Terms of Engagement

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

The Forum for the Future was supposed to be an instrument of George W. Bush's Middle East freedom agenda. Seven years later, it embodies everything that was wrong with it -- and the Arab street is taking matters into its own hands.


Senior Western and Arab diplomats as well as leaders of civil society gathered this week at the seventh annual Forum for the Future in Doha. In the background was the chaos and violence provoked by the incompetence and paralysis of Arab regimes: riots in Tunisia and Algeria, the killing of Christians in Egypt, the collapse of the government in Lebanon. You will thus be relieved to learn that the draft recommendations for action by the forum call for the support for “science, technology and innovation” and “corporate social responsibility,” as well as the establishment of “youth exchange programs” and a “Gender Institute.” That ought to calm the waters.

The Forum for the Future is one of the remnants of U.S. President George W. Bush’s campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East that the Barack Obama administration, despite initial skepticism, has embraced. Scott Carpenter, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during Bush’s first term, says that as they contemplated how to press for change in the region, he and his colleagues looked back to the model of the Helsinki process in the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union reluctantly accepted a series of human rights principles in exchange for commitments from the West on technology transfers and the like. The premise was that you could work with regimes, rather than simply confront them. “We wanted to have buy-in from the states to the degree that we could,” Carpenter says. The Forum for the Future was launched in 2004 to bring together the governments of the G-8 countries, Arab regimes, and Arab civil society groups under a charter laying out principles on both modernization and democratic development. The NGOs would hold the states to their pledges as human rights activists had done with the Soviet Union.

It didn’t work out that way. At the second meeting of the forum, in Bahrain in 2005, Bush administration officials tried to pass a declaration of principles, but Egypt and Tunisia, among others, objected to a passage welcoming all NGOs. They insisted that only officially registered groups — i.e., tame ones — could be included. The Bahrain declaration collapsed. Forum members did authorize the creation of the Foundation for the Future (someone apparently had a penchant for gee-whiz names) which is based in Amman and distributes grants to local NGOs, many of them genuinely worthy organizations doing difficult work on human rights and the rule of law. But the initial hope that these groups would hold Arab states accountable died in Bahrain as well. “The strategic purpose,” Carpenter concedes, “hasn’t been fulfilled.”

Actually, it’s worse than that. “The Arab foreign ministers,” as one prominent figure in the democracy-promotion world said to me, “have learned from these meetings exactly how to thwart democracy, not how to help it.” The sessions have taught local leaders the dangers of Western-supported and genuinely autonomous NGOs, and regimes across the Arab world have cracked down on them. Many human rights groups have been hounded out of existence; only the most reliably docile ones are permitted inside the forum’s doors. At last year’s event, in Marrakesh, the invited NGOs were actually locked out of the room until Western diplomats got them admitted. In advance of the current meeting in Doha, Bahey el-Din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, criticized the forum as a “debating club” with no interest in democratization. When I called him in Cairo, Hassan said that he had been invited to Doha, but declined to go. Although the forum provides a useful setting for people like him to meet one another and sit down with, and even criticize, government officials, Hassan said that he would rather see it die than permit Arab leaders to continue using it to proclaim their commitment to democratic change. It is, he said, “a waste not only of time but of resources.”

Critics both in the Arab world and at home blame the Obama administration for its failure to pick up Bush’s banner of democracy promotion in the Arab world. But the forum failed under the Bush administration — and not for lack of trying. The problem was not cynicism so much as naivete: Arab states were never going to buy into a process that they recognized would lead to their own demise. The logic of the “liberal autocracy” is to make emblematic gestures toward democracy and citizen engagement — sham elections, fulsome charters, conferences with tame NGOs — without ever permitting the real substance. The Forum for the Future, as Hassan says, offers the textbook opportunity for the hollow gesture.

Bush’s democracy-promotion agenda depended on a dubious analogy between Eastern Europe and the Middle East (though one that was very dear to Condoleezza Rice, who had witnessed the fall of the Soviet empire while serving on the National Security Council under the first President Bush). Arab citizens, unlike European ones, had no prior experience of democracy or liberal rule — or of citizenship, for that matter. And Arab regimes, unlike the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, could afford to resist American pressure. That’s why the Helsinki paradigm didn’t apply. “The Soviet Union was frozen out of the West and looking for some kind of acceptance,” observes Thomas Carothers, a democracy-promotion expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Arab regimes can already go to Davos.”

Arab regimes are certainly not more secure than the Soviet Union was: The mass protests cropping up first in one such country, then another, prove that they are growing shakier by the day. But these sclerotic rulers know that because the United States depends on them for regional stability, they can always defy calls for democratic opening. In 2005, Bush demanded that Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, hold a free and fair parliamentary election. Mubarak called his bluff by brutally cracking down on the opposition in the course of the voting, and the Bush administration barely made a peep. So why worry?

What, then, is the Obama administration to do in the face of profound public frustration in the Middle East and North Africa? First, it should strengthen its commitment to the slow and unglamorous work of nurturing autonomous institutions in the region; the only real solutions to the woes of the Arab world are long-term ones. The Foundation for the Future, which is now seeking additional funding from Washington, is the perfect vehicle for such support, though of course civil society groups remain at risk from hostile regimes. At the same time, the forum should be put out of its misery. More broadly, the administration should strip away the pretense of buy-in, and whatever legitimacy comes with it, by speaking more candidly about regimes’ failure to adopt meaningful reforms.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address to the forum in Doha on Jan. 13 was a good start. Clinton, who had been notably muted about the political violence in the area, bluntly told her audience that “the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand;” the status quo was no longer holding; and regimes had to “see civil society not as a threat but as a partner.” The speech was well-received by otherwise frustrated activists; Clinton also held a private meeting with eight of them. But the speech was itself an implicit indictment of the forum. Qatar, the host country, has no independent NGOs, not to mention free elections or free press. Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee, which played a featured role in the event, is a state body, not an independent organization.

Even democracy-promotion firebrands in the Bush administration accepted the logic of soft-pedaling criticism of Middle East allies. But that logic grows more questionable with every passing day, as the regimes lose their ability to contain the public outrage they have themselves provoked through their evident contempt for their own citizens; fury at official corruption and nepotism has just overthrown President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Yes, the United States still needs many of these states for oil, for regional diplomacy, for investment, and as a counterweight to Iran. Calls for reform will always be constrained by a broader diplomatic calculus. But the time has come — as a matter not just of commitment to principle but of national security — to align the United States more clearly and convincingly on the side of those who clamor for change.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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