Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Transforming the Middle East

Transforming the Middle East

Transformation is all the rage these days, especially in my former department, the Department of Defense. At DoD the term connotes the incorporation of radically different methods, systems and concepts for conducting military operations. Transformation in the context of the Middle East means something quite different, however. To some it means establishing democratic systems in a region where none — apart from Israel — can truly be said to be present. To many others it means first and foremost achieving a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world. Recent developments, including the resumption of a modicum of relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, thanks to the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), are a cause for at least a modicum of optimism regarding the prospects for this form of transformation.

I wish this afternoon to focus on the first type of transformation that I noted above. It is true that there are elements of democracy in various parts of the region, if what is meant by democracy are the freedoms to vote, to assemble for political purposes, to worship according to the tenets of one’s faith, and to articulate one’s political beliefs both orally and in the mass media. Nevertheless, there is no state in the Arab world where these freedoms are unrestricted, or made available to entire populations.

This month in particular, democracy has come to mean the ability to vote freely in nationwide elections. Earlier in the month, the Palestinian people held elections for president that were a model of political maturity — despite opposition from radical Islamist groups and despite not having a state of their own. On Sunday, January 30, Iraqis will go to the polls under very different circumstances, in the face of great personal danger and under the watchful eyes of American and coalition forces. [Editor’s note: This speech was delivered on January 28, 2005.]

There are those who would see in both sets of elections the beginning of a new trend, that of spreading democracy in the one remaining region of the world where it remains a rarity. Yet the Neo-Wilsonian notion that somehow America is the best vehicle for spreading democracy, or even that it is in America’s interests that the Middle East be politically “transformed” in the near term, may be as fanciful, and indeed, as counterproductive, as was Woodrow Wilson’s own vision nearly a century ago.

It is important to take several factors into account as we make the headlong plunge as democracy’s active champions in the region. We must consider the region’s own political and social culture as well as its previous attempts at democratization. We must consider whether democracy is always superior to other forms of government. We must consider whether democracies are always peace loving. And, perhaps most important of all from America’s vantage point, we must consider whether we can be certain that democratically elected governments will support American interests — because in truth, it is not merely democracies that we seek to support, but, far more important, friendly democracies. The two are not identical. And the choice between unfriendly, or even hostile democracies, and friendly, or even supportive authoritarian regimes is not a foregone conclusion in favor of the former.

Democracy and Middle Eastern Society

Israel has not always been the sole democracy in the Middle East. At a time when the state of Israel was still a gleam in Theodore Herzl’s eye, Persia had a progressive constitution (from 1905-1911) and a parliament to go with it. For about a quarter century, Lebanon was a democracy, with various ethnic and religious groups all having some share in the state’s governance.

The Persian experiment was short-lived, however, while the Lebanese system collapsed in civil war that led to foreign occupation, initially by Syria, then by both Syria and Israel as well, and now still by Syria. There have been other attempts at moving toward democracy that likewise collapsed over time. Most notable was the creation of a Kuwaiti assembly that was twice suspended when the emir decided he would no longer tolerate its carping. The assembly has once again been revived, though only men have the franchise and can join its ranks. As Simon Henderson has written, “the actual level of representation is more feudal than democratic.”[1]

Why has democracy never taken hold in the region? One reason is that the Middle East — with Iran as a notable exception — was under Ottoman rule for centuries, and thus could not spawn viable political institutions. It is indeed noteworthy that the negative impact of Ottoman rule was not restricted to the Arab world. As Robert Kaplan has pointed out in his travelogue Eastward to Tartary, the Ottomans also stultified democratic development in southeastern Europe.[2] Interestingly, Turkey itself shed much of the Ottoman legacy thanks to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s ruthless determination to modernize his nation. Turkey’s former provinces never benefited from such reforms, however.

Another reason for democracy’s inability to take root in the Middle East is that authority is central to Muslim culture. Moreover, Islam, unlike Christianity and Judaism, has never undergone a reformation that challenged religious authority in a permanent, systematic, and far-reaching manner. Thus, even if there were some sort of “reform” of one branch of Islam, say the Sunnis, there would still be the various branches of Shi’ism to account for, whether mainstream Shi’a, Shi’a branches such as the Zaidis of Yemen and the Ismailis, or the Ibadis of Oman, who are neither Sunni nor Shi’a. Indeed, reformation as such in both Christianity and Judaism was limited to branches of each: the reformation affected Catholicism but not Eastern Orthodoxy; Jewish reform affected European Ashkenazi Jews and not “oriental” Sephardim. It is noteworthy, therefore, that democracy has had a more difficult time flourishing in lands where Eastern Orthodoxy reigns supreme — Russia is the most notable example. Similarly, it is often asserted than Sephardim in Israel exhibit more anti-democratic tendencies than their Ashkenazi counterparts.

In any event, some branches of Islam are what Westerners might term more moderate than others. It is ironic, therefore, that Wahhabism is a reformation movement in the Sunni branch — except that reform in this case moves in a direction directly antithetical to what Westerners might prefer.

