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Beating Back the Democratization Backlash

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The backlash against democracy promotion by the U.S. government continues. In the current issue of The National Interest, Gregory Gause urges the U.S. government to "give up on the idea that we should push key Arab allies -- Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia -- to move towards democratic elections." The reason? The need to "do no harm to core American interests," which Gause identifies, conventionally enough, as, "Arab-Israeli peace, Persian Gulf stability and regional non-proliferation." But there is a glaring omission from this list of interests, and there is no necessary connection between soft-pedaling democracy promotion and advancing these core concerns. Indeed, it may just as reasonably be asserted that failing to advance democracy is harmful to these interests.

As the Bush administration rightly recognized, the lack of democracy in the Middle East is itself a threat to U.S. interests in the region, especially when it is U.S. allies that are examples of repression and autocracy. People in the region understandably resent the denial of their basic rights and freedoms, and they hold the U.S. government responsible for cozying up to and even propping up dictators. Such resentment fuels anti-Americanism that can provide fertile ground for violent extremists profoundly hostile to U.S. interests.

The lesson of the recent post-election protests in Iran has little to do with the strength or weakness of Islamism; it is that people care about their democratic rights - about their right to have a say in how they are governed. This feeling is not something cooked up by neo-cons and democracy mongers in Washington think tanks; it is a universal right reaffirmed time and time again by people in all parts of the world who find the denial of such rights a cause of legitimate grievance.

The contention that democracy would be bad for U.S. interests is simply wrong: take, for example, the issue of Arab-Israeli peace. Authoritarian Arab governments exist very comfortably with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Constant tension that occasionally flares up into armed conflict provides the perfect background to the official narrative of permanent emergency, threats from hostile external forces -- especially the "Zionist entity" and its evil foreign backers -- and the need to prioritize the national /religious struggle over progress in the area of basic human development indicators. The suffering of the Palestinian people is a fine distraction from the many shortcomings of governance in these countries. Why should authoritarian ruling elites give any serious support to disrupting a status quo that has served them so well? Similarly, the idea that Persian Gulf security is somehow increased by maintaining authoritarian regimes should be disproved by the name Saddam Hussein, a great authoritarian with a troubling habit of invading his Gulf neighbors. Authoritarian regimes like Saddam Hussein's Iraq and today's Iran have been major regional irritants in the area of non-proliferation.

The opponents of democracy promotion set up a straw man in pointing out that "full democracy" in authoritarian countries that are currently U.S. allies like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would result in the election of Islamist governments less friendly towards the United States. There is no chance that there will be full, open democratic elections in these countries any time soon. The current rulers would not allow it, and the conditions on the ground in these countries are not conducive to democracy. For example, Egypt recently amended its constitution to make it virtually impossible for a candidate not approved by the ruling party to run for the presidency, and stripped the judiciary of powers to supervise the electoral process, thereby making it easier for the regime to rig elections without independent monitoring. The choice is not between full democracy and no democracy at all; the real question is how U.S. policy can assist in moving countries like Egypt from the negative situation it is in today towards greater democracy.

Recent experience has taught us that radical Islamic movements opposed to democracy, like Al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban or the Iranian supporters of President Ahmadinejad are indeed a threat to the United States and its interests. However, it is not such forces that would be strengthened by greater democratization in the region. Democratic Islamic political movements, which by definition are non-violent and respect the rights and freedoms associated with democratic systems, are not an inevitable threat to American interests. The example of the ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party in Turkey is a case in point. Moreover, greater democracy would not only favor Islamists; it would also favor long suppressed secular political movements, including liberal democrats who would be forces for moderation and democratic consolidation. These natural allies of the West are currently marginalized in virtually every country in the region.

Those calling for less democracy promotion seem to be forgetting that it was Egypt and Saudi Arabia that produced the 9/11 hijackers and that a major grievance of Al-Qaeda's leadership was and continues to be the lamentable governance performance of the authoritarian rulers in these countries. Being seen as uncritical backers of such governments, and more especially the worst aspects of such governments like corruption and widespread violations of human rights, emphatically does not serve U.S. interests.

It is very much to be hoped that the Obama administration will not be deterred by the democratization nay-sayers, but will take steps to implement its commitments to human rights, democracy and the rule of law that the president emphasized in his speech in Cairo. The people of the region are waiting to see the promised results.