2005 was a paradoxical year for free minds in the broader Middle East. By the year’s end, Iraq will have held three elections in less than 12 months. Lebanon, after almost three decades of a Syrian military presence transformed into absolute hegemony after 1990, saw the Syrians forced out and held its first relatively free election in 23 years. In Afghanistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, parliamentary, presidential or municipal elections were held, and while they were less than stellar, optimists saw in them potentially profitable exceptions to an uninterrupted train of despotic rule.
But the year was also one in which, for better or worse, the main engine of the Middle East’s democratic transformation – the United States –increasingly lost steam. Only the most optimistic today see in Iraq a situation moving toward verifiable amelioration; yes, Iraqis voted, but the new constitution approved by referendum last October may lead to new paroxysms of violence. This reality has greatly eroded voters’ support for US President George W. Bush, a predicament compounded by his administration’s blunders on a host of domestic issues, from its cataleptic reaction to Hurricane Katrina to dissembling in the Valerie Plame affair.
On top of that, the enduring preeminence of fighting terrorism, but also the need to stabilize and lower the ballooning price of oil during recent months, meant the US was increasingly less willing to challenge such allies as Jordan or Saudi Arabia on their human rights record. Much the same held for Egypt, where the presidential election and the more recent parliamentary elections momentarily consolidated the hold of President Hosni Mubarak, showing that dictators can easily manipulate democratic processes to their advantage. Rather than highlight this, the Bush administration preferred to focus on the positive, well aware that Mubarak remains a key ally on several key regional issues, such as terrorism, Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and the stabilization of Iraq.
Keeping it real
These compromises have led to applause from those who dislike the administration’s penchant for grand ideals. The most prominent figure deriding Bush’s democratization efforts in the Middle East has been a former national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, who in the tradition of “realism” favors Washington’s pursuit of cold interests over passionate ideals. His former protégé, Richard Haass, currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed, recently writing in the New York Times, that while democracy promotion was a legitimate policy goal, “to make it a doctrine is neither desirable nor practical.”
Yet another agnostic, Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, argued that, “the Bush doctrine has collapsed, and the administration has consequently embraced realism, American foreign policy’s perennial hangover cure.” How had things changed? “In practice, the Bush administration has recently begun to pursue interests rather than ideals and conciliation rather than confrontation,” was his answer.
That such individuals should readily renounce democracy as a cornerstone (as opposed to merely a desirable aim) of US foreign policy says a lot about what Bush has lost through his Iraq venture. But it also reveals something else: that the US has still not found an equilibrium between its various historic purposes: the republic has always regarded itself as a democratic beacon, but it was never very clear whether this involved exporting values of openness overseas. America’s prominent early founders leaned against it, but former president Woodrow Wilson gave his name to a crusading form of global democracy after World War I that was ambiguously received by Americans, who tended to favor staying out of the more sordid affairs of the world. The Cold War reversed this, but sporadic isolationism remains a perennial feature of American attitudes.
That’s why Bush’s ambitions for Arab democracy face such a tough challenge, beyond the aftershocks of his administration’s incompetence in Iraq. The American state of mind, when it comes to foreign affairs, fluctuates between almost messianic internationalism and seclusion – the latter most obvious when things are going bad overseas.
Left in the lurch
But is Arab democracy destined to fail? In fact, for the first time in many decades, liberty is at the forefront of Arab minds and debates. Even among the most obtuse of Islamists, the idea of emancipation from despotism (perhaps to impose something far worse) has overwhelmed such ancient stalwarts as Arab nationalism or third-world solidarity. There may be no agreement on what type of liberty Arabs want, or indeed any proof that liberty will emerge, but Arabs are increasingly united in focusing their attentions on autocratic leaders, deeming them illegitimate and searching for alternatives who could provide them with truly free choices.
That’s why even as the US continues to try to figure out just how much it should do to spread democracy, one answer may be that democratic ripples are already well spread throughout the Middle East. The region may be safe for democracy, regardless of what Washington does.