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

Yet most of the opponents of democracy-promotion in the Middle East argue that premature elections will bring radical forces to power. After all, the Islamists possess the most vibrant ideology and the most cohesive organizational infrastructure. The specter of Algeria haunts this debate. An ill-prepared Algerian society was launched on the path of rapid democratization in 1990, only to witness the electoral triumph of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The military's intervention and the end of the democratic process has led to an unspeakably violent civil war that has thus far cost over 100,000 lives. The region's princes and lifetime presidents routinely deflect demands for liberalization by casually invoking the "lessons of Algeria." These arguments, though self-serving, are not entirely spurious. Properly considered, they lead to the conclusion that any transition to democracy needs to be carefully managed, not that it is bound to produce chaos.

The current autocratic order generates its own pathologies. Radical Islam may not provide effective policy solutions to the political and economic crises besetting the region, but as an ideology of wrath directed against the status quo it has been remarkably effective. Islamism is after all rooted in a religion with an intense emphasis on social justice and the necessity of conforming temporal affairs to divine injunctions. An ideology that advocates decent and efficient government by pious men stands in stark contrast to the realities of the Middle East. Given the Arab world's provocative class stratification and the near absence of any space for political activity, Islamists are able to transform the legitimate right of protest into an obligation of violent resistance. The prevailing regimes' corruption and mismanagement have led to the rise of a disaffected generation easily deceived by the false utopia offered by radical Islam. Terrorism and Islamic militancy are merely the most visible manifestations of a dysfunctional political system that criminalizes dissent and eviscerates civil society. The Arab status quo has palpable costs, a cost that 9/11 demonstrated is no longer confined to the Middle East.

Today, the only way to disarm radicalism is to liberalize political society. An expanding marketplace of ideas will not only expose the intellectual poverty of Islamism but undermine its claim that only violence can serve as an agent of constructive change. The relatively progressive Jordanian monarchy has demonstrated the utility of inclusive politics, as its Islamists parties, the Muslim Brotherhood and in a more recent incarnation, the Islamic Action Front, have been able to contest parliamentary elections and therefore to be consulted by its executive. Largely because of this, Jordan has been spared the type of Islamist violence that has afflicted closed societies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The value of democratic rule is not just that it constrains rulers by fostering competing institutions and a critical public, but that it engenders a political culture that emphasizes consensus-building, transparency, tolerance and suspicion of radical solutions. By claiming to avoid radicalism, genocidal despots such as Saddam Hussein and profligate monarchies such as the House of Saud also avoid these long-term advantages. This is no longer an acceptable excuse.

While democratic rule in the region might eventually produce more stable and productive societies, it will also lead to polities that reject key aspects of U.S. policy with much more speed. From its peace treaties with Israel to its disarmament injunctions, Washington will find a region less hospitable to its imperatives. The United States faces a strategic dilemma best formulated in the form of a choice. It can either continue to conspire with existing autocracies to prolong their rule, or it can accept the democratic verdict with its objections to many of the policies desired by the American imperium.

The emergence of democracy promotion as the central tenet of the Bush Administration's vision marks an important attempt to finally bring America's Middle East policies into conformity with its ideals. It remains to be seen whether the lure of petroleum and the imperative of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict--which in the past have propelled American policymakers toward the embrace of authoritarian rulers who pledged stability--will win out again. The cataclysmic events of September 11 and the surge of Islamic radicalism have jolted the American elite and seemingly invalidated the old bargain. However, the debate on democracy promotion needs to transcend its superficial parameters, and its costs and tradeoffs must be more clearly understood.

Essay Types: Essay