The uprisings across the Arab world have not only empowered illiberal actors, but may also undermine vital security interests, writes a prominent analyst.
“The uprisings of the last two years have represented a significant challenge to authoritarian rule in the Arab world. But structural conditions appear to be preventing broader political liberalization in the region, and war, corruption, and economic stagnation could undermine further progress,” argues Seth G. Jones, Associate Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation:
Although the United States can take some steps to support democratization in the long run, it cannot force change. Middle Eastern autocrats may eventually fall, and the spread of liberal democracy would be welcomed by most Americans, even if it would carry certain risks. Yet until such changes occur because of the labor of Arabs themselves, U.S. policy toward the Middle East should focus on what is attainable.
Outside of Tunisia, political developments since the overthrow of incumbent authoritarian regimes have hardly enhanced prospects for sustainable democratic transitions. In any case, there is only a limited role for external actors, he contends.
“The demise of Middle Eastern authoritarianism may come eventually. But there is little reason to think that day is near, and even less reason to think that the United States can significantly increase its chances of happening,” Jones writes in the new issue of Foreign Affairs:
Any effort by Washington to bring democracy to the region will fail if local social and economic conditions are not ripe and if vested interests in the countries oppose political reforms. Indeed, outside powers such as the United States have historically had only a marginal impact, at best, on whether a country democratizes. Until another wave of local uprisings does succeed in transforming the region, U.S. policy should not be hamstrung by an overly narrow focus on spreading democracy. The United States and its allies need to protect their vital strategic interests in the region — balancing against rogue states such as Iran, ensuring access to energy resources, and countering violent extremists. Achieving these goals will require working with some authoritarian governments and accepting the Arab world for what it is today.
Some observers have argued that the Arab awakening “is best understood as a delayed regional onset of the third wave or even the harbinger of a fourth. “But that misreads events and offers undue optimism,” argues Jones, an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies:
Washington should not base its policy toward the greater Middle East on the assumption that the region is democratizing quickly or sustainably. The United States and other Western countries should encourage liberal reforms, support civil society, and provide technical assistance in improving countries’ constitutions and financial systems. But the perceived promise of the Arab uprisings should not cause the United States to overlook its main strategic priorities in the region. … The normative hope that liberal democracy may flourish in the future must be balanced by the need to work with governments and societies as they exist today.
Autocratic regimes such as those in Jordan and Saudi Arabia are vital allies in the fight against radical Islamist terrorism, Jones contends, and “keeping such cooperation intact is imperative.”
“In fact, the cold reality is that some democratic governments in the Arab world would almost certainly be more hostile to the United States than their authoritarian predecessors, because they would be more responsive to the populations of their countries, which are largely anti-American.”