The Crisis in the Middle East Task Force addressed the topic of “Democratization and Reform” in its third session on September 20, 2007. The discussion, hosted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, focused on democracy promotion in the Middle East given the obstacles to change.
After discussing the benefits of fostering reform in the Middle East, one participant addressed the risks. This participant first dismissed the argument that the situation in Iraq shows that Middle East democracy promotion is misguided. According to this participant, Iraq is not a useful model because democratic reform in the region must be achieved through measured, top-down change, not through external imposition.
Another common critique of democracy promotion is that it leads to uncooperative governments. The United States prefers staunch allies that do not draw their legitimacy from free elections to more representative governments because societies in the region often oppose U.S. policies. The cost is that this can sometimes encourage repression.
In particular, the United States and regional powers fear militant and moderate Islamists. On the eve of the 2007 Moroccan parliamentary elections, the secular opposition saw the Party of Justice and Development as a threat precisely because it is a moderate Islamist party that wanted to participate politically. Elections would benefit Islamists because they are the strongest opposition groups in most countries. In a more open system, however, their promises would be tested and other opposition groups could advance. One participant disagreed, arguing that Islamist parties are simply more compelling than other opposition groups.
Participants also discussed reform promotion difficulties. Autocratic governments in the region have developed a system of slow “political liberalization” that enables them to avoid truly progressive reform. Secular and Islamic opposition groups also avoid more comprehensive reforms.
Competing U.S. interests present a second challenge to democracy promotion. The United States wants increased regional stability. Governments and opposition groups also prioritize stability and many individuals prefer physical security and employment to democracy. In the past, the United States pursued limited reforms to avoid pressuring U.S. allies. One participant felt that because the United States will always put strategic interests before liberalization, it should engage in as little formal democracy promotion as possible and focus instead on “bottom up” reforms. It was also suggested that difficult policy tradeoffs should be made to promote reform.
One participant suggested that the U.S. commitment to democratization is further limited because regimes in the Middle East are entirely focused on survival while the United States devotes only part of its attention to promoting reform. Additionally, the United States cooperates with the military and intelligence arms of Middle Eastern states, the very tools of repression that reform would change. Lastly, the nature of the U.S. political system makes sustained reform efforts difficult. Transitions to democracy are often chaotic. The United States will not incur such as the short-term cost of political change to bring about the long-term benefits of democratic stability.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict further complicates reform efforts, damaging the image of the United States around the world and draining resources. One participant argued that had the United States supported the peace process, Hamas might have lost in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. Another participant dismissed this as speculative.
Holding elections without implementing a liberal system can create a potentially disastrous lack of trust in the political system’s efficacy. For example, the 2007 Moroccan elections saw low voter turnout and an election boycott that resulted in over a million spoiled ballots.
Despite all the challenges, participants explored various policy options. It was argued that the strong showing of militant Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iraqi Islamist groups demonstrates the salience among voters of security concerns rather than the desirability of the Islamist agenda. In weak, conflict-ridden states people often vote for those offering security, in this case, militant Islamists. It was thus proposed that the U.S. target reform efforts at stronger states that can tame violent Islamists, though one participant noted that Algeria was a very strong state that witnessed a bloody Islamist uprising. Another participant suggested including reform in strategic dialogues with strong states and helping weak states build stronger institutions.
Participants discussed how to convince ruling elites to relinquish power. The United States can promote reform by increasing pressure upon Middle Eastern leaders and trying to fracture their ruling coalitions.
Several participants recommended a decades-long process of slow democracy promotion. Such a process would involve supporting educational exchanges, grassroots movements, and the free press, taking advantage of the growing gaps between states and societies. This effort could also include institution building. It was suggested that the United States should strengthen civil society in countries where the majority supports democracy. Others argued that the administration of President George W. Bush should better defend its reform efforts and ensure that its strategic goals are implemented at the tactical level.
The economic and social challenges in the region present indirect opportunities for reform. The European Union and NATO provide incentives for liberalization in Europe. Regional standards can play a similar role in the Middle East. U.S. trade policies can create additional pressure for liberalization. In Egypt, for instance, part of the business sector that traditionally backed the regime now supports integration into the global economy.
The United States also faces a credibility problem in the Middle East. The United States is perceived as hypocritical because of its treatment of such groups as Hamas, which won a democratic election but is shunned, and because of the gap between Bush administration rhetoric and policy. Thus, the United States should support democracy when possible. However, it should also be honest about necessary tradeoffs and be open when other priorities take precedence.
Participants noted that many aspects of democracy promotion need further exploration. A comprehensive strategy should address which aspects of democracy promotion are most important and how reform fits within the broader U.S. policy agenda. The relative merits of the tradeoffs required, for instance, to promote reform in Saudi Arabia should be considered as should a plan for dealing with non-U.S. allies that win elections. This strategy should also suggest how to deal effectively with autocratic leaders rather than misapplying anti-totalitarian models from the Cold War. Participants also recommended developing approaches toward different Islamist groups.
Participants suggested investigating the extent to which the United States is still the strongest force in the region as well as the policy implications of this inquiry. Several participants noted that China, India, and Russia have close ties to the Middle East yet do not focus on democracy promotion. One participant questioned how the United States can craft a strategy that deals with the current pressing challenges presented by Iran and Iraq as well as the long-term decline of U.S. power in the Middle East. The United States must encourage others to participate in its reform agenda.
Despite the challenges of promoting reform, the United States has interests in the Middle East that it cannot abandon. A more liberal Middle East has many merits; however, a better strategy is needed to make this a reality.