Thursday, December 31, 2009

Is the Obama administration wise or foolish to retreat from 'democracy promotion' in the Arab world?

"Democracy promotion" was a mainstay, at least rhetorically, of the Bill Clinton foreign policy and of G.W. Bush's. As a practical matter, however, it never achieved all that much, at least not in the Middle East. The U.S.'s major Arab allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have not become democracies of any recognizable sort. Kuwait and a couple of other countries have taken some steps toward opening their political systems to greater participation by women and other previously excluded groups, but there has been no general transformation of the Middle East in a democratic direction. Iraq has the forms of democracy, but whether it will turn out in the long run to be a well-functioning system (or even functioning at all) remains at this point an open question.

In a recent article on U.S. grand strategy in Int'l Studies Perspectives (November 2009), David C. Ellis writes: "From a grand strategic position, long-term victory in the GWOT [global war on terror] is hardly feasible without a demonstration of democratic governance in the Middle East.... The overriding that any attempt at reforming the United States' Middle Eastern allies will ultimately require entrenched elites to absolve themselves of their power and position." (Note: Although the GWOT label officially has been abandoned by the U.S. government, analysts continue to use it.)

The dilemma to which Ellis refers is so intractable that the Obama administration has decided to downgrade democracy promotion as an objective, at least according to an op-ed piece by Jackson Diehl published last month ("The deflated Arab hopes for Obama," Wash. Post, Nov. 30, 2009). Diehl notes that Sec. of State Clinton did not mention the word "democracy" in a speech she gave in Morocco in November, nor did she refer to "the Arabs who are fighting to create independent newspapers, political parties or human rights organizations."

The Egyptian sociologist and reform advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who (along with others) met with Clinton after her speech, told Diehl that he urged on Clinton the importance of the next two years "for determining the political direction of the Middle East." Egypt in particular has parliamentary elections scheduled and then a presidential election in 2011. According to Diehl:
"Clinton, said Ibrahim, replied that democracy promotion had always been a centerpiece of U.S. diplomacy and that the Obama administration would not give it up -- 'but that they have a lot of other things on their plate.' For Arab liberals, the translation is easy, if painful: Regardless of what the president may have said in Cairo, Obama's vision for the Middle East doesn't include 'a new beginning' in the old political order."
Assuming Diehl's analysis is correct, is this development as lamentable as he suggests? Maybe. But there are at least two sides to most foreign policy questions, and the other side here would argue that the metaphor of a crowded plate is accurate: the Obama administration has too many other pressing priorities now to devote much energy to a project that has proved frustratingly difficult in the past. On the other hand, if Ellis and Diehl are right, downplaying support for Middle Eastern democratic reformers may not be wise long-term policy. It is worth remembering that incarceration and torture in an Egyptian jail is mainly what turned Ayman al-Zawahiri from an Islamist opponent of the regime into a bitter, remorseless killer and ideologist of global jihad. How many more Zawahiris are being created in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world today?

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