Democracy Promotion: Plan B

On December 4, 2006, Carl Gershman, Jennifer Windsor, and Martin Kramer addressed The Washington Institute’s Special Policy Forum, on “Democracy Promotion in the Middle East: Time for a Plan B?” Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy and a member of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion. Windsor is executive director of Freedom House and also a member of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee. Kramer does not direct a democracy institute, and he is not a member of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee. When you read the text of his remarks, below, you will understand why. (For the remarks by Gershman and Windsor, go here.)

My colleagues on this panel are professional democracy promoters. While I am not a professional democracy doubter, it is well known that I have long been skeptical, and occasionally a critic, of American democracy promotion in the Middle East.

In preparation for today’s event, I looked back at what I had written over the years, and I was alarmed by my own consistency. In 1998, I published these words in an Aspen Institute book subtitled Memos to a President: “The promotion of democratic transformation in the Middle East remains an appropriate mission for foundations, endowments, research centers, and Jimmy Carter. They have no interests to preserve and nothing to lose by failure. It is a dangerous mission for government.” President Bush never read my memo, so when he delivered his “forward strategy of freedom” speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, I did compare him to Jimmy Carter.

Looking back over the last decade, I am sorry to report that nothing has happened to persuade me that I have been in error. And I am no longer in a minority. Promoting democracy in the Middle East has come to be widely regarded in America as a fool’s errand. If one had to design a mechanism to diminish U.S. influence and promote extremism—so it seems to most Americans—one couldn’t design a more efficient one than democracy promotion. It used to be said that democracy promotion had strong bipartisan support, and in the think tanks and the academy it still does, as the lowest common denominator of foreign policy. But it has lost public support and public confidence.

The reason is easily summarized in three words: Iraq, Hamas, Islamists. The process is legitimizing and empowering radical populists. In three settings—Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories—it seems to have magnified conflict and created expectations that could fuel civil war.

Is It Our Fault?

What went wrong? Broadly speaking, there are two explanations for the failure: the first places the onus on us, the second places it on them. The first is put forth by the promoters, the second by the doubters.

There are three variations of the first explanation, the “we’re to blame” school. Variation one: we didn’t follow through. Bush talked the democracy talk, but didn’t walk the democracy walk. He gave high-flying speeches but never adopted a consistent policy in support of freedom and in opposition to tyranny. In some renditions, the villains are underlings in the bureaucracy who undercut the White House—who favored short-term interests over long-term vision.

A second variation of the “onus on us” explanation is that we put the cart before the horse. In our rush to let freedom ring, we put elections before civil society. On election day we got a photo op with lots of purple fingers, but the next day we awoke to empowered Islamists and, in the West Bank and Gaza, a terrorist organization legitimized in free elections. We should have focused on building democratic capacities and saved elections for two or three years later. At the least, we should have favored more cautious electoral processes.

The third variation stresses that we launched the project through war and occupation. By starting democracy promotion at gunpoint in Iraq, the United States spoiled its chances with an Arab world always suspicious of our motives. Arabs came to regard democracy promotion as a cover for imperialism. As a result, we have undercut liberals, strengthened Islamists, and effectively set back the cause of democracy.

All of these variations share a core assumption: had democracy promotion been done right, it would have worked. The time had come, the Arab world was receptive, and it was poised to receive our message. But then we muddled the message, or revealed too much of it at once, or punched them at the same time we delivered it.

Still, it is not impossible to put things right, so the promoters believe, because the Arab world remains receptive. For those who think we have been inconsistent, that means we stop being skittish and forge ahead in every setting, come what may. For those who believe we have made a fetish of elections, it means downshifting to civil society promotion, while praying that the Islamists lose altitude. And for those who blame our big stick, it means pulling back and out of sight, on the assumption that our bullying use of force is the main impediment.

Or Maybe It’s About Them

Cogent arguments can be made for each of these three fixes, but only if you accept the core assumption: the receptivity of the Arab world to the democracy message. That is why I cannot regard these as true Plan Bs. Each of them is a Plan A, version 2.0. They build on the very same premise as Plan A: that we just have to find the right path to their open hearts.

And there’s the rub. There is a growing suspicion that maybe the problem isn’t us, it’s them—it is some complex interaction of culture, history, and economy that is the obstacle to a successful democratic transformation.

I say “suspicion” deliberately. The idea of an Arab exception has always been anathema on the left and in Middle Eastern studies, for obvious reasons. But it has been anathema on the right as well. President Bush (following Ronald Reagan) has attacked “cultural condescension,” and no one wants to be guilty of that. So we have to keep our suspicions to ourselves.

