Double Blow to Mideast Democracy

Events in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have dealt a fatal blow to the Bush administration’s plans for Middle East reform even before they are formally unveiled. These events may come to symbolize the end of democracy as a serious policy objective in the Middle East.

Certainly the painful pictures from Iraq a year after the war—including humiliating scenes of abused Iraqi prisoners—have turned that country into a model to be feared and avoided in the eyes of many in the Middle East, and a tool in the hands of governments reluctant to change. It is a far cry from the anticipated model of inspiration the administration promised would spur demands for democracy in the Arab world.

But the challenge for the administration’s reform plans is far greater than the pictures in Iraq convey. A year after major combat was declared over, the administration is in greater need than before of help from the very governments it seeks to reform. And the administration’s support for the unilateral disengagement plan of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon necessitates yet more help from Arab governments in implementing an unpopular plan without unleashing instability.

Add to this increasing public anger in the Arab world with the United States over both Iraq and the Palestinian issue—and with their own governments for supporting the United States. This exacerbates the rulers’ insecurity and inclines them toward increased repression.

Because our strategic and political objectives are now urgent, they outweigh our desire for reform, even if we continue to pay lip service to it. In the history of U.S. foreign policy, such concessions are always portrayed as necessary short-term measures. Too often, however, long-term U.S. behavior in the region simply looks like a series of short-term concessions.

Despite our claim before the Iraq war that the prospects of democracy in the region would improve, public opinion there has gone the other way. In an opinion survey I conducted in six Arab countries on the eve of the war, majorities of Arabs expressed the view that the Middle East would be less democratic after the war. It was a seemingly puzzling view given how little democracy already existed. But there are two primary reasons for this assessment that we cannot ignore.

First, there was widespread mistrust of American intentions. When you don’t trust the messenger, you don’t trust the message, even if it’s a good one. While the lack of trust was based on many factors, including a historical gap between what we say and what we do, the primary measure of confidence toward the United States in Arab minds remains the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While Arabs have always complained about perceived American “bias,” their level of confidence in the United States has not been constant. In the spring of 2000, for example, when it looked as if the United States was genuinely trying to mediate an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, more than 60 percent of Saudis expressed confidence in this country. Immediately after the collapse of the negotiations that fall, confidence began to slide, and it continued to do so, reaching single digits in the past year.

No matter what else we do in the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the “prism of pain” for Arabs through which they read U.S. intentions, in the same way that the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and associated terrorism are now the prism of pain through which Americans will continue to see the Arab and Muslim worlds. Regardless of the objective meaning of the administration’s support for Sharon, the regional perception of that support is likely to outweigh anything we say on reform—or even Iraq.

Second, while Arab and Muslim public views of the United States are often wrong and unjustified, their skepticism about our policy toward reform is reasonable. We have not been fully honest in our own public discourse about where democracy ranks in our priorities. It is true that many in our government and media have come to believe that democracy is now a strategic priority, because its absence fuels terrorism. But we fear anarchy and instability even more in areas where we have strategic interests, and we fear the emergence of unfriendly governments, even if democratically elected.

In Pakistan, our strategic priority is to get maximum support from the besieged government of Pervez Musharraf for fighting our top strategic threat, al Qaeda. We fear most the disintegration of a nuclear state in an area where al Qaeda is strong. In Iraq today, we would like to see democracy, but our priority is to limit the casualties of our troops, to ensure an outcome that favors our other interests, especially oil. We want democratic rulers, but only if they are sure allies. The result is that what we say and what we do are visibly in conflict.

The difficulty in bringing stability, let alone democracy, to Iraq, where we have direct control and are spending enormous resources, should be a sobering example of the limits of our power. Above all two conclusions must be drawn: First, it is impossible to succeed in our reform policy without having in place a robust Arab-Israeli peace process that commands regional trust. Second, we cannot succeed if we continue to ignore public opinion in the region. The gap between governments and publics increases the rulers’ incentive to repress at the same time that it decreases our leverage with them.