Excerpt: Realism and Democracy

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For Arab lands, the first decades of the twenty-first century were the best of times – and the worst of times.

Those old Dickensian lines are a good summary of the “Arab Spring” and its grim aftermath. On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and spurred a revolt in Tunisia that brought down the twenty-four-year dictatorship of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali less than a month later. Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia. The uprisings spread – to Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. In Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak had ruled since his predecessor's assassination in 1981, the uprising led to his resignation on February 11, 2011, less than two months after Bouazizi's self-immolation. In April 2011, Mubarak was arrested and ordered to stand trial. In Yemen, a rebellion began in December 2010 that resulted in the resignation and departure from the country of its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2011. The fighting soon included a sectarian bid for power by the Houthis and significant foreign military intervention to defeat them. The Libyan dictator, Muammar Qadhafi, faced small protests and tried to put them down with force, but they soon spread into an armed uprising that became a civil war. NATO forces intervened in March 2011, and the capital, Tripoli, fell to rebel forces in August. Qadhafi was killed in the fighting in October 2011. In Syria, President Assad also faced demonstrations, and like Qadhafi, tried to put them down with force. The result has been a bloody conflict, with nearly 500,000 dead, half the population driven from their homes, and millions of refugees in neighboring countries.

The “Arab Spring” also affected the Arab monarchies. After demonstrations began on February 20, 2011, King Mohamed VI of Morocco introduced constitutional amendments that he claimed would move the country toward a constitutional monarchy. They were adopted in a national referendum held on July 1, 2011. The late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced a vast spending program of $130 billion designed to dampen the desire for political reforms. In Bahrain, demonstrations beginning in February 2011 were immediately repressed, and in the following month forces from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab countries intervened to support the monarchy.

When the Arab Spring (henceforth without quotation marks) began, it gave rise to high hopes. Perhaps this would be the end of “Arab exceptionalism,” by which was meant the apparent immunity of Arab states from the expansion of democracy that had been so widespread since the 1970s. In that decade and in the 1980s democracy had spread throughout Latin America, with elected governments replacing military regimes and leaving Communist Cuba a rare exception. In Asia, the military regime in South Korea, the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, and one-party rule in Taiwan were replaced by democratic governments. The fall of the Soviet Union opened the way to democracy in many countries in the former Soviet space, though obviously not all, and eleven newly free countries entered the EU.

Now, it seemed, the Arabs would join in. “This is the new, democratic Arab world,” Fareed Zakaria wrote in Time Magazine. CNN commentators spoke of “the burgeoning democracy movement across the Middle East” that would lead al-Qaeda “to irrelevance.” In the New Statesman in London, the French academic Olivier Roy opined, “The protest movement is both democratic and nationalist and…will install governments with greater legitimacy.” In the New York Times, the former United Nations Under-Secretary-General Jean-Marie Guéhenno wrote, “The Arab revolutions are beginning to destroy the cliché of an Arab world incapable of democratic transformation.”

Optimism was widespread, but since 2011 the global trend in the direction of democracy has appeared, after all, to halt at the frontiers of the Arab world. Even after the Arab Spring, no Arab state has achieved democracy (if indeed it was an accepted goal) with the exception of Tunisia. The fall of their regimes led to years of disorder and violence in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, and in Egypt an elderly general was replaced by a middle-aged general who followed the same playbook in repressing and constricting political life – but took it even further.

So disillusion has set in. Daniel Byman of Georgetown University wrote as early as December 2011 that “it is too soon to say that the Arab Spring is gone, never to resurface. But the Arab Winter has clearly arrived” and will bring with it “chaos, stagnation, and misrule.” By January 2015, Tarek Masoud of Harvard could write an article in the Journal of Democracy titled “Has the Door Closed on Arab Democracy?” and there conclude that the widespread optimism had been “stunningly unwarranted.”

