Shadi Hamid is founding member and associate at The Project on Middle East Democracy . He is a contributor to Democracy Arsenal , the Security and Peace Initiative’s foreign affairs blog. His recent article for The American Prospect proposes democracy promotion as the center piece of progresssive foreign policy.
Some commentators —including most recently the American Prospect’s Matt Yglesias —have argued that the central problem in the Middle East is not so much its lack of democracy but, rather, “the enduring legacy of imperialism.” According to this line of reasoning, the solution to our Mideast dilemmas would be to change the policies that Middle Easterners hate the most. Unfortunately, the list of grievances is so long, that to actually redress them would, one suspects, take a very, very long time. Moreover, in a region where our vital interests are engaged, it is unlikely that an avowedly “anti-imperialist” foreign policy—whatever that might mean in practice—will stand a chance of being supported by either political party. More fundamentally, however, this diagnosis fails to grasp the real source of our difficulties in the Middle East.
It’s not so much that people are angry at us, but rather that people have no political outlet with which to express their anger in a peaceful, legitimate manner.
Even if the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict was to be solved through hands-on American diplomacy, it would be shortsighted to think that this would be the victory that some imagine it will be. For if the conflict is resolved, it does not change the fact that millions of Arabs live in humiliation, treated as little more than petty subjects, to be manipulated, controlled and repressed at will. The greatest indignities Arabs and Muslims face—the ones that, for them, are most immediate and tangible—come from their own authoritarian governments. And of course, we, in our continued support for unrepentant autocrats, are complicit.
As long as Muslims have grievances against us (and they most certainly will for the foreseeable future), then the only sustainable American response is to promote those democratic mechanisms that will absorb, temper and channel such sentiments in a constructive fashion. Only when their governments are responsive to their needs and frustrations will Muslims be able to shake off the humiliation and powerlessness which has been the prime mover of terror and extremism.
Tom Friedman comes close to heart of the matter in his book The World Is Flat when he talks about the “poverty of dignity”:
Humiliation is the most underestimated force in international relations and in human relations. It is when people or nations are humiliated that they really lash out and engage in extreme violence…As my friend the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem said of the 9/11 hijackers, they "are walking the streets of life, searching for tall buildings—for towers to bring down, because they are not able to be tall like them."
At the pinnacle of Islamic civilization centuries ago, Baghdad, now reduced to rubble, was a city of wonder and riches, the world’s leading center of intellectual and scientific thought that attracted scholars from across the globe. Muslims look back at the glory of their past and then look at their present situation, defined by false promise and lost potential. Where they were once the movers of history, they are now at its mercy. This is where much of the anger and frustration germinates. Muslims have lost their ability to chart their own course, to ask their own questions, to form their own governments. They have become passive recipients of what others decide for them. This leads, invariably, to a profound sense of helplessness and, most importantly, a loss of self-worth and dignity. With this in mind, democracy can indeed be an effective antidote to terrorism, extremism, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, but only insofar as it is able to restore dignity and moral and political agency to those who wield its instruments.
Critics of democracy promotion sometimes accuse its supporters of thinly-veiled imperialism. But it is unclear how the approach of neo-realists such as Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman—soon to publish a treatise on what they curiously call “ethical realism”—is any less “imperial.” In their recent, rather ponderous essay here on TomPaine , they employ the tiresome platitude that before democracy, there must first be “legal and civil institutions” and “middle classes with a real commitment to democracy,” as if they themselves have the right to determine when Arabs might finally deserve democracy. Of course, Lieven and Hulsman forget that it is the autocracies themselves that actively prevent the growth of civil institutions and squeeze an already small middle class with their disastrous economic policies.
Ideally, rooted institutions and an ascendant middle class would be nice to have, but to wait for them might mean to wait 50 years, or perhaps a hundred. Some Americans, in the throes of dispassionate analysis, might possess such patience. Arabs and Muslims themselves, the ones who must suffer daily under the scourge of autocracy, would likely find it more difficult to muster the same degree of patience. Moreover, from the standpoint of U.S. national security interests, it would be foolish to think that the existing regimes—lacking much, if any, real popular support—will be able to last well into this century. It is more likely that Arabs and Muslims would take matters into their own hands and, then, we might have to deal with another Iran. As John F. Kennedy once warned, "Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”
In the final analysis, the arguments of democracy promotion opponents can be stripped down to something quite simple—that we shouldn’t rush democracy because “radicals” will come to power in free elections. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the same thing Arab autocrats say to the Bush administration to scare it into supporting them. To say we shouldn’t support democracy in the Middle East because we won’t like the outcomes strikes me as a rather amoral (or immoral) position to take.
Moreover, it assumes that all Islamists are, in fact, “radicals,” a fallacy which needs to be immediately laid to rest. If we put aside the exceptional cases of Hamas and Hezbollah, mainstream Islamist groups—while they may be illiberal and/or exclusivist—are not “radical.” Rather, they are well-rooted and “normalized” in society and often claim significant representation in parliament. Most Islamist groups—such as Turkey’s AKP, Morocco’s PJD, Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front—are not armed, nor do they have military wings. Moreover, these parties have evolved in recent years, focusing less on empty religious sloganeering and more on the importance of democratic reform. This does not mean they are ideal or that we will like them when they come to power. But it does mean that we can engage with and talk to them, as we have done with ruling Islamist parties in Iraq and Turkey—both American allies.
It would be worth noting that more than 60 prominent Arab and Muslim intellectuals and activists, from diverse ideological orientations, are signatories to a recently published “open letter to President Bush ” which states in part:
Perhaps emboldened by the impression that America is wavering in its support for democracy, some autocrats have recently intensified repression. This makes the need for sustained U.S. and international support and pressure more urgent than ever. The region needs to hear again that the course of freedom and democracy is the only course which America, guided by both interest and principle, will support.
Let us not waver for their sake, and for ours. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has, for all intents and purposes, given up on democracy promotion. My great fear is that if and when Democrats assume control of the House this November and the presidency in 2008, they will waver just as their predecessors did. To avoid this, the discussion on democracy promotion must be concretized and made less theoretical and more practical. A new Democratic administration in 2008 would be well-served to consider taking the following measures:
• Announcing publicly that the U.S. relationship with the Middle East will be restructured around and defined by countries’ commitment to political reform and democratization. This would be accompanied by an extensive public diplomacy campaign to explain to audiences the change in policy and its implications.
• Establishing a clear set of guidelines and expectations for each country that receives substantial economic or military aid from the U.S. (i.e. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia). This would be coupled by an understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the region. Different countries will be dealt with differently, based on their particular needs and circumstances.
• Establishing an ambitious, well-funded initiative—on the scale of the Marshall Plan—which will offer a comprehensive package of incentives for any Muslim country that demonstrates clear progress on a set of pre-established political markers, including freedom of expression, free elections, and respect for opposition rights.
Only if these steps are taken will we begin to regain the credibility that was only ours to lose. It will be a slow process, and it may be messy and uncertain, but we can no longer postpone the work that needs to be done. If we resort to “ethical realism” and other forms of cynical anti-idealism, then the Middle East and its peoples—ever desirous of the same freedoms and liberties that we enjoy—will be lost to us, and at great consequence.