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

Would Arab democracies have behaved differently? Counterfactual history is always a precarious exercise. However, a case can be made that a more democratic Iraq and Iran would likely not have waged an eight-year war against one another that was largely sustained by the personal animus of their leaders. Similarly, a pluralistic Iraq would likely have settled its dispute with Kuwait in a more peaceful manner and not undertaken another costly invasion shortly after the end of an exhausting war with Iran. It is not unreasonable to assume that a more democratic Egyptian ruler needing public support would likely have avoided Nasser's 1962 Yemeni quagmire that was utterly inconsistent with Egypt's strategic interests.

If the spread of democracy might stabilize inter-Arab relations, how would emerging democracies deal with an intrusive American presence and its expansive regional agenda? In her August 2003 Washington Post op-ed advocating the promotion of democracy, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice proclaimed, "A democratic Iraq can become a key element of a very different Middle East." Indeed, it can. For instance, Iraq's contending ethnic and religious factions have arrived at a rare consensus in their demand for eviction of American forces. Despite the enterprising efforts of the Coalition Provisional Authority, 58 percent of Iraqis demanded to be allowed to "work this out themselves", according to a recent poll conducted in four major Iraqi cities, including in Shi'a Basra and Kurdish Kirkuk. The ongoing acts of resistance--as well as the growing frustration with the presence of U.S. and British forces even in the Shi'a areas of the country--suggest a nationalistic rejection of the occupation. Iraqis were happy to be rid of Saddam but show limited inclination to be directed by the United States in any aspect of domestic and foreign policy. Under such conditions, it is difficult for a leader to be responsive to American concerns and, at the same time, seek an electoral mandate from a disgruntled populace that does not necessarily share America's vision.

The case of Iraq is not unique. The most significant political force in today's Middle East is nationalism--and that nationalism insists on autonomy from superpower domination. Various public opinion surveys point to the manifold problems that the United States confronts in the region. The most recent Pew Survey on Global Attitudes conducted in December 2003 reveals that a "very favorable view" of the United States did not reach double digits even in the most moderate regional states with long-standing ties to the United States. In Jordan, only 6 percent had a positive view of the United States, while Pakistan and Egypt recorded equally dismal statistics of 2 and 3 percent respectively. In a similar poll conducted in March 2002 in nine Arab countries, respondents overwhelmingly denounced U.S. policies as "ruthless, aggressive, conceited and arrogant." The State Department's own Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World concluded that "the bottom has fallen out of support for the United States."

Beyond public opinion samples, free elections do not necessarily bring forth groups willing to accommodate a U.S. presence. In two countries on the periphery of the Middle East--Turkey and Pakistan--both with relatively free legislative contests, elections have resulted in parliaments suspicious of American priorities. In both states the Islamist and secular parties have managed to set aside their other differences and oppose the U.S. agenda. The parliamentary elections held in October 2003 in Pakistan witnessed the emergence of such a coalition, as the Pakistan People's Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, the Muttahida Majlis-I-Amal (MMA) and the National Alliance. This coalition demanded that President Musharraf reconsider his close relationship with Washington. The freely elected Turkish parliament may feature contenting ideological parties, but they all cooperated with each other in rejecting an American request to invade Iraq through its territory. In both cases, such actions were widely popular. All this is not to suggest an unfolding clash of civilizations, but merely a nationalistic rejection of an imperial power by a region that has been subject to relentless external intervention for the past century. The challenge at hand is not to craft glossy public diplomacy campaigns, as the region's anguish is not about lack of information but the reality of American power.

It is customary for the unsettled Washington establishment to blame such daunting numbers on regimes that castigate the United States as a means of deflecting attention from their own deficiencies. But the opposite may actually be the case--namely that the regimes' campaigns are not designed to cultivate anti-Americanism but actually placate public opinion that is strongly averse to U.S. policies. The Arab masses actually do admire, in their own way, American values, culture and technological prowess, but merely seek liberation from a series of Western empires that have historically arrogated to themselves the right to condition the region's political order. Democratic Arab states would certainly seek diplomatic, trade and cultural ties with the United States, but would object to America's cumbersome presence with its military garrisons and national security doctrines that legitimize pre-emptive warfare--doctrines that apply only to America. Democratic peace theory has clearly failed to assess relations between imperial powers and their dependencies once public opinion enters the political scene.

Nor would a more democratic Middle East necessarily serve the cause of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the integration of Israel into the regional order. The intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may obscure the historical pattern of gradual accommodation between the Arab states and Israel. The fact remains that during the past two decades, much-maligned autocracies have gradually come to terms with the Israeli state. Two of Israel's neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, have even signed formal peace treaties with their erstwhile nemesis. Such a halting process of normalization would likely be reversed if Arab regimes become responsive to their respective collective wills. The region's public opinion continues to reject Israel as an agent of an alien and pernicious ideology and a usurper of Arab lands. Such rejectionist views go far beyond the Islamist parties that are the chief opponents of the peace process. In Egypt, the state with the oldest peace treaty with Israel, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the secular Wafd party find common ground in denouncing the Camp David Accords.

In a similar vein, a Jordanian parliament that features both Islamists and secular parties routinely calls on King Abdullah to abandon the 1994 peace treaty between Amman and Jerusalem. Throughout the region, anti-peace process campaigns emanate not just from Islamist circles but also from the secular parties with leftist pretensions. The neo-conservative assumption that democratic Middle Eastern states would lessen their enmity toward Israel is not substantiated by evidence.

All this is not to suggest the imminence of war between Israel and more democratic Arab states. The prevailing balance of military power, including Israel's formidable retaliatory capacity--which reportedly includes several hundred nuclear weapons--will still deter against rash Arab designs. But the prevailing cold peace is likely to be transformed into a cold war and the prospect of Israel's integration into the Middle Eastern landscape measurably reduced. Among the debilitating consequences of such a cold war would be an arms race and a corresponding search for weapons of mass destruction.

The attempt to halt the trend toward the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction has been one of the Bush Administration's central pre-occupations. Under the auspices of its new national security doctrine, Washington has even argued in favor of pre-emptive military intervention as a tool of counter-proliferation. However, the aspirants of greater democracy in the Middle East may find a more intensified regional commitment to production of such deadly arsenals should elected regimes come to power. Nations pursue weapons of mass destruction for a variety of strategic and nationalistic reasons. However, potential Arab democracies would face enormous popular pressure for achieving military parity with Israel. A public that complains about the inequality of an Israeli nuclear monopoly is likely to press elected leaders toward modernizing their armed forces and even acquiring the "strategic weapon." Through political pressure and even bribery, the United States has been relatively successful in compelling Arab despots to adhere to their non-proliferation commitments. But such leverage would be less effective against leaders who rely on democratic majorities that demand a viable balance of power with Israel. In the end, the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict and the inevitable surge of nationalism that democratic polities experience would further complicate America's attempt to reduce the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The Question of Stability

The long-term stability of the Arab world is contingent on a governing order that is responsive to its constituents. The region's declining economic fortunes, its problems of institutional decay and the demographic crisis cannot be assuaged by the region's current collection of unaccountable princes and presidents. A cursory examination of reports from human rights organizations reveals the toll that despotic rule has taken on the Arab populace. Torture, arbitrary arrests and executions are the survival strategies of Arab authoritarianism and censorship and corruption are the daily reminders of unaccountable rule. The brutalized Arab citizenry deserves better treatment than leaders who have proven adept at mismanaging their state and misappropriating its wealth.

Essay Types: Essay