building of new political systems.”

The Iraq debate should be decided by the consideration of threats, threats, threats. It would be unfortunate were it to be sidetracked by promises, promises, promises.