Arab Democracy, American Ambivalence: Will Bush’s rhetoric about transforming the Middle East be matched by American deeds?

February 23, 2004

Reprinted by permission of The Weekly Standard, (02/23/2004, Volume 009, Issue 23).

Over the past year, the goal of democratizing the Arab Middle East has been elevated from wooly-headed ideal to national security imperative and a key part of the war on terrorism. The Bush administration judged that political dysfunction and failing, corrupt autocracies were making Muslims, and particularly Arabs, especially vulnerable to the appeal of radical Islamist ideologies. America’s longtime rationale for supporting Arab autocrats was their promise of stability. But as the president recognized in his landmark speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in November, the price was high and the stability was deceptive. Hence the new “generational commitment” to promote democracy in the Arab world.s.d.

In pursuit of this commitment (and other worthy goals), the administration has already taken one enormously large and costly action: It has launched regime change in Iraq, an endeavor on which the U.S. government has lavished considerable blood and treasure, and in which it cannot afford to fail (though fail it might).

It has also done smaller things—and promised in the loftiest rhetoric to do a great many more such things in the decades ahead—to spur democratic development across the entire Middle East. In what the president calls a “forward strategy of freedom,” the administration has vowed to reorient U.S. diplomacy and U.S. aid so as to lend moral and material support to pro-democracy forces throughout the Arab world. Its instruments to this end include the Middle East Partnership Initiative, just over one year old; a Middle East Free Trade Area; and a proposed doubling of the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, a bipartisan grant-giving organization funded by the U.S. government to support the growth of democracy. In addition, at a series of summits this year with the G-8, NATO, and the European Union, Washington reportedly plans to enlist other advanced democracies to endorse reform principles for the Greater Middle East.

Where does this ambitious venture stand at the end of its first year? It is too early, of course, to offer any verdict as to outcomes. But this is clear: For the endeavor to succeed, many within the U.S. government must overcome their own misgivings about it. Only then will Washington convince the Arab world’s lonely liberals of the seriousness of its commitment to the goal of “a democratic peace—a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman.” What’s more, given the complexity and scope of the endeavor, its announced centrality to our national security, and its inevitable consequences for our standing in the world, it is none too soon to clarify underlying assumptions, question priorities, and point out pitfalls.

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