Closing of the Democratic Mind

The U.S. has lost momentum in opening up Middle Eastern societies


The Bush administration has lost the initiative on Middle Eastern democratization. The gong of reality has apparently sounded. But just as some officials overestimated how democracy would impose sudden serenity on Iraq, those advocating a departure from democratization as a cornerstone of American foreign policy misjudge just how much the Arab world has changed since April 2003.

Things were different a year ago. In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush issued an inventory of liberal promises: "We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people." (Applause.) "America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies. Yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty." (Applause.) … "Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery." (Applause.) … "Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are, the future leaders of your free country." And so on.

In a much publicized speech in Cairo last June, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice applied this idealism to the Middle East, saying: "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

Then the masonry began to collapse. With the administration facing growing domestic discontent over the war in Iraq (including, lately, from within the GOP) and a salvo of rotten fruit for its performance after hurricane Katrina, for nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and for the Valerie Plame affair, the idealism began sounding more like the clang of an empty saucepan than an alarum rallying the liberal legions. On top of that, more urgent priorities elbowed their way to the top of the agenda.

Last weekend, for example, after failing at a summit in Bahrain to persuade Arab states to adopt a final statement promoting democracy, Rice traveled to Saudi Arabia, and there had to put democratic values on the backburner. The Americans and the Saudis effected a reconciliation of sorts, after deep differences over Iraq. The two sides set up joint working groups on terrorism, oil production, and the granting of U.S. visas to Saudi citizens, among other things. This harked back to the tradeoff that for decades ensured Washington would leave Arab despots alone: Whenever the U.S. has regarded security and economic self-interest as paramount in the Middle East, democracy has lost out.

Similarly, last week's bombings in Amman will almost certainly make less likely American pressure on Jordan's King Abdullah to open up his police-run system. The monarch has cleverly sought to peddle the line that now is the time to let democracy flourish, but somehow that is unconvincing. Which Arab leader has ever increased the repressive powers of his security agencies, as the king intends to do through a tough anti-terrorism law currently being drafted, while also giving his society more freedom?

The bombings took place as interest began waning in Jeffrey Goldberg's much-talked-about profile of former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Regurgitating the tenets of "realism", Scowcroft, who served under President George H.W. Bush, expressed deep doubts about the administration's democratization efforts. Quite why the congenitally uninspired Scowcroft has been promoted to foreign policy sage is a mystery, though his close relationship with the president's father offers part of the answer. There is also the fact that realists, who had nothing to say after 9/11, have regained some credence as the administration falters in Iraq.

That's why Scowcroft was not alone: His former protégé, Richard Haass, currently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times last week outlining what he sees as the ideal foreign policy doctrine for the U.S. Haass affirmed that while democracy promotion was a legitimate policy goal, "to make it a doctrine is neither desirable nor practical." Before him, fellow realist Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, argued that "the Bush doctrine has collapsed, and the administration has consequently embraced realism, American foreign policy's perennial hangover cure." How had things changed? "In practice, the Bush administration has recently begun to pursue interests rather than ideals and conciliation rather than confrontation."

Rose's diagnosis was incomplete: The administration has always mixed interests and ideals, conciliation and confrontation, since no foreign policy can ever be conducted on the basis of one without the other. But he was indirectly right in another sense: When it comes to facing the dilemma of advancing democracy against interests in the Arab world, the administration has been willing to hold up odiously manipulated elections as proof of progress—for example the recent presidential election in Egypt or municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. In other words, the administration, perhaps reluctantly, has intermittently fallen back on an old realist trick of insisting things are better, providing counterfeit evidence of this, and turning to more important items of business.

Yet now is as good a time as ever for the U.S. to make democratization a basis of its foreign policy doctrine in the Middle East. Many Arabs have no patience for Bush. But the center of gravity in the region has decisively shifted in the direction of advancing liberty, as recent events have eroded the legitemacy of Arab leaders: three relatively free elections this year in Iraq (one of them forthcoming in December), another relatively free election in Lebanon after the country saw an end to Syrian occupation, and growing discontent with the fossilocracies in other parts of the region, particularly Egypt or Tunisia, and with second-generation despotisms, such as those in Syria and Jordan. For an administration to ignore such changes and banish democracy to a secondary tier of priorities would display a striking lack of ambition and foresight.

A more obvious parallel question is whether the U.S. can even return to the cold realism that guided policy under the first Bush administration. As 9/11 showed, that approach posed a genuine national security threat, as disgruntled Arabs, associating Washington with their own domestic persecutors, retaliated against the U.S. Conversely, absolute, inflexible devotion to democracy at the expense of more practical consideration of interests is simply not sensible.

That leaves a third option: that the U.S. declare the spread of democracy a strategic interest (not an open-ended desire), one that must be advanced where and when possible, even if it is temporarily delayed by intervening objectives. Arab regimes should be pushed to take specific measures within specific timeframes to open up their societies, and the U.S. can tie this to other forms of bilateral cooperation. Finally, no administration should ever hail as progress what is patently an effort by dictatorships to sell it a defective bill of democratic goods.

Is this certain to work? No, but any policymaker wanting to adapt to the new realities in the Middle East is better off working according to these guidelines, rather than by playing down democratic principles and helping buttress the illegitimate, failing states that make a new 9/11 possible.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.