U.S. democracy promotion in the Middle East has suffered a series of crippling defeats. Despite occasionally paying lip service to the idea, few politicians on either the left or right appear committed to supporting democratic reform as a central component of American policy in the region. Who can really blame them, given that democracy promotion has become toxic to a public with little patience left for various “missions” abroad? But as the Obama administration struggles to renew ties with the Muslim world, particularly in light of the June 2009 Cairo speech, it should resist the urge to abandon its predecessor’s focus on promoting democracy in what remains the most undemocratic region in the world.
Promoting democratic reform, this time not just with rhetoric but with action, should be given higher priority in the current administration, even though early indications suggest the opposite may be happening. Despite all its bad press, democracy promotion remains, in the long run, the most effective way to undermine terrorism and political violence in the Middle East. This is not a very popular argument. Indeed, a key feature of the post-Bush debate over democratization is an insistence on separating support for democracy from any explicit national security rationale. This, however, would be a mistake with troubling consequences for American foreign policy.