Can the US Still Promote Democracy in the MENA Region?
Speakers: Thomas Carothers, Maya Gebeily, Michael Wahid Hanna
Moderator: Hafsa Halawa
Report Writer: Amanda Cohn
On May 19, 2021, the UCLA Center for Middle East Development (CMED held a public online webinar to explore the history of American efforts to promote democratic values globally and how recent domestic developments in the United States have impacted its ability to do so. Specific attention was paid to the US image and credibility within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Three American speakers shared their thoughts: Thomas Carothers, the interim president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Michael Wahid Hanna, the director of the US program at the International Crisis Group and a non-resident senior fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law; and Maya Gebeily, who focuses on the Middle East for the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The event was moderated by Hafsa Halawa, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and political consultant based in Cairo.
Thomas Carothers opened the discussion with a brief introduction to the concept of American Exceptionalism, which he explained emerged at the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century. This concept refers to the idea that the US is unique as the only country founded on the basis of principles, rather than on the basis of language, religion, or ethnicity. Historically, US foreign policy has been steered by this American self-conception; the country has viewed itself as the transformative agent tasked with spreading democratic values globally. In the 1990s, attempts were made to integrate these values into US foreign policy in the MENA region. Following September 11th, 2001, the democracy promotion agenda was viewed as a way to counter Islamic extremism in the region and these efforts became strategic and military-driven, as was seen in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Maya Gebeily highlighted that American democratization methods differ by country. In Lebanon and Iraq, the US has prioritized and encouraged liberal institution building as a means of ingraining democratic values in the countries. These endeavors have largely failed or been counterproductive, Gebeily asserted, noting that associating with the United States has a negative connotation in these countries. She cited the example of the 2020 assassination of Riham Yacoub, a civil rights activist in Basra, for having visited an American consulate. Civil society leaders are turning instead to the EU, UN, Russia, China, and other foreign powers for support, as aid from these countries is seen as less politicized and more consistent.
Michael Wahid Hanna began the discussion of how American democracy promotion has been impacted by recent domestic developments in the US, including the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., widespread claims of election fraud, and highly publicized acts of racial injustice. All speakers agreed that these developments have damaged the credibility of the country’s democracy promotion agenda. Nonetheless, it was also noted that the US had already developed an international reputation for hypocrisy and inconsistency before these recent events.
Carothers and Gebeily specifically cited the US’ lukewarm support for the Arab Spring uprisings as the turning point for the country’s reputation in the MENA region. While American credibility abroad has been damaged over the past year, Hanna stated that this moment simultaneously presents an opportunity for the US to be transparent in its struggle with democratic backsliding and intentional in how it confronts the damage caused by recent domestic developments.
The Biden administration has made overt attempts to pivot away from its predecessor’s policies that hurt American credibility abroad. Carothers referenced the new administration’s focus on countering right-wing extremism and confronting racial injustice as evidence of a “return to rationality.” This shift in behavior has been viewed favorably by governments in the MENA region, as it signals a return to a more predictable US policy. A similar shift in rhetoric has occurred, with the US once again calling for an end to human rights abuses globally. While this initially posed a threat to authoritarian regimes in the MENA region, this rhetoric has not been matched with a change in US behavior towards these regimes.
One issue on which US foreign policy has remained relatively consistent since the previous presidential administration is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The recent flare-up of tensions was a major point of discussion during the event, as this was viewed by some as an opportunity for President Biden to demonstrate a clear break from his predecessor and to rectify American hypocrisy in the Middle East. Although Carothers acknowledged that the Biden government is “leaning in the Palestinian direction,” he suggested that the US decision to block three UN resolutions condemning Israeli violence and calling for a cease-fire demonstrates that “their feet haven’t moved.” Hanna explained that while the question of Palestinian sovereignty has become less salient to the Arab conception of the United States, this issue has historically been foundational to Arab self-identity and, as such, has served as a prism through which Arabs have viewed the fairness of the international system and, by proxy, of the United States.
Hanna and Carothers agreed that the US is likely on the precipice of major changes in their MENA policy. As the country undergoes a broad reassessment of its interests and methods in the region, the speakers believed it will likely move away from the current over-militarized engagement policy. Hanna hoped this reassessment of MENA policy would be accompanied by a more practical agenda that would produce tangible results, such as a campaign to have political prisoners released.
All speakers concurred that, despite recent domestic turbulence in the US and Arab frustration with American hypocrisy and recent non-engagement, the United States’ role in global democratization efforts would not be undermined. Other countries still care about US perception and rely on it for messaging. Though some countries, like China and Russia, are proving prominent in the development space, they are ultimately not capable of filling the United States’ role.