A Forward Strategy of Freedom

It's neither perfect nor pretty, but the Arab Spring proves that neoconservatives were right all along.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

There is a sour mood nowadays about the so-called Arab Spring. Armed gangs roam in Libya, Salafists win votes in Egypt, and minorities like the Egyptian Copts live in fear — as does the Shiite majority in Bahrain. The whole "experiment" seems to some critics to be a foolish, if idealistic project that promises to do nothing but wreak havoc in the Middle East. These same critics cast blame at the Americans who applauded the Arab revolts of the past year: naive, ideological, ignorant, dangerous folk.

As one of those folk, allow me to strike back.

The failures of the Arab world’s rulers were manifest and explicitly described well before 2011, and it was no secret that these deficiencies threatened their hold on power. In 2002, the U.N. Development Program’s Arab Human Development Report noted that the spread of democracy in recent decades from Latin America to Eastern Europe "has barely reached the Arab States." It was precisely this lack of freedom, the report argued, that "undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development."

U.S. President George W. Bush recognized this stark reality. "Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism?" he asked at the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."

Bush and the U.N. Development Program’s analysis were right, and those who judged that the old regimes could survive forever were wrong. What has been called "authoritarian resilience" turned out to be less impressive after all, and the popular hatred of those regimes much greater.

The Arab Spring is therefore not a peculiarity of history, but a natural outcome for regimes that had quite simply become illegitimate in the eyes of their subjects. Of the possible sources of legitimacy — such as democracy, religion, monarchic succession, or the creation of great prosperity — they had none. They were kept in place solely by force, and they were far less stable than the vast majority of scholars, diplomats, and political leaders thought. They were not overthrown because Bush criticized them or President Barack Obama failed to shore them up, but because they lacked a coherent defense of their own rule.

Thus the neocons, democrats, and others who applauded the Arab uprisings were right, for what was the alternative? To applaud continued oppression? To instruct the rulers on better tactics, the way Iran is presumably lecturing (and arming) Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Such a stance would have made a mockery of American ideals, would have failed to keep these hated regimes in place for very long, and would have left behind a deep, almost ineradicable anti-Americanism. This kind of so-called "realpolitik" is the path U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration took after the Greek military coup in 1967, and nearly a half-century later the Greeks have still not forgiven the United States.

Of course, the best answer is that we should have been pushing harder for reform all along, but that is after all the Bush/neocon/democracy activist line. Take U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo or Bush’s second inaugural address — both reviled by "realists." It would be nice if some of the critics now admitted that such speeches were prophetic, even if the United States was far too tentative in adopting, as Bush put it at the National Endowment for Democracy, "a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."

Instead, the critics condemn such a strategy for producing the dangers we now see. That is exactly wrong, for it was in fact the policy of ignoring gross oppression that helped bring us to the precipice of today’s dangers. Bush, after all, was not urging instant remedies; he said democratization was "the concentrated work of generations." He was urging reform, in part because it is usually far safer than revolution. Those who thought "durable authoritarianism" could persist forever have far more to apologize for than Bush, democracy activists, or neocons do.

But we are where we are, so the next question is whether the Arab Spring will actually fulfill its promise of greater democratic rights or whether it will simply usher in an era of extremist Islamist regimes or new forms of authoritarianism. The pessimists might yet be proved right — any comparison of the Arab lands to Eastern Europe suggests that many positive elements are missing, not least the magnet and model of the European Union.

Nothing is inevitable, though. African countries such as Botswana, Ghana, and Mali — and India, for that matter — have attained democracy despite poverty, low literacy rates, and social divisions roughly similar to those that exist in the Arab world. Nor does experience suggest that Islamist victories are unavoidable — or at least, are permanent. A study of 21 Islamic countries conducted by scholars Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi found that Islamist parties fare far more poorly than popularly believed and gain their highest vote total in the first election.

Kurzman and Naqvi describe a common political arc for Islamist parties. They often emerge from the oppression of the previous regime with a reputation for honesty and courage, and attract many voters who are not zealots. Then when they fail to produce tangible results — when, to put it starkly, Islam turns out not to be the answer — many voters turn elsewhere. As the authors put it, "when Muslims are given the opportunity to vote freely for Islamic parties, they have tended not to do so."

There are plenty of caveats, of course. Islamist parties do better on average in Arab than non-Arab lands, and in any event, this process takes time, often requiring second and third free elections. But time is also part of the antidote to extremism. As Bush noted in his speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, "The daily work of democracy itself is the path of progress. It teaches cooperation, the free exchange of ideas, and the peaceful resolution of differences." So can Islamist parties learn to play along? Kurzman and Naqvi say yes: "[T]he Islamic parties’ overall trend toward publicly embracing global norms of democracy and human rights is significant.… The experience of political participation, both in government and in civil society, has changed their outlooks in ways that they did not imagine when they started down the path of electoral politics."

Again, stripping away long-standing and deeply rooted authoritarian systems is a long, dangerous, and violent process. If disorder and economic collapse are the result, we may see the Russian experience repeated: Democracy is equated with chaos; a Vladimir Putin emerges. As we see now in Russia, though, with the surprisingly poor showing of Putin’s ruling party in the recent parliamentary elections and the mass protests in Moscow, this too does not appear to last forever.

As the old Arab regimes have found out the hard way during the past year, authoritarian rule is inherently unstable. Simply put, people want more. "[T]he regime is branded as an expedient, something temporary and transitional needed to meet the exigencies of the time," Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan wrote about China’s communist system. "Authoritarian regimes in this sense are not forever. For all their diversity and longevity, they live under the shadow of the future, vulnerable to existential challenges that mature democratic systems do not face."

The new governments of the Middle East will need to win the loyalties of populations that seek more dignity, more freedom from oppression, and better lives. Arab culture will prove an obstacle to moving forward: Both the treatment of women and the widespread conspiracy theories blaming Jews and others for national failures will undermine a population’s ability to take responsibility for its own future. Years of danger lie ahead, and there will surely be very uneven patterns of democratization — as has been the case, after all, not only in Africa and Latin America, but even in Europe. But the sour "analysis" that the Arab revolts will lead only, inevitably, and permanently to disaster is based in neither experience nor scholarship.

What should the United States do? Batten down the hatches, for one thing. Who can say what Egypt’s or Libya’s political situation will be in two years, or four? Prepare to protect U.S. interests and America’s allies if, during this long and uneven process, they are threatened. In addition, what America should do is help: help the liberals, the constitutionalists, the democrats, and the human rights advocates, whose enemies — in the mosques or streets or barracks — will have plenty of outside support.

You might call it adopting a "forward strategy of freedom," requiring, as Bush said, "persistence and energy and idealism." We will not determine the outcome of these struggles, but we can do our utmost to help the good guys win, and win sooner.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former U.S. State Department special representative for Venezuela during the Trump administration.