TWQ: The Baby, the Bathwater, and the Freedom Agenda in the Middle East - Winter 2009
January 1, 2009
In reassessing how to secure U. S. interests while stabilizing the Middle East, the new U.S. administration might well decide to postpone or even repudiate democracy promotion. Democratic systems have hardly bloomed in the region since President George W. Bush announced a “forward strategy of freedom” during a speech commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003. In fact, U.S. attention seems to have caused more problems than it solved, particularly in Iraq and Palestine. No one can guarantee that the United States can promote democracy in the Middle East without risking stability and critical interests, making it tempting to at least try to set aside the policy until clearer answers emerge, potentially under the guise of a policy review.
Yet, the new U.S. administration will undoubtedly encounter early challenges and opportunities related to democratization, which Arabs themselves increasingly recognize as essential to solving their countries’ internal political, economic, and social problems. In the next four years, there will almost certainly be presidential succession in Egypt after three decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule – and possibly in Algeria, Yemen, and several other Arab countries as well – that will embolden those calling for political reform. Elections are becoming commonplace in Arab states, and the United States will need to decide whether to promote increasingly free and fair contests or ignore them altogether. Iraqis, Lebanese, and Palestinians will continue to try to resolve their respective power struggles, unleashed at least in part due to U.S. actions. The United States will not be able to remain neutral toward the question of democracy in these situations.
Will the new administration address these challenges, or will it ignore the freedom agenda because of its failures in Iraq and Palestine, and because it bears too strong a stamp of its predecessor? Limiting judgments of the ongoing regional legacy of democracy promotion to Iraq and Palestine overlooks other less publicized cases – in places such as Egypt, Bahrain, and Morocco – that show how the United States has managed to make some headway in promoting democracy without sacrificing strategic interests. Sidelining the freedom agenda in the Middle East without taking into account these lessons would be a historic mistake, paralleling the Bush administration’s “ABC” (Anything But Clinton) error in initially discarding the Arab-Israeli peace process. Instead, the new administration should incorporate lessons from these less publicized cases to help support democracy in the Middle East more effectively.