Setbacks to political liberalization in the Arab world have caused the United States to turn away from support for democrats there in favor of “pragmatic” deals with tyrants in order to defeat violent Islamist extremism, explains Elliott Abrams. In his new book, Abrams warns that this strategy is dangerously shortsighted: “Our own interests are best served by Arab governments that are legitimate, decent, and stable and are able to combat extremism effectively.”
In Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring, Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, advocates for an American foreign policy that combines both practical politics and idealism in supporting those struggling for democracy and human rights in the Arab world. He argues that governments that rule through brute force, without any legitimacy in the eyes of their own population, are ultimately unstable and unreliable allies for the United States.
Abrams, who has over four decades of experience as an American official in several administrations, examines the United States’ record of democracy promotion in the region and beyond, from the Cold War to the Barack Obama years. He makes several recommendations to U.S. policymakers:
- Put promoting democracy and defending human rights back near the heart of U.S. foreign policy.
- Ensure that the president and secretary of state, not career diplomats or lower-ranking officials, are seen as the primary sources of diplomatic statements and actions to make clear that support for human rights and democracy starts at the top.
- Refrain from supporting and strengthening illegitimate regimes, and press for gradual but real political openings in Arab states that repress liberal, moderate, and democratic voices—forces that are a main bulwark against Islamist extremist ideas.
- Recognize that assistance programs for nongovernmental organizations and “civil society” cannot substitute for top-level American political support and efforts to open political space for real competition.
- Remember that a global belief in U.S. support for freedom remains an invaluable asset for the country.
“Our principles and our security interests both suggest that we should be giving repression and tyranny far more effective opposition, and freedom and democracy far more effective support,” Abrams concludes.
A Council on Foreign Relations Book
Educators: Access Teaching Notes for Realism and Democracy.