Despite predictions that the American march into Baghdad would unleash either a wave of democratization or a plague of repression throughout the region, in reality most Middle Eastern states are too preoccupied with domestic problems to be moved profoundly by events in Iraq. Iraq will have a political impact on the region, but changes are likely to come in smaller steps than commonly predicted.
43 of 48 sub-Saharan African countries have held multiparty elections, but this superficially rosy picture hides a much starker reality. In most of these countries democracy is a sham. In Africa today, stemming state decay is a more urgent task than building democracy.
Coming out of the war in Iraq, however, the Bush team appears to be in danger of losing a workable balance between the security and democracy imperatives. The administration's recent scramble to reconfigure U.S. policy on free trade agreements is a case in point.
Before the United States can determine whether its gradualist approach to democratic reform in the Middle East is the best remedy, we must first understand how Arab autocracies actually work. In particular, we must understand how the "liberalized autocracies" of the region endure despite frequent prediction of their imminent death.
If faced with the choice between a genuinely representative new Iraqi government that shows itself to be resistant to Washington's policy commands and an unrepresentative but compliant one, many in Washington will be tempted by the latter. But haven't we already discovered in other Middle East countries the problems with that choice?