Originally published November 25, 2003 in the Washington Post.
Earlier this month President Bush eloquently articulated a vision of a U.S. Middle East policy centered around the promotion of democracy. A potent new mix of U.S. interests, above all the administration's belief that only positive political change in the Arab world can eliminate the roots of radical Islamic terrorism, has overcome the president's skepticism about neo-Wilsonian ventures.
It's more than a little ironic, however, that the Bush administration is inaugurating a high-profile campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East at the same time it is bringing the curtain down on a failed U.S. effort to promote democracy in another region of equal importance. The recent political events in Russia and Azerbaijan have crystallized a profoundly important but startlingly unremarked development: The historic attempt to build democracy on the ashes of the former Soviet Union has largely failed.
President Vladimir Putin's persecution of oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky highlights the sobering return of a firm KGB grip on the main levers of Russian power. Russia is not a dictatorship, but it is settling in for a long, gray period of semi-authoritarian rule. The tawdry October election in Azerbaijan that brought former president Heydar Aliyev's son to power underlined the fact that the strongmen leaders of Central Asia and the Caucasus are not going away anytime soon. Democracy may at some point get a second chance in the post-Soviet world, but for the foreseeable future a dispiriting medley of dictatorial and semi-dictatorial regimes will rule. Georgia may be getting its second chance now, but it is a lonely exception in the region and still must overcome years of accumulated political decay.
There will be plenty of time in the years ahead to dissect this failure in detail. The heart of the story, however, is sadly simple. The Soviet Communist Party lost control of the Soviet Union, but no alternative, democratic political elite was ready to step into the breach. Throughout the former Soviet republics, persistent, resourceful nomenklatura elites have reconsolidated their power under new, post-communist banners.
Blame for this tremendously disappointing outcome lies primarily with the tenacious political pathologies of the Soviet system itself, which left the place so ill-prepared for democratization. Nevertheless, the United States shares some of the blame. The first Bush administration failed to seize the crucial moment in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart and to extend a truly bold, generous hand to Russia. The Clinton administration over-personalized its support for democracy in Russia in the mercurial figure of Boris Yeltsin and fell into the pattern of deferring to emergent "friendly tyrants" in Central Asia and the Caucasus who promised America access to oil and gas.
The current administration has let a bad situation deteriorate still further. Eager to keep Russia as a partner in the war on terrorism, President Bush uncritically embraces Putin. Impelled by the desire for new security partners and secure access to energy sources in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the administration gives the strongman leaders of those countries a free pass.
Different though the former Soviet Union and the Middle East are, some lessons from the post-Soviet failures are relevant to the new U.S. campaign for Arab democracy. To start with, no matter how compelling the newfound U.S. interest in democracy may appear to be, countervailing economic and security interests, especially oil and security cooperation, will pull hard against the effort to create a truly pro-democratic U.S. policy. President Bush has effectively set out the case for a new approach, but he has not yet really made clear whether he is willing to push long and hard to overturn deeply ingrained U.S. habits of accommodation to pro-U.S. Arab authoritarians.
Second, elections are certainly fundamental to democracy and must be supported in the Middle East. But clever strongmen in the former Soviet Union have repeatedly demonstrated how the new world of international election aid and observation can be manipulated and misused. Many post-Soviet elections were dubious exercises in political legitimization, but the sponsors of these flawed processes rarely came in for much Western criticism or paid any real price for their electoral shenanigans. The United States must take a much tougher line in the Middle East, not overpraising very limited electoral advances, and coming down hard on electoral wrongdoing.
Third, a democracy campaign in a region with few favorable underlying conditions for democracy is at best a decades-long enterprise and needs to show tremendous staying power. It is notable, and very disappointing, how little most Americans care today about the failure of democracy in the former Soviet Union, a region that once commanded so much of our country's attention and energy. If President Bush is really serious about mounting a lasting, sustainable democracy promotion effort in the Middle East, he will need to get all of American society, not just an enthusiastic core of U.S. democracy promoters, on board. This means building it as a bipartisan and multilateral effort, something quite different from the sharp-elbowed, "with us or against us" style of the war on terrorism to date.
In pursuing democracy in the Middle East we are rightfully challenging Arabs to aspire to a higher standard of political behavior. Yet this is worth doing only if it reflects a sincere effort to aspire to a higher standard of our own -- to match high-flying rhetoric with real commitment and resources, to promote genuine democratic processes, not pro-U.S. political figures, and to overcome the understandable skepticism of many Arabs about our intentions not with bluster and bombast but with honesty about our sometimes conflicting interests and humility about our capabilities.