WASHINGTON, June 4—U.S. democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East should focus on realistic political reform goals that correspond both to regional realities and the limited degree of actual U.S. influence. The most pressing issue facing Arab countries is the development of political systems that can contend with evolving socio-economic realities and open participation to political opposition, argues Carnegie Middle East Program Director Marina Ottaway.

An aggressive policy to promote a true redistribution of power is unlikely to succeed and could prove destabilizing at a time when the next U.S. president will already face crisis conditions in Iraq and Palestine, a defiant Iran, an unstable Lebanon, and high oil prices. In a new policy brief, Democracy Promotion in the Middle East: Restoring Credibility, Ottaway argues that the United States can, however, still play a useful role in encouraging reforms.

Future U.S. democracy promotion efforts should:

  • Draw a clear distinction between regime change and democracy promotion.
  • Set modest goals for a limited number of countries and pursue them quietly but transparently.
  • Consult with and listen to countries from the region before deciding which changes to encourage and support.
  • Affirm the United States’ intention to talk with all political and civil society actors—not as a sign of support or legitimacy, but as a reflection of the need for better understanding.

Ottaway concludes:

“Although the steps advocated here represent a retreat from the flamboyant rhetoric of the recent past, they are not a retreat from the promotion of political reform, which requires not words but consistent action. Democracy promotion in the Middle East has led to no positive results, while undermining U.S. credibility across the region. Neither incumbent regimes nor reform advocates believe any longer that the United States is seeking the democratic transformation of the region. Credibility will not be restored by new rhetoric but by consistent efforts to promote attainable goals.”



  • Marina S. Ottaway, director of the Carnegie Middle East Program, specializes in democracy and post-conflict reconstruction issues, including political transformation in the Middle East and reconstruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and African countries. She is a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program, which analyzes the state of democracy around the world and the efforts by the United States and other countries to promote democracy.
  • The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, socio-political, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key cross-cutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The Carnegie Middle East Program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics throughout the region.
  • The Carnegie Middle East Center is a public policy think tank and research center based in Beirut, Lebanon. Bringing together senior researchers from the region, the Carnegie Middle East Center aims to better inform the process of political change in the Middle East and deepen understanding of the issues the region and its people face.
  • The Arab Reform Bulletin addresses political reform in the Middle East. Sent monthly, it offers analysis from U.S.-based and Middle Eastern political experts in English and Arabic, as well as news synopses and resource guides.