But let us be frank: there isn’t a person in this room who, down in his gut, doesn’t harbor such a suspicion. And no amount of historical analogy, social science theory, or stern gazes from Condi Rice can put this suspicion to rest, because too much of the front page of the paper seems to validate it.

There are also subversive texts that go far to substantiate it. One of them was published by The Washington Institute in 1992: Elie Kedourie’s Democracy and Arab Political Culture. “There is nothing in the political traditions of the Arab world,” he wrote, “which might make familiar, or indeed intelligible, the organizing ideas of constitutional and representative government. . . . Those who say that democracy is the only remedy for the Arab world disregard a long experience which clearly shows that democracy has been tried in many countries and uniformly failed.”

These words now shock us in their lack of equivocation; a leading political scientist once denounced Kedourie (Baghdad-born and raised) for his “Eurocentric chauvinism.” But if it is Eurocentric chauvinism we are out to pillory, might not our gaze fall upon democracy promotion itself? Upon the big-think social scientists and New York intellectuals who ran a few data sets or met a few dissidents and proclaimed the Arab world ready and eager? Upon the CPA appointees who flew into Baghdad loaded with books on the postwar reconstruction of Germany and Japan? One could go on in this vein, but you get the idea.

A Different Freedom

The only exit from our own self-centered chauvinism is to begin to think systematically about the way the Arab world is different, and then to formulate a true Plan B—a plan not fixated on elections, or even on democracy, but on the kind of freedoms whose suppression has been most resented in the region. Those freedoms are not the ones we necessarily value. They are collective, not individual; and they revolve around identity, not interests. There is a yearning for freedom—of a kind I call freedom of identity.

Take Iraq, for example. Saddam suppressed the classic individual freedoms: speech, assembly, association. There wasn’t and still isn’t any constituency prepared to fight for any of them. But people rebelled time and again when he denied their freedom of identity: Kurds did it, Shiites did it, tribes did it. They were prepared to fight for a kind of freedom.

But in post-Saddam Iraq, we have denigrated this yearning, by labeling it sectarianism and separatism. We have seen Iraq as a multicultural project, in pursuit of an American ideal. Iraq would validate not only our idea of democracy, but also our respect for diversity. And so we wound up downplaying the only kind of freedom that commands mass loyalty in Iraq: the freedom to be something first, and Iraqi second. In the process, we not only made a fetish of elections; we made a fetish of the map of the Iraq.

Parts of the Middle East are experiencing a surge of ethnic, sectarian, and even tribal identity. We call these loyalties “primordial,” but they legitimately express a deep longing for security and a collective freedom from oppression. This is hardly a liberal longing—you can yearn for this freedom and still sanction honor killing. But this is the hand we have been dealt, and our reluctance to play the cards is hurting us.

It is also a fact that freedom of identity is strongly opposed by our most virulent enemies: the Islamists. Islamism is an impossible supra-identity. In al-Qaeda, it reaches grotesque proportions in the demand for a caliphate. But even in local settings, Islamism threatens not just non-Muslims, but all Muslims who cherish another identity, of locale or sect or tribe. And many of our rogue adversaries, like Iran and Syria, deny freedom of identity to large groups within their state borders. We have been almost completely silent about that.

I would not be so presumptuous as to propose that the United States drop democracy promotion. Even I cannot rule out that in some place, it might work. But even the prospects of democracy—freedom as we understand it—would probably be greater in a Middle East where smaller identity formations had control over their destinies. The most oppressive Middle Eastern states have been large, diverse ones, ruled by minorities in the name of a big ideology. By nature, these regimes will be authoritarian, even despotic. Compact entities with secure majorities are more likely to democratize, and to accord full political rights to minorities.

Israel is such a democracy: it has extended full political and linguistic rights to its Arab minority precisely because its Jewish majority is secure. Iraqi Kurdistan may be on the same path. It is often said that the breakup of Iraq would mean ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. But minority enclaves probably have a better chance of surviving where majorities feel themselves reasonably secure and enjoy explicit recognition of their political status. We might have done better to promote this sort of freedom in Iraq from the outset.

Of course, promoting freedom of identity indiscriminately would be as counterproductive as promoting democracy indiscriminately. There are places where, as with democracy promotion, it would just make things worse—and probably clash with U.S. interests. But it is a genuine Plan B, not just a tweak of Plan A. It would go far toward synchronizing U.S. policy with at least some of the changes now sweeping the Middle East. And it is certainly better than promoting only the kind of process that ends with the Middle East giving us the purple finger.