While the “tyranny of other priorities“, including Iraq and Afghanistan, will provide more pressing foreign policy challenges for the new U.S. administration, the issue of Arab democracy is unlikely to fade away. The latest reminder of the region’s acute democratic deficit came with this week’s “constitutional coup” in Algeria that saw parliament rubber-stamp constitutional amendments that abolish presidential term limits, ensuring President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s passage to a third term in next spring’s elections.
It would be “tragic” if the new U.S administration “jettisoned any serious effort at political reform in Arab and Muslim societies,” a leading Mideast analyst argues. The mistakes and shortcomings of the outgoing administration made the issue “radioactive”, writes Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Sadly, the region’s autocrats and radicals are cheering this fact, he notes, but nevertheless believes the U.S. “can promote the conditions for positive change; the challenge is to do it right.” An Obama administration is likely to tread softly and pursue and incremental approach rather than adopt a new grand strategy for democratizing the Middle East, Satloff suggests. A foreign policy driven by what one Obama advisor calls sustainable security “does not imply bold new initiatives, grand plans, or world-changing ideas.”
The new administration should not make the mistake of downgrading democracy assistance in the region in the same way that the Bush administration failed to build on the Clinton administration’s legacy of the peace process, says Carnegie’s Michelle Dunne. It will not be so easy to evade the issue of Arab democracy given the ferment in the region and the fact that events, including the albeit-flawed elections that virtually all Arab states hold, will demand a response, she told a Washington, DC, meeting today.
It is misleading to suggest that the Freedom Agenda was abortive, said Dunne, editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, as it had helped open up political space in countries like Egypt, Morocco and Bahrain. Nor is it true to associate the Freedom Agenda with militarized or coercive forms of exporting democracy: the Bush administration developed customized country-specific strategies for change, reflecting locally-driven demands, not least through the Middle East Partnership Initiative whose much-improved contribution is not easily replicable and in any case preferable to “large splashy initiatives” that soak up valuable energy and resources.
Larry Diamond was less optimistic that democracy assistance would not be downgraded, while insisting that it was a temptation that should be resisted. The Freedom Agenda’s legacy was paltry, he argued. The continued detention of Ayman Nour, exiling of Saad Eddin Ibrahim and passage of regressive constitutional amendments confirm that the political opening in Egypt was short-lived. And while Morocco is a relatively liberal and pluralist state in an authoritarian neighborhood, it was emphatically not a democracy and should not have been admitted to the Community of Democracies or awarded a $698 million compact under the terms of the Millennium Challenge Account.
Dunne and Diamond spoke at a roundtable discussion that previewed The Washington Quarterly’s forthcoming January 2009 feature section on the future of democracy in U.S. strategy in regions such as the Middle East and East Asia.
“The lack of progress toward functional democracy in some of our largest aid recipients, such as Egypt and Pakistan, makes clear that the pursuit of short-term imperatives without a parallel focus on long-term goals neither enhances global stability nor delivers on our security,” claims Obama adviser Gayle Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “If the ‘Global War on Terror’ has taught us anything,” she suggests, “it is that it is not enough to show the world that we are against terrorism, but it is also imperative to make clear to the world that we stand for democracy.”
An Obama administration is more likely to view democracy as an integral component of national security and foreign policy. Democracy assistance may place greater stress on the socio-economic dimension of democracy and forms of empowerment that address pressing issues of inequality and poverty-alleviation. The new president, Smith argues, has an opportunity to fashion and leverage a defense, diplomacy, and development triad that creates a world where a majority of capable states and open societies share common goals, where democracy delivers, and where the trend toward extreme poverty is reversed.”
Some of the dilemmas confronting policy-makers addressing democracy in the Middle East are highlighted in an unflinchingly honest personal assessment by leading analyst Amr Hamzawy. He admits to being so focused on how non-violent opposition movements could bring about political change that he neglected to question opposition groups’ own democratic credentials. “Undemocratic opposition movements may not be exactly the best vessel for democratization,” he observes.
“It is prudent to question the sincerity of democratization in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen,” writes Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment. “But Morocco, Iraq and Kuwait may be on to something, and one should keep an open mind about them for now.”