Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Arab World Advances U.S. Interests and Ideals, Says Abrams in New Book

September 13, 2017 11:03 am (EST)

News Releases

September 14, 2017—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.”

More From Our Experts

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.

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

Arab Spring

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 NGOs 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.

More From Our Experts

To interview Abrams, please contact the Global Communications and Media Relations team at 212.434.9888 or [email protected].

Praise for Realism and Democracy:

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

Arab Spring

“Elliott Abrams has done the country another important service. This outstanding book reminds us that the enduring power of America is that, at our best, we see our interests as our values, and our values as our interests. Now more than ever, Americans and their leaders need to understand that support for human rights has been, and should remain, a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy. This book could not be more timely or more significant.”—Senator John McCain (R-FL)

“America’s greatest asset in world politics is its association with freedom. Elliott Abrams brings unique experience as an American official who understood the power of freedom—and realized that an American strategy to advance democracy advances American interests…Every official in the State Department should be required to read this book.”—Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, human rights activist, and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union









Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail

Top Stories on CFR

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Which will matter more, a dozen more nuclear subs on the U.S. side of the ledger or a trade pact that could draw many of the world's largest economies ever-closer toward China?  


Reflections on the shortcoming of U.S. policy in Afghanistan have brought lessons that can be used to rethink American policy toward Somalia.


Since the Myanmar military seized power in February, it has overseen economic collapse, mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic, murdered hundreds of people, and set the stage for the state to fail.