None of the foregoing is meant to imply that Middle Eastern societies are incapable of becoming democratic. Indeed, several of the region’s ruling monarchs are not at all cynical when they discuss democracy with their American interlocutors. They do have models to follow: those of King Juan Carlos of Spain, or of King Phumpiphon of Thailand. These monarchs are above politics, yet actively have intervened in national affairs, in the case of King Phumpiphon actively helping to topple General Suchinda, Thailand’s military strongman.

Yet these same middle eastern monarchs recognize that change will have to come relatively slowly, among other reasons to protect minorities, and because their societies appear to attach greater importance to other values. Religious values, representation with authorities (the diwaniya system), economic security simply appears to mean more to the average citizens of Middle Eastern states than does democracy. To assume that their hierarchy of values should mirror our own is no less Kiplingesque than to argue that they are incapable of becoming democratic at some future date.

Democracy as an Ideal Form of Government

Churchill’s famous maxim that, in effect, democracy, with all its flaws, was the best system available to humanity, does not necessarily apply in all cases where democracy has prevailed. As Ralph Peters noted in a recent opinion piece, democracy in Pakistan led to even more corruption than military rule.[3] He could have added that democracy in Germany elected Adolph Hitler.

In addition, democracy in the Middle East could easily degenerate into tyranny. The joke about Islamist extremists supporting “one man, one vote, one time” is rooted in the reality of the Iran of the mullahs, and of the foiled Algerian elections. It is not at all clear that minorities would fare better in democratic societies that remain deeply tribal: one benefit of Ottoman rule was that minorities were able to dominate their societies, and respect majorities even as they protected themselves. Majority rule in Bahrain or in Jordan, for example, might not necessarily result in more open, democratic regimes.

Arab Democracies and the United States

Not all democracies are alike. And not all conduct policies that Americans might prefer. For years there was considerable tension between the United States and India, the world’s largest democracy. True friendship between the two countries is of recent vintage. India invaded, occupied and annexed Goa in 1961, hardly the behavior of a peace-loving democracy. India conducted a nuclear test in 1974, demonstrating the hollowness of the non-proliferation treaty and providing an excuse for Pakistan to embark on its own nuclear development program. When India exploded a nuclear weapon in 1998, Pakistan followed suit shortly thereafter.

India is hardly the only democracy to clash with the United States, sometimes bitterly so.

Washington took no pleasure in the election of Salvador Allende in Chile, or more recently, in the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Democratic Brazil’s ambition under President Lula Da Silva to compete with United States for influence in Latin America often has irked Washington policy makers. Indeed, even the Western European democracies do not always “behave” to our liking. Their forms of government have certainly not prevented them from pursuing policies at cross-purposes with our own.

True Arab democracies may be inimical not only to the west in general, but to the United States in particular. For many religious Muslims, American society represents all that they believe that Islam abhors. For Arabs in general, Muslim or Christian, American support for Israel — in the absence of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians — is the cause of deeply held resentment. Arab states that currently maintain a friendly posture toward Washington could well turn against America if they were truly to represent the feelings of their citizenry.

Can We Bring Democracy to the Middle East?

I hope the foregoing has demonstrated that bringing democracy to the Middle East is no simple matter. Iraq is far from a democracy and one election won’t make it one. Iraq had elections before, in the immediate aftermath of the monarchy’s collapse. Yet for most of its post-1958 history, Iraq has been ruled by one nasty dictator after another, with Saddam Hussein the latest and nastiest.

We should, of course, do all we can to support Sunday’s election in Iraq, and we must hope that the Iraqi people will produce leaders committed to democratic values. Yet even if we achieve the outcome we seek in Iraq, we must recognize that for democracy to be real there or elsewhere in the region, power will have to transition from one party to another over a period of years. We have no evidence that this will be the case, nor can we have any at this time.

If we cannot predict with any certainty that Iraq will be transformed, despite the presence of some 150,000 coalition forces and the decapitation of the dictatorial ruling class, can we seriously expect to create democracies in other states of the region? Even if we do, will we be happy with the outcome? Will these states be friendly to American interests? Or supportive of our concerns? Or partners in seeking a Middle East peace between Israel and her neighbors?

Democracy is a wonderful ideal. America is right to point to democratic values as the bedrock of decent, humane societies, and as the best hope for people both to live in peace and freedom and to achieve their personal aspirations. It is important that we foster electoral processes and support the creation of viable civil societies that invariably underpin those processes. It is equally important that Washington encourages and nurtures the renascent Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which will demonstrate to ordinary Arabs that America’s intentions for the Middle East are truly benevolent.

Nevertheless, we must be careful about grand plans to spread democracy rapidly around the region. The French revolutionary armies carried with them the promise of “liberty, equality, fraternity” as they invaded one state after another throughout the 1790s. After years of warfare, and despite being led by one of the greatest generals of all time, those armies were roundly defeated, their dream was shattered by the return of autocratic rule, and Europe was not set free.

We must temper the democratic dream with the reality of the Middle East. If we are not careful about what we wish, the dream could turn quickly into a nightmare. And that nightmare may not go away for years to come.


  1. Simon Henderson, “Conservative Arab Gulf States and U.S. Strategy” Policy Paper No. 58 (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2003), p. 62. [back]
  2. Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, The Middle East and the Caucasus (New York: Random House, 2000) pp. 58, 61. [back]
  3. Ralph Peters, “When Democracy Fails,” USA Today (January 10, 2005). [back]