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A Democracy Strategy for the Middle East

A Democracy Strategy for the Middle East

Implications of the November 2003 Bush Doctrine on Middle East democracy.

By Carl Gershman

[Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy, a position he has held since 1984. Prior to that, he was counselor to the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations and the U.S. Representative in the U.N.'s Third Committee. He is co-editor, with Irving Howe, of Israel, the Arabs, and the Middle East (Quadrangle Books, 1972) and his writings have appeared in many publications, including the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Commentary Magazine.]

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On November 6, 2003, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), President George W. Bush delivered a seminal address on the need to strengthen democracy around the world and, in particular, to support its development in the Middle East. The critical passage in the speech, which received world-wide attention and was considered by many observers to be the most important speech of the Bush presidency, was the call to end "sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East" and to adopt "a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."

Given the sharp divisions in world opinion generated by the war on terrorism, it is not surprising that the reaction to the speech was mixed. While it was welcomed in the United States by opinion centers as diverse as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, it was also criticized from the right by people who saw in Bush not the embodiment of Ronald Reagan, whose famous Westminster Address was echoed in the Bush speech, but Jimmy Carter, a president accused by some of launching a moral crusade in politically volatile regions without regard to the potentially negative consequences. The proponents of this view draw a parallel between Carter advocating human rights in Iran and, in their view, unintentionally destabilizing the Shah’s regime, and Bush urging democracy on the autocracies of the Middle East, which might unwittingly promote theocratic regimes or plunge the region into civil war.

Other critics expressed skepticism that the Bush administration would actually follow through on the democratic vision of the speech. In this view, the professed U.S. commitment to democracy was just rhetoric and would eventually succumb to the pressures of economic and political interest, above all the new security relationships that are an intrinsic part of the war on terrorism.

In the Middle East, official reaction was defensive and generally negative. Aside from the Egyptian foreign minister, who said that the Bush speech was one big misunderstanding in that President Bush was actually complimenting Egypt for its leadership on democracy, the state-controlled media in the region criticized U.S. arrogance, hypocrisy, and interference in Arab internal affairs and lectured the United States against trying to impose democracy through force. Only a small number of democratic reformers welcomed the speech as a potential turning pointing for the region, cautioning that the test of the new policy would be in the follow-through and implementation. One of them, the Kuwaiti political scientist Shafeeq Ghabla, said that the real significance of the speech lay in its articulation of a new paradigm for understanding the Middle East.

This new paradigm consists fundamentally of Bush's rejection of Arab exceptionalism, which is the idea that the Arab Middle East, alone among the major regions of the world, is impervious to the impact of the global economic, technological, and social forces that have produced what the President called "the swiftest advance of freedom in the 2,500-year story of democracy."

The view that the Middle East is an exception to the global trend toward democracy is not without foundation. Surveying the democratic revolution of the last generation and asking if democracy can become universal, the political scientist Larry Diamond recently wrote that democracy is now "present in countries evincing every major religious or philosophical tradition: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, Muslim. It is much more common in developed countries, but it is now significantly present among very poor countries as well [41 percent of the least developed states -- the bottom third as classified by the United Nation as Development Program (UNDP) -- are today democratic-- CG]. It is much more common -- and much more liberal -- in small states of under 1 million. But most of the biggest countries -- specifically, eight of the 11 countries with populations over 100 million -- are democracies. By any category that is meaningful in the world today, there is only one set of countries that is completely undemocratic: the Arab world." (Larry Diamond, "Universal Democracy?" in Policy Review, June 2003, emphasis added.)

Referencing the UNDP's Arab Human Development Report, President Bush acknowledged the existence of a freedom deficit in the Arab Middle East. He offered several arguments, however, to counter the idea that democracy could not take root in the region, among them that other cultures and countries previously thought to be inherently undemocratic -- Japan, Germany, many Catholic countries -- are now democratic; that democracy is not a final condition that only the fit (countries with the right preconditions) can achieve, but a system and a process by means of which countries can become fit (here he echoed a point made often by Amartya Sen); and, finally, that Islam is consistent with democratic rule.

On this last point there is a good deal of supporting evidence. An article by Alfred Stepan and Graeme B. Robertson in a recent issue of the Journal of Democracy makes the point that non-Arab Muslim states are actually "over-achievers" on democracy relative to their level of economic development ("An 'Arab' More than 'Muslim' Electoral Gap," Journal of Democracy 14, 3 [July 2003]). But they also point out that the Arab Muslim states are "under-achievers," leading to the article's title, "An 'Arab' More Than 'Muslim' Electoral Gap," which brings us back to the problem of Arab exceptionalism.

How do we explain the democracy deficit in the Arab world, and what can be done to ad-dress it? Stepan and Robertson speak of the weakness of the Arab state structure inherited from colonialism and the susceptibility of the larger Arab nation, which encompasses the sixteen Arab states, to becoming so diverted by the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict (the very name of the conflict suggests its regional scope) as to subordinate democratic progress to national resentment. Larry Diamond, in the essay quoted earlier on democratic universalism, offers a similar explanation for Arab exceptionalism, calling the obsessive preoccupation with Israel "a grand excuse" for democratic stagnation that "has generated a heavy fog over Arab politics, diminishing political visibility and transparency" and giving repressive Arab regimes a tool to obscure their abuse and to legitimate their rule.

President Bush touched tangentially on the issue of conflict and resentment when he said that democracy will not come about if people dwell on the past or are obsessed with placing blame, but only if they seek practical solutions to real problems. If this is true, it follows that a change in political culture -- replacing attitudes of victimization with a readiness to engage in self-criticism and to take responsibility for one’s own fate -- can only come from within the Arab world. Bush pointed to some positive examples where Arab countries have started on the path of reform in Jordan, Morocco, and in some of the Gulf states, but he did not announce any new initiative, nor did he define a specific set of policy guidelines or directives to encourage these reforms (the Middle East Partnership Initiative [MEPI], which is designed to serve this purpose, had been announced a year earlier by Secretary Powell).

