The message brought to New York and Washington on September 11th ended an erroneous premise about the state of affairs in the Middle East. It became painfully clear that autocratic stability in the Arab world no longer provided security. To the contrary, the status quo of undemocratic regional allies had created the worst of outcomes for the United States and therefore had to be challenged.
This newfound American willingness to defy the status quo in the Middle East has both realist and idealist undertones, often expressed simultaneously. These were clearly illustrated in the domestic debate leading to the invasion of Iraq. The realist voice prioritized security threats: weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the looming threat of potentially nuclear September 11s. The idealist voice, on the other hand, attached more importance to the liberation of Iraq and the hope of unleashing a democratic tsunami wave that would transform the region.
Democracy in the Middle East, and even in Iraq, may still be far away. However, the perception that underneath friendly Arab autocracies lie the most serious threats to U.S. national security has created a major sense of urgency for a reformist agenda. Since September 11th, the United States is no longer willing to wait too long.
Despite all the risks it entails, the idea of promoting democracy in the Arab world is based on a compelling logic. A major U.S. concern about democratization in the Arab world has traditionally been the fear of the Islamist alternative. Yet compared with the devastation brought about by the September 11th attacks, such fears are now being put in perspective. Weighed against the potential of terrorists equipped with weapons of mass destruction targeting the American homeland, an initial stage of Islamist proclivity in democratized Arab countries increasingly appears as a risk worth taking. At the very least, many feel that the opportunity cost of not pushing for liberalization and democratization in the Arab world has become unbearably high.