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On January 21, 2005, George W. Bush looked out over the crowds gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol for his second inaugural and declared, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
He was lambasted from all sides. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a moderate Democrat, told CNN that the focus on democracy was not “practical.” Patrick J. Buchanan said it was “a recipe for endless war.” At a conference I attended in Rome just days later, a senior U.S. embassy official told a largely European audience during a question-and-answer period that his boss’s speech was “stupid.”
Such sentiments have become especially widespread on the Left. Faced with a choice between promoting real reform in Middle Eastern governance and supporting policies that might echo Bush’s, progressives have sacrificed any pretense of embracing liberalization. Thus, instead of siding with the reformers in Syria who issued the 2005 Damascus Declaration calling for a “democratic national regime” through a process “peaceful, gradual, founded on accord, and based on dialogue and recognition of the other,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi chose to sit down with their tormentor, Bashar al-Assad.
There was a time when the Democrats were known to stand up fastidiously for human rights. Officials from the party roundly criticized the first President Bush for sending Brent Scowcroft to Beijing for diplomatic talks six months after the Tiananmen Square massacre. But in a troubling turnabout, there are today few if any autocrats to whom the Democrats would not extend diplomatic honors and legitimacy.
Opponents of Bush’s emphasis on democratization in the Middle East adopted two strategies during his time in office. The first, employed by those within the administration who found his idealism imprudent, was to play down the extent of repression in a given autocracy. “There’s one dramatic difference between Iran and the other two axes of evil, and that would be its democracy,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. “You approach a democracy differently.” Thus, rather than promote civil society or unleash forces that might lead to a velvet revolution in the Islamic Republic, Armitage led a thinly veiled insurrection against democratization, hampering implementation of the administration’s own Middle East Partnership Initiative and, in many cases, blocking discharge of its Iran Democracy Fund.
The second strategy, voiced more broadly in both the academic and foreign policy communities, based itself on cultural relativism. “Arab societies lack certain dispositional prerequisites for democracy,” wrote Adam Garfinkle in a smart essay in the National Interest. “Perhaps in our desperation to achieve absolute security in a newly perilous world, we are distorting the social history of democracy and misreading the nature of the societies whose political virtue we mean to raise up.” Juan Cole, president of the one-man Global Americana Institute, tarred democratization as “neocolonialism.”
The fundamental debate about whether democratization is an American interest worth American investment predates the presidency of George W. Bush and will extend beyond that of Barack Obama. Can democratization get a second wind under Obama? After Obama’s much heralded speech to “the Muslim world” in Cairo, his supporters rushed to defend him from accusations that he had abandoned democracy. But while the president had in fact spoken of democracy, he, like Armitage, diluted the term to the point of meaninglessness when he reassured Arab states that “each nation gives life to this principle [of popular will] in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.”
A related trend, but potentially more dangerous, is the assumption by certain proponents of democratization–including the National Endowment for Democracy–that if democracies accommodate political Islam, Islamists will abide by the norms of liberal democracy. Prominent foreign policy commentators and democratization supporters like Peter Beinart, Robert Kagan, Larry Diamond, and Tamara Cofman Wittes (recently tapped to oversee Arab democratization efforts in Hillary Clinton’s State Department) recently endorsed a letter urging the White House to engage Islamist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood. But this is to be too casual in discounting the writings and past practices of Islamist groups. Assigning sovereignty to God and placing it in the hands of the people are mutually exclusive. These irreconcilables are one reason that Islamists throughout the region view liberalism as a greater threat than autocracy and target secular reformists with as much if not more vigor than do the dictators.
It is in the context of this debate that The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East, the new book by Johns Hopkins University scholar and longtime Commentary contributor Joshua Muravchik, is so important. Seventeen years after publishing Exporting Democracy, perhaps the most thoughtful case for making pursuit of democracy a core principle of U.S. foreign policy, Muravchik now revisits the theme with specific attention to the Middle East.
In the late 20th century, the world witnessed a democratic revolution. Since the 1970s, the percentage of countries with governments chosen by their people has doubled from 30 to 60 percent. Not only has Eastern Europe come in from the cold, but in West Africa, East Asia, and Latin America, states once dismissed by Western diplomats as impervious to democratic liberty now hold elections and regularly and peacefully transfer power from government to opposition.
The Middle East, however, remains a fitful holdout. Not a single Arab state is a democracy, nor is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Until 9/11, few people in Washington policy circles cared. Those of the “realist” school justified almost any partnership with autocrats; as Muravchik summarizes, “it was alright if they were bastards, if only they would be our bastards.” But al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington heralded a paradigm shift: “perhaps the internal affairs of Middle Eastern states was a strategic consideration.”
Eight years and two trying wars later, Obama told his audience in Cairo that “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” The value of The Next Founders is to show that a policy of democratization need not mean, as in the leftist caricature, a program of obnoxious American imposition. “The fact that there is precious little democracy in the Middle East does not mean, however, that there are no democrats,” Muravchik observes. His book profiles seven dissidents and reformers among the many he encountered in his extensive travels in the Middle East.
Some of Muravchik’s democrats choose to work within their systems. For example, rather than be cowed into silence or forced into exile, Iraqi parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi ratchetted up his battle against religious incitement, militias, and intolerance, even after extremists murdered his sons. Rola Dashti, a Kuwaiti economist leading the battle in her country for women’s suffrage, broke through the glass ceiling and won a seat in parliament in May when The Next Founders was already at press. Dashti’s triumph underlines Muravchik’s prescience in telling her story.
This summer’s unrest in Iran and the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in crushing it highlight the relevance of another profile, that of Mohsen Sazegara, who helped found the corps before undergoing a change of heart. If democrats are to triumph, they will have to win over groups like the corps that exist to secure the regime against the people. Muravchik’s narrative fascinatingly traces Sazegara’s path, from rise to power to disillusionment and ultimately to dissidence.
The stories of the other “founders” are as compelling: feminist Wajeha al-Huwaider’s protests to win Saudi women the right to drive, publisher Hisham Kassem’s struggles against Egypt’s censors, Bassem Eid’s struggle to document the Palestinian Authority’s human rights abuses, and Syrian poet Ammar Abdulhamid’s decision to leave his homeland and advocate for reform from abroad.
Muravchik is well aware of the criticism that his democrats are the exceptions rather than the rule, and he wisely refrains from making any promises of imminent redemption. But he notes that alongside the individuals are noticeable trends. “My seven subjects were born in the 1950s or 1960s,” he writes. “In the generation behind them, the number of democrats is far larger. How do I know? Because the Internet is humming with their voices.” Whereas once critics could dismiss Muravchik as a starry-eyed idealist, the events of this summer–the electoral defeat of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Twitter uprising in Iran–suggest that George W. Bush was right to envision “the day when the people of the Middle East leave the desert of despotism for the fertile gardens of liberty.” If only we do not help erect barriers in their path.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.
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