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Cook: Washington Should Support 'Basic Democratic Principles'

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 9, 2005

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Steven A. Cook, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ new independent Task Force report, In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How? says that, despite widespread criticism of the United States in many parts of the Arab world, it is crucial for Washington to pursue President Bush’s democratic reform policies.

“The United States needs to recognize that, in the short run, we may get governments in the region that are not as friendly to the United States as some of these authoritarian leaders,” Cook says. “But ultimately, the Task Force felt that those risks were manageable and that, in the long run, it’s better to promote democracy and manage those risks than to do nothing and continue to face the same kinds of problems in the region that we currently face: political alienation, extremism, and, ultimately, terrorism.” The Arab world reform Task Force was co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former Republican U.S. Representative Vin Weber of Minnesota.

Cook, the Council’s Next Generation fellow, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on June 9, 2005.


President Bush has strongly backed reform and democracy in the Arab states, but the United States is clearly not very popular in that part of the world these days. What does the Task Force report say Washington’s approach should be?

First of all, the Task Force believes that the administration is doing fairly well in giving public support to democracy-promotion in the region. The president has spoken openly about the need for democracy and freedom there. The Task Force sought to offer advice to the administration about how to go about promoting those goals. First, we answered the question, why should the United States promote democracy in the Middle East? And then, how we should go about doing it?

The first of the “why;s” is that it is consistent with American ideals. The second is that democracy-promotion will do much—but not everything—to drain away support for extremist movements. It won’t solve the problem of terrorism, but if you give Arabs an opportunity to address their grievances through a democratic institution, the appeal of extremism and terrorism might be reduced. Third, we felt very strongly that democratic stability is the best kind of stability in the region. And fourth, the Task Force agrees that, over the long run, the United States’ promotion of democracy will help our credibility in the region, which has suffered as a result of supporting non-democratic leaders there. This is a long-term process.

Now the “how” of it. We have a long list of recommendations. First, we think the United States should provide advice and assistance to the Arab world to develop pathways to reform. We would work with the Egyptian and Saudi governments, for example, to develop a political trajectory for their countries toward democracy.

That’s assuming these governments are willing to do it.

Yes. And one of the problems is getting the governments to do it. But I think we have some leverage. We point out that we can use aid in more creative ways. We can actually reward countries with aid if they do the right thing on political reform. We say that governments might experience a distancing from the United States if they lag behind. There are a certain number of things we can do to encourage Arab governments. But nobody—and certainly not the Task Force—believes that this is something that is going to happen overnight. It’s going to be difficult, and it’s a unique set of challenges to the United States because we are promoting change in countries where we are allies and where we have myriad strategic interests. And they are places where we don’t have a constituency. The reformers in the region don’t like the United States, and the Arab leaders are certainly reluctant to undertake change.

What are the other proposals?

We should have a country-by-country approach to promoting change in the region. That is, we have to recognize that there are vast differences between Bahrain, for example, and Saudi Arabia. But at the same time, the United States should promote or support freedom and basic benchmarks of society: human rights, tolerance, rule of law, nonviolence—what we think of as basic democratic principles. The United States should not waver on these if we’re talking about Egypt, a country where we have tremendous strategic interests, or a country where we have fewer strategic interests—a country like Tunisia, for example.

And we specifically support the administration’s Middle East Trade Initiative, but we want the administration to go further.

What is the trade initiative?

It is a series of things: trade and investment agreements, free-trade areas, qualified industrial zones. We believe that one of the reasons there is a distinct lack of direct foreign investment—the Middle East lags behind every other region of the world, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa—is because the Middle East market is too fragmented. It’s too small in terms of market capitalization, in addition to the problems of instability and the lack of good, quality education. We’d like to see a movement toward an Arab common market—greater economic integration. Once again, this is a long-term goal that the United States should work toward, and we think that these agreements are stepping stones in that direction. But we should be working specifically with governments to revise their tax codes, to revise their investment codes, to push for greater integration in the region.

Education reform is a very, very sensitive issue. We call for the U.S. government to cooperate with American foundations, American universities, European foundations, European universities, and Arab universities and foundations to provide technical assistance in helping to prepare Arab students for the global economy. India has been able to jump-start itself, as has China, because of high-quality education systems. The Arab world will lag behind in those areas unless it gets on board in terms of education reform.

What do you make of the situation in Lebanon?

We’ve had two rounds of voting there. Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered prime minister [Rafik Hariri], swept the polls in Beirut [May 29]. But last Sunday, Hezbollah swept southern Lebanon. The report talks specifically about how the United States should deal with the Islamist movement in more open political systems.

Should the United States accept Hezbollah as a political movement?