The effects of this disillusion and pessimism involve far more than incorrect predictions about the likelihood or timetable for democracy to spread in the Arab world. They also involve American policy toward the region. If democracy is several generations distant, or is indeed impossible and perhaps even undesirable in many places, why should the United States actively support it – and thereby complicate our relations with existing governments that are often valuable allies? Why sacrifice important current relationships for hopeless dreams or, at best, theoretical notions about political change? Even if the goals are good ones, why assume that the United States is positioned to do anything useful and that we really know how to promote progress toward democracy in the Arab world? And why assume that the goal of democracy is sensible in the Arab case, where free elections may bring to power Islamist groups whose values are so different from ours and whose members do not appear to be democrats at all?

Those questions are the subject of this book, whose topic is American foreign policy in the Arab world. I believe that support for Arab democracy should remain an American foreign policy goal. “Arab exceptionalism” surely exists in the sense that there is such a thing as Arab culture and politics, but I will argue that while it presents many tough obstacles to democratization, it does not destroy the possibility of progress. Moreover, the alternative – which is American support for varying forms of dictatorship in which the population is deprived of any real role in the political life of their own country – is inherently unstable. I will also discuss ways in which American support for democracy can be more effective.

The pace of change after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi left the impression that democracy might come quickly, just as the fall of apparently permanent regimes had come so quickly. But it is one thing to dynamite a political structure and another thing to build a new and stable edifice in its place. The failure to achieve or sustain democracy in parts of the former Soviet space teaches this lesson, as do stories like those of Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. President George W. Bush used to call the expansion of democracy and the elimination of tyranny “the work of generations,” and in this he was surely correct.

The debate over American support for democracy is often cast in terms of how best to fight terrorism and violent extremism. That will be a long war, and it is argued that surely it is more important for us to win that fight first – and protect ourselves – than it is to seek greater respect for human rights. But repression and tyranny are not a cure for terrorism and violent extremism; they are a contributor to it. Regimes that prevent peaceful political debate and activity strengthen extremist forces and weaken moderate ones. Islamist extremism must be combatted with force – but not only with force. Islamists have ideas, and not only their guns but their ideas as well must be defeated. That cannot be accomplished by illegitimate regimes whose only claim to power is brute force.

It is true that a great part of the struggle against Islamist extremism, and perhaps the central part, is a religious debate among Muslims about the meaning of Islam in the twenty-first century. In that debate the U.S. government cannot play a large role. Statements from U.S. presidents that “Islam is a religion of peace” will never have any impact, nor should they: who is an American politician to define the true meaning of any religion, much less one he or she does not practice? Persuading Muslims to embrace an Islam that insists on respect for human rights and political democracy and rejects extremism and violence is critical – but only Muslims can enter that debate with other Muslims and hope to win it.

In the Arab world, the American role in that war of ideas is different; it is about politics rather than religion. The issue facing American policy makers is not how rapid but sustainable change can be achieved in Arab nations; that prospect is very unlikely and in any event is not susceptible to American control. The question facing the United States is whether to abandon support for democracy, and therefore for democratic activists, in Arab countries or perhaps to abandon it in any sense except the delivery of lip service. Must we, should we, choose sides in a struggle that will be long and complicated and cause us trouble with rulers who might otherwise be useful allies? My own answer is yes, for practical as well as moral reasons.

The notion that the United States should actively work to expand the frontiers of democracy across the globe is not self-evident, nor has it always characterized American foreign policy. When I became politically conscious and active in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, support for human rights and democracy was a controversial subject – pressed in various ways by the Soviet Jewry movement and groups such as Freedom House, and resisted strongly by the Nixon administration on realpolitik grounds. Working for the late Senators Henry M. Jackson and Daniel P. Moynihan, and then in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, I had a ringside seat to many of these debates and then climbed into the ring myself.

So this book begins with the story of how modern American human rights policy developed – as I saw it and joined the fray. And then we turn to the Arab Spring and the current debate over the proper role of democracy in American policy in the Middle East.

© Elliott Abrams 2017.
No reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.