The Baby, the Bathwater, and the Freedom Agenda in the Middle East

Op-Ed Washington Quarterly
In reassessing how to secure U. S. interests while stabilizing the Middle East, the new U.S. administration might well decide to postpone or even repudiate democracy promotion. The new administration should incorporate lessons from less publicized cases to help support democracy in the Middle East more effectively.
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In reassessing how to secure U. S. interests while stabilizing the Middle East, the new U.S. administration might well decide to postpone or even repudiate democracy promotion. Democratic systems have hardly bloomed in the region since President George W. Bush announced a “forward strategy of freedom” during a speech commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003. In fact, U.S. attention seems to have caused more problems than it solved, particularly in Iraq and Palestine. No one can guarantee that the United States can promote democracy in the Middle East without risking stability and critical interests, making it tempting to at least try to set aside the policy until clearer answers emerge, potentially under the guise of a policy review.

Yet, the new U.S. administration will undoubtedly encounter early challenges and opportunities related to democratization, which Arabs themselves increasingly recognize as essential to solving their countries’ internal political, economic, and social problems. In the next four years, there will almost certainly be presidential succession in Egypt after three decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule – and possibly in Algeria, Yemen, and several other Arab countries as well – that will embolden those calling for political reform. Elections are becoming commonplace in Arab states, and the United States will need to decide whether to promote increasingly free and fair contests or ignore them altogether. Iraqis, Lebanese, and Palestinians will continue to try to resolve their respective power struggles, unleashed at least in part due to U.S. actions. The United States will not be able to remain neutral toward the question of democracy in these situations.

Will the new administration address these challenges, or will it ignore the freedom agenda because of its failures in Iraq and Palestine, and because it bears too strong a stamp of its predecessor? Limiting judgments of the ongoing regional legacy of democracy promotion to Iraq and Palestine overlooks other less publicized cases – in places such as Egypt, Bahrain, and Morocco – that show how the United States has managed to make some headway in promoting democracy without sacrificing strategic interests. Sidelining the freedom agenda in the Middle East without taking into account these lessons would be a historic mistake, paralleling the Bush administration’s “ABC” (Anything But Clinton) error in initially discarding the Arab-Israeli peace process. Instead, the new administration should incorporate lessons from these less publicized cases to help support democracy in the Middle East more effectively.

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About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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