What he did do, though, is establish a new standard that the United States is now obliged to meet in more than a token or symbolic fashion, and against which U.S. actions will now be judged. Ron Asmus [a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations--Ed.] told me over lunch of his meeting recently with a State Department officer who wanted to know who was responsible for that NED speech, the assumption being that now the bureaucracy must now follow up with actions that are consistent with the logic and values in the speech, perhaps thereby complicating conventional diplomacy. Doctrines can take on a life of their own, and the new Bush Doctrine will now allow democracy and human rights activists in the Middle East to hold the United States accountable to a higher standard.

They can now ask, for example, if we are prepared to name names in the case of persecuted dissidents, as we did with Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and as we should now do in the case of Radiah Nasraoui, the human rights lawyer working for the Tunisian National Council for Liberties. As we speak, Radiah Nasraoui is on a prolonged hunger strike to protest the harassment faced by her family, her clients, and herself because she has defended human rights in Tunisia and revealed cases of torture in police stations. The fact that there is now a Bush Doctrine for democracy in the Middle East increases the obligation of the United States to come to her defense.

This is just one example. The new doctrine will be tested by the consistency with which the United States speaks out on and seeks to defend human rights in Arab countries, just as we do in China, Cuba, Burma, and so many other non-Arab countries. And defending human rights is but one aspect of what needs to be a new agenda for the promotion of  democracy in the Middle East. In all Arab countries there are people who are fighting for democratic rights and transparent, accountable government. They include women working for empowerment, participation, and equality; journalists who are fighting for freedom of expression and genuinely independent communications media; and intellectuals who are projecting a new vision of democracy and of the place of religion in a democratic society.

Such activists need practical help as well as moral and political solidarity. It should be the fundamental objective of the United States, together with democrats in Europe and else-where, to seek to protect and expand the limited political space that democrats and re-formers in the Middle East have been able to secure. Surely this can be part of the foundation for a new transatlantic partnership for democracy.

Beyond support for democracy activists and NGOs, we need to encourage what Daniel Brumberg has called a process of "democratic gradualism," which involves the creation of effective political parties, representative parliaments, and the rule of law, as well as effective monitoring by international and domestic observers of local and national elections. Only with such support can the Middle East transcend "liberalized autocracy," which is as far as reform has yet gone, even in the best cases. And only this way can what Brumberg calls "the silent pluralities of the Arab world -- large groups of people who often have little sympathy for illiberal Islamists -- be able to make their voices heard" (Daniel Brumberg, "The Trap of Liberalized Autocracy," Journal of Democracy [October 2002], 66-67).

It would be a serious mistake, in my view, if democracy activists in the Middle East were to adopt a passive attitude toward the new Bush Doctrine and await some new set of actions that the United States will initiate. The initiative has to come from the activists themselves, and the United States should be called upon to respond constructively and with determination. There would have been no meaningful support for democracy in Poland in the 1980s if Solidarity had not taken the lead in fighting for fundamental worker and human rights. Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, and other dissidents in the Soviet Union started a movement that international human rights organizations then rallied to and the international media exposed to world attention. There would be few people paying attention to the democracy movement in Burma today were it not for Aung San Suu Kyi. Democracy is not a gift or an entitlement. It has to be fought for and constantly defended.

This is not to say that everything has to come from within and that the United States and others will simply respond to internal democratic struggles. At the heart of the Bush speech is the belief that the success of democracy in Iraq will, as the President said, "send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran, that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East" -- which is the foremost policy objective of the United States -- "will be a watershed even in the global democratic revolution." The struggle taking place in Iraq today is an epochal political event that can create a new dynamic and new opportunities in the Middle East. Even so, the ultimate responsibility for building democracy lies within Iraq and within each Arab country.

There is yet another pivotal process taking place today that also has the potential to unleash new possibilities for democracy in the Middle East and the larger Muslim world. I have in mind the effort by Turkey to join the European Union and, in the process, to make the transition into a genuine liberal democracy. The success of this effort would give encouragement to democrats in other Muslim countries, especially in the neighboring regions of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. It would establish Turkey as an ally of democracy struggles beyond its borders, much as the successful struggles in Poland and Czechoslovakia established these countries as the conveyors of democratic skills and solidarity in the post-communist world. And it would also extend the Helsinki and OSCE process of democratic enlargement beyond Europe, raising the possibility that new incentives can be developed for the gradual inclusion of other contiguous countries into the economic and political sphere of democratic Europe.

The Bush speech offered no false hopes. The political environment bears little resemblance to the optimism, even triumphalism, that prevailed in the wake of the Gulf War, a moment that also coincided with the end of the cold war. Circumstances in today’s more sober political climate demand realism but do not justify pessimism. Moreover, we need to be clear that democracy, if it progresses in the Middle East, will not be a Western implant. It will have its own indigenous roots.

One of the little noted points in the Bush address was his remark that "modernization is not the same as Westernization," and that representative government in the Middle East will reflect the cultures and traditions of the region. "Democratic nations," the President said, "may be constitutional monarchies, federal republics, or parliamentary systems," and democracy will take time to develop. We will all have to be patient and prepared to work over the long haul. As the President said, our commitment to democracy in the Middle East "must be the focus of American policy for decades to come." This is also to say that the doctrine enunciated by the President should not, and in my view will not, change, regardless of the outcome of our presidential election. It will only evolve and, let us hope, grow stronger and more effective with time.

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