Does it even make sense for the Obama administration to push for democracy in the Arab world?
It was "a time of extraordinary transformation," President Barack Obama told the United Nations in the fall of 2011. "Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way that they will be." He had no illusions about what was to come, however: "Progress can be reversed. Prosperity comes slowly. Societies can split apart. The measure of our success must be whether people can live in sustained freedom, dignity, and security."
The two years that followed offer a harsh verdict. There is little freedom, dignity, or security to be found in Egypt’s military coup, Libya’s rough militias, Tunisia’s political stalemate, Iraq’s spiraling crisis, the Gulf’s repressive sectarianism, Jordan’s and Morocco’s stagnation, or the horrors of Syria’s civil war. Small wonder that this year, Obama framed the Arab uprisings rather differently: "the convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa have laid bare deep divisions within societies, as an old order is upended and people grapple with what comes next."
Nobody should have been surprised by the difficult transitions, the ongoing turbulence, or by the ferocity and resilience with which regimes clung to power. Obama clearly wasn’t. In my book, The Arab Uprising, completed in late 2011, I warned that previous periods of mass popular mobilization in the Arab world had resulted in the consolidation of even worse forms of authoritarianism. But warning against such future struggles is different from living in the middle of them — and even skeptics might not have expected the bad times to be quite this bad.
Should — or could — Obama have done more to help? There’s clearly a lot of frustration within the American democracy promotion community about Washington’s role in these setbacks. The Project on Middle East Democracy’s 2014 report on U.S. government support for democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East conveys a sense of this frustration. The authors do praise the Obama administration’s efforts to secure funding to support the Arab transitions in a terrible budget environment. But they lambast the administration for lacking a "clear vision or strategy." They are particularly concerned by what they see as declining political support for democracy promotion and an administration "even more unwilling to take actions that might antagonize allied governments in the region than was the case before the 2011 uprisings."
Advancing democracy, political freedoms, and human rights should absolutely remain core American goals for the Middle East, but the last few years should force some real rethinking about how it can best accomplish those goals — and more humility about what it can accomplish. The Arab uprisings unleashed massive power struggles between highly mobilized political actors with the highest stakes. Newly empowered publics had little interest in American tutelage on how to conduct their politics. Arab leaders had little interest in American advice about how they should best secure their thrones. The Egyptian military’s view of American efforts were made painfully clear by their 2011 attacks on American democracy and civil society NGOs. Arab activists on all sides of the political spectrum are rarely shy about sharing their disdain for American policies. Neither the United States nor any other outside actor was ever going to be able to manage those processes.
Sure, the United States could have done some things differently. For one, it should have done more politically and financially to back up its rhetorical praise for these transitions back in early 2011 — when it could have mattered. The MENA Incentive Fund might have made some marginal difference back in the summer or fall of 2011, for instance, but now would be largely irrelevant even if it finally secured funding. Washington might have sent a very different signal had it not sat by while Bahrain and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies crushed its popular uprising, or if it had taken a more forceful response to Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) attacks on Egyptian protestors in late 2011. But those effects would only have been felt on the margins: Egyptians or Bahrainis might have hoped for American help for their cause but they were hardly waiting eagerly for Obama to lead.
At any rate, that was then. Now, it’s difficult to see much point to most of the commonly discussed "democracy promotion" ideas. There’s very little that the United States can usefully do to help — and a lot less appetite in Washington for even trying. Those pushing for more spending on democracy and governance programming today must reckon with the limitations imposed by the new environment and the failures of past efforts. There is little leverage to be exercised, few friends to support, no receptivity among even supposedly friendly governments — and other "friendly" governments are actively working against anything Washington might try to do. American democracy NGOs aren’t likely going to be able to operate in places like Egypt anytime soon. It isn’t clear that Washington even knows what it would demand of the Egyptian regime were it to try to use its supposed leverage by suspending military assistance (not that it would matter if the Saudis immediately replace it with twice as much unconditional aid). It’s hard to care about whatever elections might eventually now be held in Egypt any more than we cared about elections under Mubarak. Frankly, spending money on Syrian refugees and humanitarian relief does make more sense than throwing it at democracy and governance programs right now.
This dismal regional environment does not mean that the United States should stop thinking about supporting change, though. Transitions may have failed, enthusiasm dimmed, autocrats regained the upper hand, and polarization divided publics, but few of the deeper structural trends that drove the Arab uprisings in the first place have faded. New counter-revolutionary regimes such as Egypt’s are likely to prove no more stable or effective than their predecessors. That makes this a good time to rethink some of the core assumptions.
For instance: does the United States actually want democracy in the region? Generally, the answer has been no. The American alliance system in the Middle East has always been based upon friendships with autocrats who are willing and able to pursue foreign policies which are broadly unpopular with their publics. Autocracy was a necessary condition of America’s strategic posture in the region. But many in Washington believed that untrammeled autocracy left these allies at risk of instability. Democracy promotion in practice usually meant either efforts to build and support civil society, or to nudge autocratic regimes to be more tolerant, inclusive, or open to elections to relatively powerless parliaments — without actually changing the regimes in question. Those regimes didn’t particularly care for the efforts, but most would at least tolerate the ones they viewed as harmless — which naturally shaped which programs got funded and executed.
The Obama administration from 2011-2013 was one of the very few exceptions to this rule, other than the Bush administration’s short-lived encouragement of Palestinian elections in 2006 which was quickly aborted when Hamas won. Obama, so often criticized for not caring about democracy, actually proved himself uniquely willing to accept the outcome of Egyptian, Libyan, and Tunisian elections. He chose to support the process rather than back individuals, whether in Iraq’s 2010 government formation or in Egypt’s transition, and demonstrated his willingness to work with an elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Naturally, most of America’s allies in the region — both the regimes and the elites who did well from those regimes — were horrified. He was right about both strategies (at least in my opinion).
So what now, after the succession of botched transitions and hostile regional responses to American policies? ? Is there anything that Washington could do which might restore any credibility on democracy — after tacitly accepting the coup against Mohamed Morsy or the crackdown in Bahrain? Before pushing for more money or rhetoric on democracy promotion, Washington should return to the very beginning: what is the goal? Should the focus be promoting reforms within friendly autocratic regimes in order to help them survive, or should it be on supporting efforts by popular movements to successfully challenge the autocrats? Does the U.S. want to reassure its traditional autocratic allies or to facilitate their challengers?
There are some useful things which the United States could do now. Democracy may not be in the cards, but Washington should take a consistent and forceful public stand against violations of human rights and political freedoms, whether in Bahrain, Syria, or Egypt. It should focus its programming on countries where there’s still a chance to make a real difference, such as Libya and Tunisia, rather on "safe" but non-transitioning destinations like Morocco and Jordan. This might involve efforts on the ground to promote cross-sectarian or inter-ethnic relations, and should certainly involve efforts to restrain or counter the barrage of sectarian and polarizing media content. It should also try to find ways to rehabilitate the concept of democracy itself against the disenchantment and fear of change which has taken hold. It should definitely try to communicate more effectively with deeply skeptical Arab publics, and not let the Benghazi tragedy destroy engagement approaches on the ground.
But most of the steps which might actually be helpful will target precisely the survival strategies of now less-friendly and less-secure regimes, while most of those that could actually be funded and implemented won’t present such a challenge. The intensely contested new Arab politics makes it much harder for the U.S. to work both sides of the street, or to get a fair hearing for its arguments even if it tried. The United States does have a strategic interest in seeing democratic institutions take hold across the Middle East (and, to be fair, in the United States), but it needs to seriously rethink how it tries to support them.
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