02/26/2011 10:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democracy Matters in the Middle East

At the 10th annual Democracy Matters National Student Summit last January, one of the issues discussed by the more than 100 student activists in attendance was the stance the United States should take with regard to democratic movements abroad. At the time, this seemed to be an interesting, but largely hypothetical question. Little more than a month later, our discussion no longer can be thought of as merely academic, as the Arab world is roiled by a democratic upsurge.

In thinking about these insurgencies, the first and most important principle is to recognize that democracy is must be constructed by the people who will live under the resulting governing structure. And in the building process they will be guided by their own cultural practices and political and economic ideas. Imposing democracy from the outside is a contradiction in terms. For a political process to be meaningful and effective, it has to respond to the needs and desires of the specific population in question.

But the fact is that such moments of political creativity are never completely achieved in isolation. External interests are always involved, either explicitly or implicitly. This is particularly the case with regard to the United States society and government. Our country's values and institutions have long resonated with the aspirations of people across the globe for freedom and prosperity. But today few believe that the United States government is committed to the spread of democracy.

Arab political opinion reflects this contradiction. Survey data on the one hand indicate that people in the Middle East overwhelmingly aspire to live in a democracy. In an article that appeared in the Journal of Democracy, Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler report that "86 percent of those interviewed believe that democracy is the best form of government and 90 percent agree that democracy would be a good or very good system of governance of the country in which they live." As the authors remark, "support for democracy in the Arab world is as high as or higher than in any other world region."

But even with this, the case polling also indicates that 64 percent of respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates possessed a "very unfavorable" attitude toward the United States, with 65 percent reporting that they did not "believe that democracy is a real American objective" in the region. Instead a majority of those surveyed believed that the single most important objective motivating American policy in the region was "controlling oil." Significantly virtually all (80 percent) reported that their views were based on "American policy" and not on American values (2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll).

The Obama Administration's cautious response to the democratic insurgencies in the Middle East has if anything worsened the gap between Arab support for democratic values and the hostility that exists in the Middle East towards the United States government. Instead of forthrightly saying that we support movements to achieve democratic reform no matter where, our government has carefully measured which regimes to support. With regard to regimes that the United States believes are likely to go down, we attempt to align ourselves with the opposition. But no such support is forthcoming for the opposition to governments that are likely to survive. Thus the New York Times of February 25 reports that the Obama Administration, judging that the monarchy in Bahrain looks as if it will not be overthrown, has won American support, even though "security forces were brutal in their crackdown of protesters."

There are always risks present in a period of political creativity such as the Middle East is experiencing at the moment. The insurgencies are coalitions that in addition to democrats include groups opposed to political equality. The democratic movement might go off the tracks, as it did in Iran after the 1979 revolution. While it is true that the American government has little influence on the trajectory such movements might take, it certainly does not help those who identify with this country's values that we have adopted a reserved and cool attitude towards their efforts.

What is truly sad is that the Obama Administration, having said it was committed to change, has really not embarked upon a new path in support of democracy in the Middle East. That failure provides support for the Arab belief that petroleum and campaign contributions from big energy companies drive our government's policies in the region. Until and unless there is a dramatic change in our support for democracy, we will be confronted with yet another case in which special interest politics trumps both democratic values and our country's stature in the world.

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