Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why America’s democracy campaign is a failure

The National Newspaper

Emile Hokayem

October 14. 2008

Condoleezza Rice has had an unhappy tenure as US Secretary of State: her lofty and perhaps commendable ambitions for Middle East political reform crashed when it became clear the extent to which US strategic blunders have weakened US influence. So, with the Forum for the Future, an annual gathering of Arab, Western and other foreign ministers to discuss the prospects for reform in the Middle East, set to open in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, she has one last chance to reflect upon the predicament of democracy promotion. For a once forceful advocate of political reform, it will have a bitter taste.

Democracy promotion became a credo of the Bush administration in the months after the 9/11 attacks. The urge to make a case at home and abroad that transcended narrow security concerns and sought a greater purpose (why not freedom for all?) led the US to embrace the notion that democratic reform could transform the Middle East for the better. President Bush meant no less when he said in November 2003: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”

The reasoning went like this: the rise of violent extremism in the Arab world and its global spillover (New York, Bali, Madrid, London and elsewhere) pose an urgent threat, and can be traced directly to political backwardness and economic underperformance in the Middle East. Governments there, including US allies, have done little to address the basic grievances of their populations, who are now venting their frustration by supporting a variety of new players, including violent ones. By addressing that root cause, the US could at once defeat a strategic threat to its national security, improve the wellbeing of Middle Eastern populations and cultivate long-term goodwill with populations it helped to free. That would put the US on the right side of history by fuelling a democratic wave that would sweep the Middle East, just as it did East Asia and Eastern Europe.

The grand theory soon ran into trouble. The manner in which it was pursued, clear tensions with core US interests (securing energy flows, protecting Israel and combating terrorism) and the resulting hypocrisy have undermined its objectives, alienated its partners and empowered its enemies.

The inherent contradictions of democracy promotion were compounded by fundamental flaws in some of the basic assumptions driving the enterprise. For example, there is no evidence that democracy itself can stop terrorism. Moreover, many of those who attacked the US on 9/11 became politically mature and radicalised in Western societies, not their Arab homelands. It also turned out that wars to promote democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan increased rather than reduced terrorism, costing Iraqi, Afghan and US lives for not much in return. Often the US was unwilling to engage movements opposed to US policy although they had significant popular appeal. Finally, the US dismissed the role that its own policies play in fuelling anti-Americanism: it was about “who they are”, not “what we do”.

These flaws created immediate policy dilemmas for the US. When the “bad guys” win in elections “we” have pushed for, what do “we” do – accept or isolate? When democracy goals and security interests collide, which should prevail? When “we” lose influence, should “we” care at all about human rights and democracy? During her tenure Ms Rice tested all these questions. She began with a bold speech in 2005 in Cairo urging Egypt, a US ally on a political backslide, to reform, and later deplored the imprisonment of a vocal opposition leader. Saudi Arabia received similar treatment. Soon, though, these good intentions were relegated to the back burner as containing Iran and gaining Egyptian and Saudi cooperation on other regional crises became the priority.

Worse news came from Palestine, where Hamas won the 2006 elections that the US alone had pushed for. A panicked Washington imposed a boycott of Hamas until it recognised Israel and fulfilled other conditions. Analysts are still divided about the real US mistake: was it to push for the elections at all, or to isolate a legitimate Hamas parliament and government?

Libya is another case in point. A pariah state for years, Libya got rid of its WMD programmes in exchange for political normalisation with the US, despite remaining one of the most closed countries in the region and to the dismay of Libyan opposition politicians.

Given this record, one can hardly blame critics for pointing to the inconsistency (some might say hypocrisy) in US democracy policy.

The US has fallen victim to its own illusions, born more of naivety and idealism than Machiavellian calculation, and has lost credibility as an engine for reform in the region. By engaging in political and social engineering, it profoundly misread the basic demands of Arab populations. By sometimes equating democracy promotion with regime change, it looked like a predator and gave targeted regimes a pretext to clamp down on their opposition. And by failing to stabilise Iraq, it gave democracy a bad name.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain have pledged to continue encouraging reform in the Middle East: you can bet that whoever wins will do so with more humility.

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