Argument

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Democracy Was Never Going to Stop Islamist Terrorism

Twenty years after 9/11, U.S. policy in the Middle East is still based on a fundamental mistake.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. and Egyptian presidents ride to an event.
Then-U.S. President George W. Bush drives a golf cart to an event site with then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on June 3, 2003. STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. foreign-policy establishment has made plenty of mistakes in the post-9/11 era, but it deserves credit for its public, if sometimes messy, effort in recent years to learn lessons. Academics, policy experts, practitioners, and journalists have been having a robust debate conducted in journal articles, books, op-eds, and panels about the United States’ role in the world. One of the issues at the center of that reckoning has been democracy promotion in the Middle East.

Democracy promotion was an issue that received a lot of attention in the early 2000s after the 9/11 attacks, faded for a while, and then came back with the uprisings that toppled four Arab dictators and threatened a number of others before waning again with the resurgence of authoritarianism. So what has the United States learned about democracy promotion in the years since 9/11? Not as much as it perhaps should have.

Not long after the attacks, many within the foreign-policy community began thinking about whether there was a connection between the political systems of the hijackers’ home countries and a propensity for extremism. With the exception of rhetorical flourishes about “promot[ing] a vision of a more democratic and prosperous region,” the United States had mostly been focused on protecting its core regional interests—ensuring the free flow of oil, helping to ensure Israeli security, maintaining U.S. dominance, promoting counter-terrorism, and preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—through partnerships with friendly regional authoritarians. Egypt enjoyed a strategic relationship (whatever that is) with the United States because then-President Hosni Mubarak kept the Suez Canal open, upheld the peace treaty with Israel, and kept his boot on the necks of the Islamists.

The U.S. foreign-policy establishment has made plenty of mistakes in the post-9/11 era, but it deserves credit for its public, if sometimes messy, effort in recent years to learn lessons. Academics, policy experts, practitioners, and journalists have been having a robust debate conducted in journal articles, books, op-eds, and panels about the United States’ role in the world. One of the issues at the center of that reckoning has been democracy promotion in the Middle East.

Democracy promotion was an issue that received a lot of attention in the early 2000s after the 9/11 attacks, faded for a while, and then came back with the uprisings that toppled four Arab dictators and threatened a number of others before waning again with the resurgence of authoritarianism. So what has the United States learned about democracy promotion in the years since 9/11? Not as much as it perhaps should have.

Not long after the attacks, many within the foreign-policy community began thinking about whether there was a connection between the political systems of the hijackers’ home countries and a propensity for extremism. With the exception of rhetorical flourishes about “promot[ing] a vision of a more democratic and prosperous region,” the United States had mostly been focused on protecting its core regional interests—ensuring the free flow of oil, helping to ensure Israeli security, maintaining U.S. dominance, promoting counter-terrorism, and preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—through partnerships with friendly regional authoritarians. Egypt enjoyed a strategic relationship (whatever that is) with the United States because then-President Hosni Mubarak kept the Suez Canal open, upheld the peace treaty with Israel, and kept his boot on the necks of the Islamists.

After the destruction of the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon, members of the foreign-policy community concluded that the United States needed to pay attention to what went on inside Arab states. Whatever help Mubarak offered to the United States, he perpetuated a social environment that did not permit Egyptians to process their grievances through political or legal institutions. More often than not, whenever Egyptians sought redress, the regime’s defenders prevailed, because the system was so rigged in their favor. Those who persisted were met with the metal truncheons, tear gas, and bullets of the security forces. In turn, analysts came to believe, this was an environment ripe for the production of terrorists. And while everyone recognized the differences among Arab states, the Egyptian story was roughly the story of the region. Thus, the era of democracy promotion in the Middle East was born.

