Originally published March 16, 2003 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Stepping up his efforts to gain the backing of the American public for war against Iraq, President Bush is pushing the democracy button. He and his top advisers argue that ousting Saddam Hussein will allow the United States to build a democracy in Iraq and that doing so will stimulate a wave of democracy around the Middle East.
Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 26th, the president tied his vision for post-conflict Iraq to democratization of the region, noting that "the nation of Iraq . . . is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom. The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. And there are hopeful signs of a desire for freedom in the Middle East."
It is hard not to be tantalized by the notion that with one hard blow in Iraq the United States could unleash a tidal wave of democracy in a region long gripped by intransigent autocracy. But although the United States can certainly oust Saddam Hussein and install a less repressive regime, Iraqi democracy would not be soon forthcoming.
In other countries where the United States has forcibly removed dictators or engaged in nation building after civil wars, democracy has not flowered readily. For example, the Bush administration's bold promise of democratic renewal for post-Taliban Afghanistan has yet to be fulfilled. The government in Kabul is far from establishing control across the entire country. Democracy building exercises such as the loya jirga have, thus far, created only uneasy power sharing pacts among warlords.
Earlier attempts have often fared no better. In 1994, the United States ousted a dictatorial regime in Haiti and afterwards attempted to build democracy. But what has emerged is political chaos, renewed repression and dismal U.S.--Haiti relations. In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, international administrators have been given tremendous legal powers and financial resources, and been charged with the task of building stable, ethnically inclusive democracies. But more than six years later in Bosnia and almost four in Kosovo, both areas would likely lapse into renewed ethnic violence if international forces pulled out.
Panama, where the United States removed General Manuel Noriega from power in 1990, has achieved some degree of democratic government. But Panama had some genuine experience with pluralism before Noriega rose to power and Panamanian politics today, though not dictatorial, are still mired in corruption, public disillusionment and fecklessness.
In all these countries, post-invasion politics have come to closely resemble those that prevailed before the toppled regime took power. Iraq before Saddam Hussein was conflict-ridden and authoritarian. And Iraq, like Afghanistan, is a nation challenged by profound ideological, religious, regional and ethnic divisions.
All this does not mean that Iraq can never become democratic. But the idea of a quick and easy democratic transformation is a fantasy. The United States would have to stay engaged in the country over many years, both providing security forces to keep the country intact and helping to maintain the momentum and integrity of new political structures. Administration officials have been unclear about the intended U.S. commitment to staying the course in post-conflict Iraq in terms of number of troops, length of time and financial resources. The case of Afghanistan, where the United States has greatly limited its post-conflict political reconstruction role, raises serious questions about the administration's promises regarding Iraq.
As difficult as creating a democratic Iraq would likely be, it is even more doubtful that ousting Saddam Hussein would trigger a wave of democracy throughout the rest of the Middle East. The most likely political effects of war would be a surge in the already burgeoning anti-Americanism in the region. This would strengthen the hand of Islamist opposition forces in many Arab countries, which in turn would impel governments in those countries to restrict what little political space exists, out of fear of political unrest that could get out of hand. The net effect therefore would likely be even less political reform and freedom in the region rather than more.
Domino democratization does sometimes occur, as in Latin America and Eastern Europe during the '80s and '90s. But while external influences may increase the stress on existing regimes, outsiders are usually marginal players. A nation's own political history and current social conditions largely determine its future. For example, in the post-communist world it is the countries of Central Europe, with their relative economic prosperity and their pre-communist traditions of pluralism and liberalism, that have made the greatest strides towards democracy. The relatively poor former Soviet Republics, with little experience of popular rule, have mostly slipped back into authoritarianism.
The domestic conditions that set the stage for democratic change elsewhere do not prevail in the Middle East today. Arab societies do not have the previous experience with democracy that facilitated transitions in Eastern Europe. Also, quite a few regimes in the region are neither democratic nor fully authoritarian. Instead they are what might be called liberalized autocracies, whose leaders skillfully use limited reforms to appear pluralistic while actually preserving autocracy. These regimes have created deeply entrenched ruling systems that are surprisingly effective at resisting democratic change. Countries in the Middle East also do not benefit from a positive "neighborhood effect," such as that which helped democratize Latin American regimes by bringing pressure to bear from peer leaders. On the contrary, neighborhood norms in the Middle East encourage repressive, authoritarian government and purely cosmetic liberal reforms.
Successful Asian democratizers such as Taiwan and South Korea were pushed in the right political direction by sustained periods of economic growth, leading to a surge in educational and living standards and an expansion of the middle class. The Middle East, by contrast, is undergoing socioeconomic deterioration. Even in the richest oil-producing countries, oil revenues are no longer sufficient to support previous levels of social services for the rapidly growing populations. At the same time, regimes in this region control much of the national economy, allowing them to defuse economic unrest by purchasing the support or quiescence of key sectors of the citizenry.
In addition to these unfavorable political and economic preconditions, the Middle East faces the issue of Islamism. It would be wrong to suggest that Islam and democracy are incompatible; the majority of the world's Muslims are citizens of electoral democracies. However, Arab regimes must find a way to deal with political movements that use illiberal interpretations of Islam to mobilize their followers. Islamist movements enjoy considerable grassroots support throughout the region. In many Middle Eastern countries Islamist parties would likely win a substantial share of the vote in a truly free and fair elections. Islamists did well for example in last year's elections in Morocco and Bahrain.
Rapid democratization ironically raises the possibility of empowering groups that are ideologically opposed to democracy and might seek to abrogate democratic structures and citizens' rights. However, continued repression of Islamist political participation dooms democracy by marginalizing groups that enjoy genuine public support, and providing governments with an excuse to maintain tight controls over all types of political activity. The vexing dilemma of how to include Islamists of dubious democratic fidelity in a process of democratization is another reason positive political change in the Middle East will not be a rapid and easy process.
The United States should promote democracy in the Middle East. But it must recognize that rapid transformation is unlikely. U.S. goals must be initially modest, and our commitment to change must be long term. The core elements of a democracy-oriented policy are not hard to identify. The U.S. government should exert sustained, high-level pressure on Arab states to respect political and civil rights, to create or expand the space for political debate and to carry out pro-democratic institutional, legal and constitutional changes. This pressure should be coupled with increased aid to bolster democracy activists and reform advocates, political parties, rule of law reforms and civil society groups, including moderate Islamists.
The United States has limited leverage in most Arab countries because it relies on these nations for help in the war on terrorism, cooperation in finding a solution to the Israel--Palestine conflict and access to oil. The United States will be forced to work with existing regimes toward gradual reform. It will also be forced, in the event of war, to struggle with substantial obstacles to building a democratic Iraq. No one should expect a wave of democratization in the Middle East in the near term. And no one should expect that toppling Saddam Hussein would create one.