And make no mistake, there is a genuine ferment in the region. Images of Iraqis, Palestinians, and Afghans casting ballots, not to mention the “flower revolutions” in the republics of the former Soviet Union that toppled corrupt authoritarian regimes, have been beamed into millions of homes by Al-Jazeera and the other Arab satellite channels–an ironic twist, given how often these networks have been vilified in Washington as little more than propaganda mouthpieces for Hussein and Osama bin Laden. All of this change has gotten people thinking–if Georgians, Ukrainians, and Kyrgyz can press for democracies, why can’t Lebanese and Egyptians?
The problem is that, while cheering crowds make for good television footage, they are no substitute for the long, hard work needed to build the institutions that create and sustain a genuine democracy. Elections are only a starting point.
January 30th was indeed a historic day for Iraqis, but election day will lose its luster if Iraqis fail to see real improvement in their quality of life–their physical safety, in their job opportunities, and in the renovation of the country’s infrastructure. Given the difficulties Iraq’s assembly has faced in merely forming a provisional government–an easy task compared to the formidable task of reconstructing Iraq itself–the signs are not encouraging.
In recent months, we have begun to treat democracy promotion as a game of coloring in countries on the map–and in which we proclaim victory after a single election is held. Rarely do we return to observe the democratic trajectory after the cameras and NGOs have moved on to the next country.
Remember Serbia’s revolution back in 2000–the one that dumped Slobodan Milosevic and became the prototype for subsequent movements elsewhere in eastern Europe? Popular enthusiasm soon turned to disenchantment as promises about reform and development failed to generate prosperity. Of course, Western declarations of support far outpaced the concrete assistance that actually arrived. Moreover, Serbia’s democratic politicians were caught between meeting the needs of their constituents and satisfying unpopular demands from the United States (notably about extradition of persons wanted by the Hague tribunal). As a result, the fruits of that revolution were nearly lost in 2004 in a presidential race that attracted little attention in Washington; only by the slimmest of margins did a pro-democratic candidate (and therefore democracy itself) squeak to victory.
The lesson from Serbia’s experience is clear: Democracy can thrive only when people have confidence that the new institutions not only represent their interests but also are able to improve the quality of their lives.
So the invasion of Iraq–necessary as it was for Hussein’s removal–does not by itself create democratic capacity in the Middle East. And Congress, which has energetically funded the military mission, has shown markedly less enthusiasm for peacetime programs or for extending the sort of economic benefits that help engender the middle class upon which solid democracies are constructed. We applaud the progress that a country like Mali has made–one of the few genuine democracies in the Muslim world–and then our trade policies help trap the country’s farmers upon whom that democracy rests, in poverty. (And such poverty creates the conditions that radical groups like al Qaeda are anxious to exploit.)
We forget that, in the end, democracy must appeal to people’s interests, not just their aspirations. Many in Washington prefer to reverse that equation, believing that shared values produce common interests. This leads to all sorts of unrealistic assumptions about democratic states in the Middle East enthusiastically embracing the American agenda.
Let’s assume that the most optimistic scenario is realized–that within five years most Middle Eastern states will be either constitutional monarchies or full-fledged democracies. Does this necessarily advance America’s interests in the region?
After all, public opinion in both Egypt and Jordan remains overwhelmingly anti-Israel, calling into question whether democracies in either country would continue to maintain ties with Jerusalem. Democratic activists in Iran are no less fervent than the most reactionary mullahs in their support for their country’s right to have a nuclear program. And there is no indication that Iraqi gratitude for liberation from Saddam Hussein will translate into close ties between Baghdad and Jerusalem anytime soon–the optimistic predictions of some American officials notwithstanding.
So even if Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia all become sustainable liberal democracies, there is no guarantee that these new governments will see eye-to-eye with the United States. Shared democracy is no guarantee of common action. After all, the famed “coalition of the willing” assembled to topple Saddam Hussein included authoritarian dictatorships such as Azerbaijan, Eritrea, and Uzbekistan as well as established democracies such as the United Kingdom and Australia. At the same time, many of the world’s leading democracies, such as France, Germany, New Zealand, and India–not to mention emerging democracies in America’s own backyard such as Mexico and Chile–opposed U.S. actions. Whether a country was democratic had no bearing on its decision whether to join forces with the United States against Saddam Hussein.
Realists who point out these unpleasant facts are invariably accused of having a secret penchant for tyrants. Not so–democracies have been consistently more reliable allies for the United States. But what brings states together are shared interests, not similar forms of governance.
An unintended–and unwelcome–consequence of recent developments may be a series of anti-American democracies emerging in the Middle East. The United States is not doing enough to build constituencies in the Arab world that are invested in the success of America’s agenda for the region. This is not an argument for supporting tyrannies, but it is a reminder that, if more true democracies do emerge in the Arab and Islamic world, the United States will not be able to rely on military men and monarchs to circumvent the popular will.
Developments in Turkey should give us pause. For decades, the Turkish military–strongly pro-American and favorably disposed toward Israel–kept a close watch on the country’s civilian leadership, even deposing governments from time to time, most recently in 1997, whenever the officer corps felt that Turkey’s close ties with Washington were under threat. The rise of a moderate Islamic, pro-reform government under the aegis of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 was initially lauded as a victory for democracy and heralded as an example for the rest of the Islamic world.
But, over time, disenchantment with Turkey’s democrats has set in. The government’s refusal to allow the United States to open a “northern front” in the Iraq war in 2003, the cooling of its strategic partnership with Israel, its rapprochement with Russia–all of this now has some American officials longing for the good old days when the generals would step in to set things right.
So, the United States faces a trade-off. The spread of democracy can indeed serve as a “safety valve” to lessen the appeal of extremism and terrorism–a desirable outcome from the American perspective–but it might also facilitate the rise of governments more inclined to disagree with American policy. When faced with this choice in the past, Washington chose a pliant but authoritarian Pakistan in preference to a democratic India to further U.S. goals in Southwest Asia.
Middle East democracies will become close U.S. allies only if we are prepared to build up significant equities in the relationship. This is why debating the extent to which the U.S. invasion of Iraq has forged a democratic opening in the Middle East is the wrong discussion–the more relevant question is how the United States will respond to changing circumstances. And so far, we seem woefully unprepared.