One can argue about how President George W. Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” was implemented, toward whom it was directed (Iraqis, Palestinians, and Egyptians, but not Saudis), whether it was funded adequately, or that democracy promotion should not have been just about combatting terrorism; but what the Bush administration did in the months and years after 9/11 marked a significant change in approach to the Middle East. Security would now no longer depend on aging generals and kings, but on the development of democracies across the region. Was the United States’ diagnosis of the problem and the policies it used to fix it correct?

The underlying logic of the new U.S. approach was fairly straightforward: Repression leads to terrorism. American policymakers and analysts focused on the following dynamic: every time discontented citizens have an unhappy encounter with the state, the proportion that remains committed to playing by the existing rules of the game dwindles. As citizens confront the full force of the state, some will conclude that they have no recourse and take up arms against the regime and its patrons.

There is nothing controversial about this basic analysis. We’ve long known about something called the repression-radicalization dynamic. But it was problematic to translate this insight into a democracy-promotion agenda for a few reasons.

First, authoritarian leaders were never going to give up repression as a means for political control. Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had little to offer that would elicit the loyalty of most Egyptians and Syrians. Given that coercive means of control was their only way to remain in power, it was existential for both leaders. That made the U.S. effort even more difficult.

In addition, the kinds of initiatives and programs that the United States pursued in the early 2000s were based in part on the idea that there are economic and social prerequisites to building and sustaining a democracy. Fair enough, but defenders of Middle Eastern regimes (and not just the guys with the guns) were able to deflect and undermine U.S. efforts to promote economic, educational, and political reforms––as well as women’s empowerment. They created so-called astroturf (as opposed to grassroots) non-governmental organizations, regime-friendly press described democracy promotion as a neo-colonial project, and officials complained it was a violation of sovereignty.

Leaders in the region also refused to acknowledge the link between the authoritarian nature of the regimes they led and terrorism. Instead, they emphasized the ideological nature of the transnational jihadist phenomenon that democracy was not going to fix. They were not wrong; there is an ideological basis for extremism. So U.S. and Arab officials were emphasizing different aspects of a complex phenomenon and, as a result, were offering different solutions to it––democracy and firepower respectively.

It was not as clear cut as the United States wanting elections and Arab leaders wanting to use force, though. Firepower was most certainly part—in fact, the biggest part—of Washington’s counter-terrorism strategy. Then Palestinians elected Hamas to lead them in 2006 and the United States suddenly became less enthusiastic about the democratic process in the Arab world. My sense is that 20 years later, most folks within the foreign-policy community agree that the response to terrorism was overly militarized, but there are far fewer recriminations over the Bush administration’s unwillingness to recognize Hamas’ electoral victory. What’s the lesson in that? Critics would no doubt argue that the United States lost credibility and that when groups such as Hamas participate in government, the process “moderates” them. The evidence for both is thin, however.

Does the argument about Hamas even matter? Was the base-line assumption that democracy mitigates terrorism a good one? No. A number of years ago, a RAND Corporation study found strong support neither for or against the proposition. And if Americans were not so myopic, they would recognize that democracies do produce terrorists. The United States produced the Ku Klux Klan; Timothy McVeigh and the militia movement of the 1990s; and a current crop of extremists including the Proud Boys, boogaloo boys, Three Percenters, and an array of others. Have they emerged because of repression or ideology? My point is—and this is going to frustrate folks—context matters.

If people had known on Sept. 12, 2001, what they know in 2021, would they have promoted democracy? (Certainly not in the way the United States went about it—but on that, there is likely to be a lot of agreement. Hubris is not a good look.) The most important question is: What interest would democracy promotion serve? Given the constellation of interests the United States has long pursued in the Middle East, the answer is none. Perhaps then-President Barack Obama’s original position—the one he articulated in Cairo in 2009—is the best guide.

To paraphrase: If citizens of Middle Eastern countries forge more democratic systems of government, that is great, and the United States will offer whatever help they want. In the meantime, two decades after 9/11, the most urgent place for Americans to promote democracy is at home.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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