Blending Democracy

Blending Democracy

Mini Teaser: The political soil of the Middle East has not been tilled by the Western Enlightenment. Growing democracy there must take this into account.

by Author(s): Dov S. Zakheim

What all of these rulers have in common with each other is that they are allied to the United States. Relatively speaking, the traditional Arab rulers in the region, and most of its non-hereditary rulers as well (Syria being a major exception), share one other characteristic: None is hostile to the United States because of its support for Israel. To a greater or lesser extent, they accept Israel's place in the region. Given their steps, however halting, toward creating freer societies, their willingness to countenance a Middle East peace settlement and the virulent anti-Americanism of much of their opposition, it must be asked whether it is really in America's interest to distance itself from such regimes. Constructive engagement with friends who are slow to respond but respond nonetheless is one thing; rejection is quite another.

This is why the tone of a recent study by a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force is troubling. It argues that "the United States must convey the message that the general quality of bilateral relations will be contingent, in part, upon reform. . . . [I]t should take steps to distance itself from governments that refuse over time to recognize the political rights of their citizens." This statement begs a key question: By the council's measure, is the progress that traditional monarchies are achieving to open their political and economic systems sufficiently rapid to prevent the United States from dealing with them at arm's length? In other words, what does "over time" really mean, and how fast is fast enough?

Blended Democracy

Perhaps the single most important reason for the revival of democracy in states such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic states was the fact that throughout Soviet or communist rule, the United States and other Western states, as well as the Catholic Church, provided steady public encouragement, and often secret financial support, to the key elements of their civil societies. Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Voice of America, the BBC's foreign language services, the journal Encounter and the activities of the AFL-CIO, including funding for Poland's Solidarity union, are only among the best-known examples of these activities. All of them helped reinforce the memories of a free society that the peoples of these states harbored during the seemingly endless decades of communist rule. To the extent that the authorities tolerated civic and religious organizations of various kinds, the United States and other Western nations interacted with these organizations as much as possible. To the extent that the communist authorities suppressed such groups, support was as steady as it was clandestine.

The West's efforts to reach out to captive societies during the Cold War not only involved a long-term commitment but also required a concerted program to reach out to all levels of those societies. In contrast, it is not at all clear that the United States in particular has anything like the same range of contacts and interfaces across the length and breadth of Middle Eastern society. Only a small group of Arab intellectuals interfaces with the West on a regular basis. They are the scholars, pundits and analysts that are quoted in learned studies and that write op-eds in major American newspapers. Most of them are Western-educated, English-speaking, at most religiously traditional, but usually highly secular. In a telling example of the failure of the elites to mobilize the less educated in support of Western values, a young Iranian educated activist who held workshops on "understanding democracy" and "women's rights in Islam" for the less privileged stated in despair: "They didn't want to hear about human rights. We never reached them. It's our failure."

It is time to move away from the paradigm that postulates a choice between Western secular democracy on the one hand and Arab and Muslim tyranny on the other, with no middle ground possible. Nor is there much validity to the related belief that the Middle Eastern masses can somehow be converted into Western liberals, nor to that which argues that Western notions of secular democracy can triumph in the traditional Middle East.

What is needed is a Middle Eastern version of democracy that in form may hardly resemble its Western counterparts, though in substance will offer the people of the region the freedoms they seek, in common with the rest of mankind. First and foremost is the freedom to pray freely to the God of their choice. In addition, Middle Easterners of all stripes seek the freedom to earn a decent living, the right to an education, and, finally, to be represented, and to represent themselves, to their rulers and to be judged fairly by them. How they are represented is a secondary issue.

Replacing or even alienating traditional rulers is unlikely to achieve these goals. There are simply too many intolerant radicals eagerly waiting in the wings to do for their countries what the mullahs--now in power for more than a quarter-century--have done for Iran. An alternative approach would be to blend indigenous values with democratic ideals. "Blended democracy" is far more likely to take permanent root in a region whose people address life's major concerns from a profoundly different perspective than that of their Western counterparts.

For the same reason, attempts to press Middle Eastern regimes to move quickly to impose the "rule of law" will founder on the shoals of sharia. Middle Eastern democracy is unlikely to involve English common law or the Code Napoleon for many years to come. Anyone defining the rule of law as the complete replacement of sharia law by purely secular norms will merely be branded a heretic.

What would be far more practical is the hybrid of traditional and secular law that is currently being experimented with in Afghanistan and may yet be implemented in Iraq. Such a hybrid is unlikely to meet Western standards, particularly with respect to achieving unfettered women's and minority rights. Nevertheless, it is more likely to stand the test of time, as local populations become more habituated to and comfortable with new norms of Western origin that are commingled with practices with which they have long been familiar. Such an approach is the only way to offset the influence of radical religious leaders on younger generations of Middle Easterners, many of whom have solid middle class backgrounds but are religiously more strict than their parents.

Getting from Here to There

Certainly, the United States should be willing and receptive to requests from others to support, stabilize or enhance their own nascent democratic political systems. But brandishing "democracy" like a sword over the rulers of other nations, distancing itself even from those rulers who initiate reforms, on the grounds that they are moving too slowly, and creating an atmosphere that leads them to believe that they will be destabilized if not forcefully removed, will not enable the United States to achieve its objectives in the Middle East. Indeed, such behavior is likely to be counter-productive. It would merely create opportunities for extremists to exploit the political system for their own anti-democratic and anti-American ends. Moreover, it could frighten ruling elites into inactivity and perhaps even greater repression. Finally, it would certainly torpedo any hope of achieving a viable peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Without such a peace, America will never be able to dispel the region-wide Arab predisposition to dismiss whatever it offers because of its unstinting support of Israel. Too many advocates of muscular democratic diplomacy fail to account for both the cultural milieu in which their proposals would be implemented and the far-reaching and negative consequences that would inevitably flow from them.

Equally critical is the recognition that if it truly wishes to encourage a more democratic Middle East, the United States must recognize that sponsoring one, two or even three sets of elections simply is not enough. The United States would instead do better by committing itself to the long haul--not merely in terms of its deployment of monetary and human resources, but also, and equally importantly, its high-level attention--if it is ever to achieve its political objectives. To that end, Washington should utilize many of the tools that brought it success during the Cold War. It should provide financial support to elements of civil society such as unions, professional organizations and journalists. It should sustain schools that offer non-religious curricula, whether these curricula are taught alongside or apart from religious studies. It should promote and fund college-level educational institutions that require English for professional and technical proficiency and should generously fund scholarships to these institutions. It should refine its foreign language broadcasts and telecasts to reflect indigenous preferences and draw upon indigenous resources to the maximum extent possible. It should target development aid that assigns priority to advancing good governance.

Finally, those who advocate democracy must recognize not only that they will not and cannot fashion Middle Eastern societies in Washington's image, but that whatever success they do achieve will take years, perhaps decades, to materialize. Americans are known for many wonderful qualities. Patience, however, is not one of them. But democracy has no fixed timetable; it cannot be rushed.

Essay Types: Essay