The report recognizes and maintains that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. But it also points out that Hezbollah participates in the Lebanese political process and has done so for the last 13 years. It has had parliamentarians in the Lebanese Parliament since 1992. That doesn’t mean that we should drop Hezbollah from the political system. What we need to do is to continue to encourage Hezbollah to compete with ballots and not bullets, and that its permanent place within the legitimate political arena would be based on permanent demobilization. But the fact remains: Hezbollah is very popular. Not only is it seen from the Arab perspective as a liberator of Arab lands, it also provides social services for Lebanese in need. And that’s the way it has been able to build a rather significant political base.

A similar situation already exists in the Palestinian territories. The United States lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, and Hamas is a major player in Palestinian electoral politics. How do you recommend dealing with Hamas?

The report holds no brief for any political party, Islamist or not. It says that, in general, the principle should be that any political party or political group that upholds democratic principles of nonviolence, tolerance, rule of law, alternation of power, and minority rights, should be able to participate freely in the political arena in these countries—provided that it gives up violence. From the report’s perspective, if Hamas were to give up its military assets, it should become a part of the political process. Now, as you point out, it very much is already. The report states very clearly: The United States should continue to confront all terrorist organizations with all police options—law enforcement, military action, what have you. We are not recommending that the United States recognize Hamas and deal with Hamas. But we do need to recognize that Hamas plays an important role in Palestinian politics. And we need to recognize, just as in the case of Hezbollah, that we should continue to encourage Hamas to give up its weapons in exchange for a permanent place in the political arena.

For a long time, some observers have said no progress is possible in the Middle East until the Israelis and Palestinians have solved their problems; that has led to criticism that the United States has been too soft on Israel. What can the United States do to advance Israeli-Palestinian relations, particularly with the Gaza pullout scheduled to take place in August?

On the question of reform and the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Task Force looked at the question very carefully and recognized the sensitivity of this issue, particularly in the Arab world. We were cognizant of the Arab view that the United States supports Israel to the hilt—which has unquestionably damaged Washington’s credibility in the Arab world. The report says the United States should support democratic progress regardless of progress toward peace, and vice versa. We think that the United States should re-engage in the peace process and work toward peace, because it is in the national interest for the Israelis and the Palestinians to be at peace. But it would also help us in the region, because our message about democracy and freedom will be heard by more people. From the Arab perspective, our support of Israel and what they see as Israel’s suppression of Palestinian national rights mar our message about democracy. We should work toward both ends, simultaneously.

Do you think a high-level intermediary is required?

We need a mediator, someone who has credibility with both sides, someone who can say that they speak for [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice. More engagement is better. More talking is better than no talking at all. Is there a magic formula here? No. I think the United States is doing what it can. It should support and is supporting [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza. But it should also continue to talk about some sort of territorial compromise on the West Bank, at the same time.

Any other bright spots in the Arab world that you see?

It’s interesting that there is tremendous political ferment in the region. We have clearly not seen a transition in any of these countries, but you see the fear on the part of Egyptians draining away. They’re now willing to take to the streets and criticize their government and demand changes. Politically active Egyptians are no longer willing to be satisfied with a facade of democracy. They want real democracy. It was, I think, a bright spot that the Saudis held municipal elections and, afterward, the people who didn’t participate, said, “Gee, we should have participated.” And now there’s more open discussion about women participating the next time. This isn’t to suggest that Saudi Arabia has made tremendous strides. These countries are going to take a long, long time to develop. But I think the idea that there’s grassroots demand for change is important; that it is putting pressure on regimes to respond is an important development in the region.

Did the Task Force discuss Iraq’s political future?

It’s quite clearly a unique situation, but we came to a number of conclusions. The invasion of Iraq has certainly damaged America’s standing in the Middle East. There aren’t too many Arabs outside of Iraq, or Iraqis themselves, who look at Iraq as a model for change.

We don’t believe that Arabs want democracy from the tip of a gun. But at the same time, you can’t deny the fact that the Iraqi elections, in particular, contributed to the momentum for change in the region. And it has affected people’s thinking about democracy, change, and even about the United States. Arab reformers will tell you—not all of them, but many of them—that they oppose the administration’s policies in Israel-Palestine, they oppose the administration’s policies in Iraq, but at the same time they like the president’s public support of democracy and freedom and would like the United States to keep it up, because it gives them cover to advance their own political agenda.

That doesn’t make them pro-American. If you listen to what Kifaya [Enough], the opposition movement in Egypt, has to say, it’s that a truly democratic leader in Egypt would not be a lackey of the United States. That points out some of the risks of this project and of supporting and promoting democratic change. The United States needs to recognize that, in the short run, we may get governments in the region that are not as friendly to the United States as some of these authoritarian leaders. But ultimately, the Task Force felt that those risks were manageable and that, in the long run, it’s better to promote democracy and manage those risks than to do nothing and continue to face the same kinds of problems in the region that we currently face: political alienation, extremism, and, ultimately, terrorism.

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