A Misplaced Faith? Arab Democracy and American Secur

March 5, 2003

A Misplaced Faith? Arab Democracy and American Secur

 Last Wednesday, Ari Fleischer reaffirmed President Bush's opinion that "the more there is movement toward democracy" in the Middle East, "the better the prospect for peace.


Last Wednesday, Ari Fleischer reaffirmed President Bush's opinion that "the more there is movement toward democracy" in the Middle East, "the better the prospect for peace."  Many in the administration maintain that if dictators can be removed, beginning with Saddam Hussein, the populace, freed of the restraints of autocracy, will elect responsible governments that will pursue policies that are in harmony with American interests-including cooperation in war against terrorism and normalization of relations with Israel.  The confidence exuded by the Bush Administration, however, appears to be grievously misplaced.  

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Nicholas Gage records in his memoirs his experience as a student newspaper editor his difficulty in finding any student at Boston University who would endorse the candidacy of Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election.  He noted his surprise at how close the Kennedy-Nixon race turned out to be, and observed that he had learned a valuable journalistic lesson-the importance of not assuming that your immediate sources reflect the entire spectrum of opinion.  When administration officials proclaim that democratic states in the Middle East would be more accommodating to American interests, one wonders who precisely they have been talking with.

Even in the current, autocratic political societies of the region, it is possible to decipher what the likely international orientation of future Middle East democracies might be by consulting public opinion surveys, the platform of political parties and civic associations and the musings of the intelligentsia.  One would think that the results of a comprehensive opinion survey of nine Muslim countries (including leading U. S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan) undertaken in March 2002 might have given the Washington establishment some pause for reflection. In all these states, the "very favorable" view of the Untied States seldom reached double digits, with Pakistan recording a dismal one percent, followed by seven percent among the Saudis. The overwhelming number of the participants decried America's policies as "ruthless, aggressive, conceited and arrogant." Such public denunciations cannot be easily dismissed as clever manipulations of regimes cultivating anti-Americanism as a means of deflecting attention from their own inadequacies. (Indeed, the regimes' anti-American campaigns are often designed to placate public opinion as opposed to creating such dispositions.)  It is clear that any government whose claim to legitimacy rests upon an electoral mandate from the people would have to take into account the overwhelming popular sentiment for a decreased American presence in the region.

Beyond public opinion surveys, an examination of the platforms of political parties and professional associations reveals a similar disdain for continued American predominance.   These organizations represent the professional middle classes--precisely the people upon whom any future Arab democracy would be grounded.  In today's Middle East, political parties and civic organizations play a curious role. Despite their complete or partial exclusion from power, they are genuine forums for assessing public opinion and are often the only real expressions of democracy, given their freely elected leaders and consensus-based platforms.  Their pronouncements, therefore, do reflect popular attitudes. Throughout the Middle East, the leading political parties, whether Islamist or secular, find common ground in their opposition to the United States. In Egypt, the epicenter of Arab politics, the secular Wafd party and the Muslim Brotherhood equally denounce "American tyranny" in strikingly similar terms while both parties call on Cairo to forgo American aid. A November 2002 statement issued by 60 Jordanian public figures representing opposition parties, the professional associations and civic institutions condemned the government's support of American policies, including the war in Afghanistan, the Middle East peace process and the anti-terrorist campaign. In prelude to the October 2002 elections in Pakistan, several leading secular and moderately religious parties-the Pakistan People's Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, the Muttahida Majlis-I-Amal (MMA) and the National Alliance-passed a resolution calling on President Musharraf to reverse his recent cooperation with the United States. Such examples abound the region, as opposition to Washington's policies cuts across various ideological boundaries and unites seemingly disparate political actors.

Given such public views, it is hard to see how democratically elected governments in the Middle East can accommodate U.S. interests.  Take two of America's most pressing concerns, the Arab-Israeli peace process and halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The specter of a powerful Israel "transgressing" on sacred Arab lands is still the prevailing image of the Jewish state in the region's popular culture. Recent polls suggest that throughout the Middle East over sixty percent of those surveyed view the plight of the Palestinians as the most significant regional challenge. In the two states that have enacted formal peace treaties with Israel-Egypt and Jordan-the popular opinion is strongly hostile to such obligations.  Egypt and Jordan maintain their relations with Israel at Washington's behest precisely because they have autocratic chief executives insulated from popular recall.

Nor would the United States find a democratic Middle East more hospitable terrain for its anti-proliferation priorities. In the era of the Bush Doctrine, with its penchant toward unilateralism and pre-emption, it is hard to see how any beleaguered state would dispense with the deterrent value of nuclear weapons. Prospective democracies in the Middle East would face even greater nationalistic pressure for modernization of their armed forces and achievement of a true balance of power with a nuclear-armed Israel. Washington may be able to coax, bribe and pressure Arab despots into maintaining their compliance with its non-proliferation treaties, but it can do little with democratic regimes relying on the votes of a public complaining about the inequality of the Israeli nuclear monopoly. It is significant that none of the opposition parties in Pakistan-not even the most "secular" or "Western" of these movements-support any move toward de-nuclearization (certainly as long as India and Israel remain nuclear powers).  The same can be same of the democratic reformers in Iran-those who call for freedom of the press or greater accountability of officials to the electorate are not proponents of dismantling Iran's WMD program or acquiescing to a permanent American presence in the Persian Gulf.

No one who follows the programs and platforms of Middle Eastern political parties could escape the conclusion that, if the people are represented in the councils of governments, most Middle Eastern governments would be less accommodating to Washington's concerns.  Changing the hearts and minds of Arab voters will prove to be a much more daunting task than deposing dictators.  

This does not mean that Washington should acquiesce to corrupt dictatorships as its only option. Rather than blindly prop up authoritarian rulers or gamble on democracy, the United States has to opt for a pragmatic middle course and aim to produce liberal autocracies capable of managing rather than suppressing pluralism. Such regimes would also need to promote market reforms to ensure a viable distribution of wealth and opportunities for the burgeoning youth of the region. In a liberal autocratic order, democratic institutions and procedures such as parliaments, a liberal press and the rule of law would exist but be circumscribed by the executive power. Such an order permits opposition forces a limited voice in national affairs, including a degree of independent political space in the public square, in return for abiding by the rules of set down by the regime. In contrast to the totalitarian model, this system of governance recognizes the need for a degree of public participation as a means of injecting a measure of accountability in the system.  It also provides the best opportunity for a long-term alignment of the interests of the Arab middle classes with those of the United States.  This may not appeal to the crusading instincts of some within the administration, but the lessons of history are quite clear: the first set of Crusades in the Middle East ultimately failed.  


Ray Takeyh is Fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. Nikolas Gvosdev is the editor of In the National Interest.