The administration of President George W. Bush has designated the spread of democracy as its principal foreign policy objective with the understanding that burgeoning democracies will make the world a better and safer place for Americans. But critics observe that democracy might not be an exportable commodity, and those who seek to impose it may be doomed to repeat the experience of 5th-century B.C. Athens’ ill-fated expedition to Syracuse. A strong and very credible argument can be made that the underlying premise itself is false, that democracies initiated many of the conflicts that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly the smaller wars that had an imperialist agenda or sought to dominate a geographic region. Further, it can reasonably be demonstrated that the American and British intelligence services have historically been particularly effective at suppressing popular movements in many countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Covert warfare employing regime destabilization, such as took place in Mohammed Mossadegh’s Iran in 1953, has frequently retarded change, pursuant to the judgments being made by policymakers in Washington and London. That both Britain and the U.S. have long-established democratic governments has not mollified a basic willingness to use force to impose their national interests and suppress, if necessary, local democrats.
A recent trip to the Gulf region reveals that when the United States employs democracy-promotion as a tool to impose stability and security on the Arab world, it might be bringing about the opposite of what it seeks through the unintended empowerment of religious parties. If the agenda is seriously implemented and successfully imposed, it could well turn out to be a catastrophic foreign policy blunder. As has often been the case with White House initiatives, democracy-promotion started out with good intentions, based on the somewhat questionable assertions made by Israeli hardliner Natan Sharansky in his book The Case for Democracy. Sharansky’s factually inaccurate and convoluted arguments support the claim that democracy should be imposed, by force if necessary, for the good of mankind. He also uses the failure of the Palestinians to create a democratic state as an argument justifying continued Israeli occupation, leading some critics to quip that he requires Palestine to become Sweden before it can become Palestine.
There is undeniably a vast “democracy gap” in the Middle Eastern region, with most Arabs yearning for the ability to govern themselves free of the control of both princes and clerics. Nearly everyone wants an extension of franchise that will create governments that are accountable and more participatory, with free media and freedom of expression. At the same time, Arabs are aware of their own cultural baggage and the slow development of consensus that is derived from their tribal roots. They are also fundamentally conservative in how they view the world and its ways. Arabs do not want anarchy, but they also do not want to see a triumph of the sureties offered by the religious fundamentalists, who represent a minority in every Muslim state.
Unfortunately, the desire for a wider franchise and self-government does not always mesh well with the policies being promoted aggressively by the United States. What Arabs see is a U.S. administration playing the democracy card selectively, a superpower that is ultimately unwilling to put principle ahead of expediency. They perceive a U.S. push for one-man one-vote as intended only to empower a secular opposition friendly to Western regional interests. The U.S. opposes democracy when it empowers Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, or al-Qaeda sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. government’s unwillingness to seriously pressure oppressive governments like those of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or the Saudi royal family is widely noted in the Arabic media.
Arab secular candidates tied to the West have their own problems in establishing any credible message, are widely mistrusted, and are invariably defeated despite the best efforts of National Endowment for Democracy and the European Union, as has recently occurred both in Egypt and Iraq. Unfortunately, it is not possible to have conditional representative government limited to secular candidates, and the integrity and intentions of the United States’ “democracy agenda” have been questioned both by the Arab street and among the elites. America’s focus on Muslims in its reformist zeal when there are so many other unfree regimes in the world also suggests hypocrisy, particularly when such reform often involves a misreading of local cultural dynamics. Witness the maladroit exchanges that took place during Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes’ recent “listening” tours in which, inter alia, she urged Saudi women to seek the right to drive cars.
Democracy-promotion is also a latter-day Pandora’s box, full of unintended consequences. Without a strong constitution that guarantees rights of redress and protection for minorities, it is little more than a charade in which the strong or the most effectively organized will dominate. Elites in most Arab countries desire something more akin to the form of democracy prevalent in Southeast Asia, i.e., a managed, culturally sensitive road gradually leading to the realization of democratic norms. This is practical because there exists little in the way of ongoing sustainable political dialogue or social structures that could be transmogrified into stable political parties. In Kuwait, for example, the government, which recently extended the vote to women, is encouraging the development of diwanie, which are local political associations similar to city wards in 19th-century American politics. The debates over politics and policies in diwanie can be quite adversarial and are both lively and completely uncensored. Government ministers argue policy with local businessmen, artists, and clerics, but there is considerable pessimism over the eventual course of the democracy experiment.
Many Kuwaitis feel that the U.S.-inspired push for greater democracy goes against local social norms, which are essentially conservative and communal, and is forcing change to take place without any evolutionary process. Specifically, they fear that a pell-mell rush to create a true parliament with genuine legislative powers can only benefit one group: the Islamic fundamentalists. Though numbering almost certainly less than 20 percent of the population in most Muslim countries, the religious groups are well organized and are already adept at using the existing structure of the mosques to get out their message. They also characteristically provide social services to the poorer citizens, and generally speaking are untainted by corruption, which means that they are seen in positive terms even by the non-religious. Ironically, broadening the franchise also helps to expand the power of the Islamic parties in that it brings in large numbers of women voters who frequently vote according to their husbands’ instructions. This is particularly true in the religiously and culturally conservative areas where the Islamists are strongest. This overrepresentation of the strength of the religious parties is not only true in Kuwait. In neighboring Bahrain, one of the most liberal Arab states, Islamists dominated the first free elections in 2002. The strength of religious parties also was manifest in recent elections in Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have opted to keep a lid on religious extremism by continuing to sharply limit the franchise, but they are confronting intense pressure to change, much of it from the United States. All of the countries in the Gulf region are also troubled by large Shi’ite minorities in societies that are nominally Sunni, generating legitimate concern that Iran will exploit the democratic process to meddle in regional politics.
Nascent secular and Western-style political parties do not have the same access, natural constituencies, and organization that the religious parties have. Secular parties are also handicapped by having many conflicting agendas, while the religious parties have only a single message, which is frequently a vague defense of self-defined conservative values and a rejection of Western mores. Victory by the Islamic parties calls into question why democracy was introduced in the first place, as government by majority fiat minus any constitutional guarantees protecting minority rights is little better than mob rule. Kuwait’s lone female government minister fears that a triumph of religious parties in the upcoming 2006 elections could immediately lead to women being disenfranchised. The political status of women in Iraq, despite intense U.S. pressure, is also questionable in light of the recent electoral victory by the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
Thus the U.S. is widely seen, even by America’s friends, as a promoter of democracy on its own terms and as insensitive to local rhythms in the aggressive one-size-fits-all agenda that it appears to support. Unfortunately for the U.S. and its friends, once the “freedom” process starts, it is difficult to control. Arabs also follow the U.S. media closely and are very much aware of domestic American politics as a key component in the democracy agenda. They sometimes wonder if it is being pursued because it is seen as a good and necessary policy or only because it plays well in Peoria.