Al-Ahram Weekly

Presidential Candidate Positions Undeclared on Arab Democracy

The consensus in US political circles is that the question of Arab democracy is not a top priority for either Republican candidate John McCain or Democratic candidate Barack Obama. This is not just because the two presidential hopeful are swamped with domestic issues, such as the economy, health and immigration, nor because they are busy with Iraq and Iran, but because they seem beholden to the legacy of incumbent President George W Bush on that particular matter.

By contrast, researchers and commentators are showing mounting interest in Arab democracy, with many arguing that spreading democracy and reinforcing freedom in the Arab world is a primary task for any US president. Numerous researchers suggest that President Bush was right to champion the cause of democracy in the Arab world, however wrongly he went about it. And many bemoan the naïveté of US hawks who reacted hastily to Hamas's electoral victory in January 2006 and who still equate democracy with the empowerment of Islamists across the Arab world.

For now, the two US presidential hopefuls seem to gravitate to the old axiom that inspired US foreign policy for six decades or more; namely, that backing stability is more rewarding than backing democracy -- the same axiom that President Bush adopted near the end of his term in reaction to the "sudden" rise of Islamists in more than one Arab country.

The consensus in US political circles is that the question of Arab democracy is not a top priority for either Republican candidate John McCain or Democratic candidate Barack Obama. This is not just because the two presidential hopeful are swamped with domestic issues, such as the economy, health and immigration, nor because they are busy with Iraq and Iran, but because they seem beholden to the legacy of incumbent President George W Bush on that particular matter.

By contrast, researchers and commentators are showing mounting interest in Arab democracy, with many arguing that spreading democracy and reinforcing freedom in the Arab world is a primary task for any US president. Numerous researchers suggest that President Bush was right to champion the cause of democracy in the Arab world, however wrongly he went about it. And many bemoan the naïveté of US hawks who reacted hastily to Hamas's electoral victory in January 2006 and who still equate democracy with the empowerment of Islamists across the Arab world.

For now, the two US presidential hopefuls seem to gravitate to the old axiom that inspired US foreign policy for six decades or more; namely, that backing stability is more rewarding than backing democracy -- the same axiom that President Bush adopted near the end of his term in reaction to the "sudden" rise of Islamists in more than one Arab country.

McCain -- whose ideas are not that different from the neo-conservatives -- believes that the top two priorities in the Middle East are fighting terror and containing Iran. Although he implicitly denounced authoritarian practices in the Arab world, on the grounds that such practices encourage extremism and terror, McCain doesn't appear to think that democracy is the way forward. There seems to be a contradiction in his thinking, for McCain urges finishing the "mission" in Iraq through the creation of a true democratic regime, even if that leads to Americans staying in Iraq for "100 years" as he put it. Meanwhile, he advocates the creation of a confederation bringing together democratic nations with a view to spreading peace and freedom.

Obama is generally more interested in democracy. A few months ago, he promised to provide financial and moral support to institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy, that strive to spread democracy around the world. But he never addressed the issue of supporting democracy in the Middle East and doesn't seem to have given it much thought.

The way both candidates seem to link democracy with the fight against terror is rather worrying. It is a habit they took from President Bush and one that is not supported by facts. Pakistan, for example, is a democratic country -- at least in comparison with many countries in the Arab world -- and yet it is a breeding ground for extremists both local and foreign. Meanwhile, Arab countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt enjoy varying levels of freedom and "limited" political openness, depending on the dynamics of relations among their main players, and yet they all share visible signs of instability.

The link between democracy and terror is what undermined Bush's strategy for democratisation in the Arab world. The democratisation efforts of the Bush administration failed to "rein in" extremism, its original goal. And when Islamists came to power, the whole US quest for democracy fell apart.

Most US research centres, especially those assessing the policies of the Bush administration on democracy in the Arab world, are of a different mind. They believe that democracy should be seen less as a "tool" for advancing US interests than a strategic "interest" per se. Democracy, researchers maintain, should be included in the "package" of "conventional goals", alongside fighting terror, protecting the supply of oil, or defending Israel's security. The US should not use stability as an excuse for supporting authoritarianism in the region, for its backsliding on democracy, researchers say, could prove hazardous in the long run.

Researchers argue that the effort to support freedom and liberal democracy, which started under the Bush administration, should continue. Otherwise America's image in the region would deteriorate further. They say that Arab societies are going through a period of structural, demographic, economic and social change, noting that it would be a good thing to boost the "critical mass" that is emerging and thus give the young hope for a better future. They also believe that the stability now seen in the Arab world is but a "façade", adding that waves of pent-up discontent and political and social tensions may explode onto the scene to the detriment of the US and its allies. In general, most researchers call for political participation, good governance, elimination of corruption, and reduction of income disparities in the Arab world.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Middle East Democracy and Development programme at the Brookings Institution, has prepared a brilliant study in this issue. Entitled Freedom's Unsteady March: America's Role in Building Arab Democracy, the study was released a few weeks ago. Wittes offers a new definition of US "interests", one that includes democracy as a top priority for the next US president, regardless of his party affiliation.

Wittes reviews the ways in which Arab societies have changed since Bush put freedom on the top of his agenda during his second term. She urges the modernisation of the infrastructure of political institutions in the Arab world, says that steady work is needed to spread the values of freedom and political participation in Arab societies, especially among the youth, and calls for supporting Arab civil society organisations.

Thomas Carothers, vice-president for international politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, urges the coming US administration to adopt a long-term strategy to support democracy overseas, noting that US foreign policy should abandon its dual rhetoric on democracy and autocratic governments, as in the case with Pakistan and China. In his paper, US Democracy Promotion During and After Bush, he warns against the use of force as a way to promote democracy. Citing Afghanistan and Iraq as examples, Carothers says that such action can undermine US credibility.

Francis Fukuyama of the "End of History" fame and Professor Michael McFaul of Stanford University, argued in their paper Should Democracy be Promoted or Demoted? which appeared in the Washington Quarterly, that democracy is not a "luxury" or a minor issue. It is a "strategic" goal needed to safeguard US national security in the post-9/11 phase. They advocate for a US strategy to democratise the Arab world through gradual and long-term efforts, adding that threats of regime change are counterproductive.

The above-mentioned studies, while advocating gradual, steady and long-term engagement aimed at changing the cultural and political infrastructure of the Arab world, are yet to be recognised by either of the two US presidential contenders.