The Impossible Imperative?: Conjuring Arab Democracy (an excerpt)

December 11, 2002

The Impossible Imperative?: Conjuring Arab Democracy (an excerpt)

The first problem concerns the presumption that Arab democracy will equate to a "peaceful swath" in the Middle East.

The first problem concerns the presumption that Arab democracy will equate to a "peaceful swath" in the Middle East. The truth is that semi-institutionalized populist democracies can make war more likely; that, specifically in the "transitional phase of democratization, countries become more aggressive and war-prone, not less." This is particularly so in contemporary non-Western societies where democratization intersects with the recrudescence of identity politics to produce what Samuel Huntington calls the "democracy paradox": democracy facilitates the rise to power of groups that appeal to indigenous ethnic and religious loyalties that are likely to be anti-Western and-here is the paradox-anti-democratic in the not-very-long run. We have already seen this phenomenon at work in Muslim domains like Indonesia and northern Nigeria, and one example nipped in the bud in Algeria. We know that mainstream opinion in most Arab countries is more anti-Western than that of the regimes now governing them, so why, then, if that opinion comes to drive government policy-instead of merely complicating it, as it does today-should we expect peace to break out?


The second problem is that a successful campaign to bring democracy to the domains of rogues and villains really does presuppose either a major shift in U.S. attitudes toward the undemocratic ruling classes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and others that we have long called our friends, or a permanent condition of blatant diplomatic hypocrisy. If we do suddenly begin to act as though our long-time authoritarian allies are really enemies blocking the democratization of their countries (and with it the best guarantee of our protection from mass-casualty terrorism), we will, in effect, be choosing bad relations with ten mostly well-entrenched regimes, without any reasonable near-term prospect of replacing them with democratic governments. Hypocrisy, on the other hand, might not even be an option: How could we possibly isolate the impact of a democratic Iraq (and Palestine) from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, or from our relationships with their leaders?


The third problem is even more fundamental: Can we do it? Are Muslim, and particularly Arab, political cultures so malleable that within a generation or two we can transform most, or even some, of them into genuine liberal democracies? Perhaps we can. But perhaps in our desperation to achieve absolute security in a newly perilous world, we are distorting the social history of democracy and misreading the nature of the societies whose political virtue we mean to raise up. If this is the case, then we are in for much frustration, not to mention a misdirection of effort and resources, in the years ahead. Walter Lippmann once warned that it is a disease of the soul to be in love with impossible things, so it may repay effort to look more closely at this third problem.

Adam Garfinkle is the editor of The National Interest.