The Buzz

Onward, Liberal Democratic Soldiers

As The Buzz has noted, one of the major dilemmas posed by the Arab Spring is how the United States should react to the rising influence of political Islam. Writing in Commentary, Iranian-American journalist Sohrab Ahmari offers an answer: a full-throated defense of liberal democratic values.

Most of Ahmari’s essay explores the divide between Islamists and liberals in the contest for who will govern the Middle East after the autocrats, particularly in Egypt. He notes that Islamists appear to have the upper hand now, and rightly observes that Arab liberals have been both inconsistent in living up to the ideals they profess to hold and too willing to play to anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments.

The piece goes off the rails, however, in its closing paragraph, when Ahmari lays out his proposal for what Washington should do about this:

The Middle East today is desperately in need of an ideological plan similar to the Marshall Plan. . . . The United States should not hesitate to assume the role of the democratic teacher, as it did in Europe, to shape and articulate a Middle East liberalism that is at peace with Israel, that refrains from anti-Western rhetoric and prioritizes individual and minority rights over the whims of demagogic mobs.

There are two major flaws here. First, the historical comparison misses the mark. While the Marshall Plan was “ideological,” its means were overwhelmingly economic, aimed at rebuilding the productive economies of Europe. It was a massive financial investment, roughly 5 percent of U.S. GDP at the time. Ahmari is presumably not advocating this for the Middle East, but such a funding request would be laughed off the Hill if Obama made it.

Second, this proposal begs the obvious response: How? How exactly should Americans “teach” Middle Easterners to be more consistently liberal? How is it at all “democratic” for us to tell them what sorts of political outcomes they should favor? Most importantly, what instruments of leverage should we use to achieve this result? Ahmari doesn’t even begin to answer these questions, rendering his piece a howler.