Uncle Sam in the Arab Street

Uncle Sam in the Arab Street

Mini Teaser: If America promotes democracy in the Middle East, it must be prepared for some very unpleasant consequences.

by Author(s): Ray Takeyh

It is established U.S. policy that the promotion of democracy in the Middle East is vitally necessary to secure America's strategic interests. Washington policymakers and pundits routinely proclaim the virtues of a democratic order and the seamless compatibility of America's interests and ideals. In light of the tragedies of September 11, Washington's long-standing approach that saw authoritarian rulers as the most suitable custodians of America's strategic imperatives seems naive, even reckless. President Bush's disdain for such realpolitik calculations was all too evident when he proclaimed that "sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long-run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."

While historically empires have relied on local autocracies to curb popular passions, the Bush Administration's strategic planners have come to the paradoxical conclusion that the durability of America's hegemony in the region is contingent on the spread of democratic polities.

It is a compelling argument, since the existing Arab political order has succeeded only in producing unpalatable dictatorships, stagnant economies and militant ideologies. There are many indications that the rise of democracies in the Middle East is likely to lessen inter-state conflicts, diminish the zeal of radical Islam and its violent outbursts and even promote long-delayed economic reforms. However, the partisans of the "democratic thesis" must realize that there are tradeoffs. Prospective Arab democracies will not behave as compliant agents of the American empire.

On issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli peace process to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Washington may find a more democratic Middle East less prone to adhere to its mandates. Freed from the restraints of authoritarianism, the nationalistic Arab masses are unlikely to acclaim the merits of the liberal American imperium and eagerly embrace its priorities. In the end, while the spread of democratic rule in the Middle East is likely to stabilize one of the most volatile regions of the world, it will extract its costs in terms of key U.S. preferences.1

Voodoo Economics

The Middle East is not just a region of dysfunctional politics but also of broken economies. In the post-independence period, the generation of Middle Eastern leaders who defeated European imperialism insisted on monopolizing both political and economic power to advance their development agendas. Given their centralizing predilections, the ruling elites soon crafted command economies, resulting in cumbersome regulation, maldistribution of resources, bloated bureaucracies and rampant corruption. A decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall discredited the notion of socialist planning, Arab rulers maintain their fidelity to the God that failed. Such mismanagement has imposed a crushing burden on the region's populace, as high inflation and unemployment rates not only diminish the living standards of an enfeebled middle class, but confront already politically disenfranchised youth with a dim economic future. (There is no East Asian-style bargain where people forego political rights in return for guaranteed prosperity.) Because the region's governing regimes lack legitimacy, they are unwilling to institute the structural economic reforms that will initially cause an adverse popular reaction, especially since "initially" can be quite a long time. The Middle East today is immured in a debilitating cycle, as the ruling regimes are unwilling or unable to undertake the reforms necessary to prevent serious social problems and perhaps eventually a social implosion.

The peculiar tragedy of the Middle East is that the economic malaise sweeping the region impacts not just resource-poor states but also those with an abundance of subterranean wealth. An examination of key indicators of three leading states crystallizes the region's dire economic circumstances. Despite having the fifth-largest gas reserves in the world, Algeria continues to register a 31 percent unemployment rate. It is hard to see how Algeria can recover from its civil war and rehabilitate its social fabric while continuously suffering from double-digit unemployment rates. The case of the region's most populous state, Egypt, is no better. The Mubarak regime has largely abandoned its previous attempts to privatize the economy and has persisted with investment in unproductive heavy industries. As a result, in the past year Egypt attracted a mere $600 million in foreign investment. By the regime's own admission, 22 percent of its citizens live below the poverty line. Finally, the case of Saudi Arabia is especially troubling. A nation with a small population base of 24 million and the largest reserves of petroleum in the world (26 percent of proven reserves) is suffering from a 25 percent unemployment rate and a persistent economic recession. At a time when 42 percent of Saudi citizens are under the age of 14, such inefficiency and mismanagement may soon confront the regime with an explosive revolutionary problem. The region's future is even more daunting, as the Middle East needs to "create 100 million new jobs over the next 15 years" in order to absorb its demographic bulge.2

The central premise of Arab politics has been a tacit bargain between the rulers and the ruled. In exchange for political passivity and deference, the reigning leaders pledged provision of economic opportunities and subsidies. But the state has created expectations that it can no longer fulfill. It thus has to sustain itself by relying on the security services and symbolic gestures such as periodic parliamentary and municipal elections that in no way disturb the essential parameters of power. The Middle Eastern states increasingly resemble the Soviet Union of the 1970s, a corrupt, stagnant bureaucratic state shielding itself in rhetoric that convinces few and inspires even fewer.

Although the post-Cold War period has produced global triumph of democracy, it led to a widespread recognition of the superiority of market economies. But the preconditions for a successful market transition, such as the rule of law, competing centers of power, transparency and cohesive administrative networks are also essential pillars of a democratic polity. Only legitimate regimes resting on popular support can undertake painful structural reforms. A more or less liberal polity that cedes power to the private sector is well suited to rekindling the confidence of diverse international investors and meeting the standards of the global economy. Both eastern Europe and Latin America testify to the fact that an expanding entrepreneurial class has historically proven to be the most enduring nemesis of autocratic rule. In the end, free societies are the most effective way to create prosperous economies.

Democratic Peace, Democratic Tradeoffs

It is rare for the arcane deliberations of political scientists to infiltrate the popular discourse and influence elected politicians. However, the democratic peace theory--that is, the claim that democracies do not wage war against each other--has achieved that distinction. American presidents now routinely invoke its verdicts as an intellectual endorsement of their Wilsonian pieties. In his important speech to the National Endowment of Democracy, President Bush paid homage to these beliefs when he proclaimed, "As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace." But, does a theory largely derived from the European experience have any utility in our attempt to understand the Arab world? Would prospective Arab democracies necessarily behave in a more pacific manner? This question has to be pondered not only in terms of inter-Arab relations, but also in terms of the Arab states' approach toward Israel and their relationship with an American imperium. And once we examine the Middle East through that pair of spectacles, the American promotion of democracy may seem much more contentious, even self-defeating to us. In the Arab world, the rhetoric of democracy is seen as the mask of imperialism.

It is too facile to suggest that popular sovereignty dispels conflict. The Balkan experience shows that the rise of political pluralism can intensify nationalism and further exacerbate ethnic cleavages. Yet, the notions that citizenries in most places most of the time are generally averse to conflicts with long-term costs, and that democracy restrains aggressive rulers, have merit. Fully constitutional rule would lead to an independent legislature examining the causes of war, a free press assessing the claims of the executive and an informed public questioning the necessity of the burdens it must bear. Democracies may not necessarily be peaceful, but neither are they naturally prone to indiscriminate belligerence and adventurism. For Arab dictatorships that have often viewed war as a means of enhancing their prestige, an injection of democratic accountability can go a long way toward arresting some of their impetuous impulses.

Even a cursory examination of the post-independence Middle East reveals that far from being a stable and placid region, the Arab world has been marked by persistent inter-state conflict. Under the banner of its transnational ideologies, the aspiring hegemons have waged war and conspired against their fellow rulers. Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser and his brand of Pan-Arabism, Saddam and his Ba'athist creed and Iran's Ayatollahs with their mandate from heaven have all engaged in prolonged conflicts with their neighbors. Subversion, proxy war, assassination attempts and even outright military aggression have been the currency of Arab international relations, belying the realpolitik confidence in the strategic stability of Arab autocracy.

Essay Types: Essay