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Bringing Democracy to the Arab World By: Joshua Muravchik
Journal of Current History | Friday, January 16, 2004


There are 22 Arab countries. Of the world's 170 other governments, 121, or 71 percent, are elected. The number of Arab countries with freely elected governments: 0.

In The End of History, Francis Fukuyama likened the nations of the world to wagon trains carrying American pioneers west. Their speeds and routes varied, but they were all headed in the same direction. Are the Arab states the last wagon train to democracy? Or is there something that sets them apart? Are they headed in another direction? Or have their wheels come off, leaving them forever stuck in place?

These are questions to which few Americans--and few American governments--have usually given much thought. But that changed along with so much else on September 11, 2001. Recognizing that a war against terrorism could not be won solely on the battlefield, the United States looked to remove terrorism’s underlying causes. To some, such as United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, the chief cause is poverty. But for the administration of President George W Bush, it is tyranny. As the president put it in his address at London's Whitehall Palace in November 2003: “Democracy, and the hope and progress it brings, [are] the alternative to instability and to hatred and terror. We cannot rely exclusively on military power to assure our long term security. Lasting peace is gained as justice and democracy advance. In democratic and successful societies, men and women do not swear allegiance to malcontents and murderers; they turn their hearts and labor to building better lives. And democratic governments do not shelter terrorist camps.”

Accordingly, Bush set the goal of spreading democracy to the Middle East as a way to drain the fever swamps in which terrorism breeds. As the president has explicitly acknowledged, his initiative constitutes a break with 60 years of American foreign policy. Until recently, the Middle East had been regarded as exotic and forbidding; Washington’s view was that, as long as it pumped oil, the United States had little interest in trying to change the region's ways. Now America is betting its security on its ability to overhaul Arab political culture.

Is this a fool’s errand? Are the Arabs capable of democracy? And if so, can Americans be the agents of their transformation? The answer, of course, is that no one knows. The lack of a single democratic Arab government gives grounds for skepticism. The claim that something in Arab culture makes it resistant to democracy cannot be refuted until the first Arab democracy comes into being. But there is reason to be skeptical of the skepticism.

Mistaken Assumptions

Similar doubts have been expressed in the past about a host of countries and cultures where today democracy seems very much part of the norm. When Mussolini snuffed out Italian democracy in 1922, the historian Arnold Toynbee wrote: “The vague and abstract Greek word ‘democracy’ by which this peculiar institution of the medieval kingdom of England and its political offspring had come to be known, slurred over the fact that parliamentarism was a special local growth which could not be guaranteed to acclimatize itself in alien soil.”

After democracy fell in Italy, it collapsed in countries across southern and eastern Europe, almost all with Roman Catholic majorities. The notion took hold that democracy was congruent only with Protestantism. Catholicism, so it was said with perfect sociological logic, teaches its adherents obedience and hierarchy, and it has an infallible ruler at its head. Only Protestantism, with its belief in an unmediated relationship between the believer and God, fosters the kind of egalitarian habits of thought that democracy requires. Today more than 90 percent of countries where Catholics predominate have democratically chosen governments.

Toward the end of World War II, President Harry Truman received a briefing about what the United States could hope to do with Japan once the imperial power had been defeated. The briefer was Joseph Grew, the State Department's leading authority on Japan who had been America’s ambassador to the country until the war broke out. Grew instructed the president that “from the long range point of view, the best we can hope for is a constitutional monarchy, experience having shown that democracy in Japan would never work.”

Similar ideas were aired about India's capacity for democratic self government prior to its independence and about democracy's supposed dissonance with Confucian culture in the days before Taiwan and South Korea became democratic. (Today, ironically, the political success of these two Asian “tigers” is often explained by their remarkable economic growth, but a couple of generations ago when they were desperately poor their poverty, too, was sometimes explained by reference to the habits instilled by “Confucian culture.”)

Indeed, within living memory, it used to be argued that large numbers of Americans were not ready for self government. us Senator Strom Thurmond suggested in a 1957 address to the Harvard Law School: “Many Negroes simply lack sufficient political consciousness to spur them on to participate in political and civic affairs . . . [A] great number of those who lack this political consciousness probably also lack certain other qualities prerequisite to casting a truly intelligent ballot.” A generation later, Thurmond’s spokesmen liked to boast that he was the first Southern senator to hire a Negro as a professional aide.

In light of this history of misjudging the readiness of Negroes or Confucians or Hindus or Roman Catholics for democracy, how much weight should be given today to analyses that find something in Islamic culture that does not mesh with democracy? To be sure, the Muslim world lags in this respect. Only nine (20 percent) of the predominantly Muslim countries have elected governments. Still, these nine--Turkey, Albania, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Djibouti--prove, that democracy is possible in a majority Muslim country.

Something about the Arabs?

Could it be that something particular to the Arab world makes it especially allergic to democracy or incapable of practicing it? As I have said, it is impossible to refute this supposition categorically until we have our first functioning Arab democracy. But two pieces of evidence inspire confidence that that day is not far off. First, the world has seen an Arab democracy, namely Lebanon. From the time of its independence around the end of World War II until the mid 1970s, Lebanon was essentially .democratic. It was an odd democracy, to be sure, with offices carefully parceled out to the various religious and ethnic groups that make up the national mosaic, but the government rested on elections, free debate, and parliamentary give and take. Foreign intervention by Palestinians, Israelis, and Syrians destroyed this relatively successful system. Today Lebanon remains a Syrian suzerainty, but for roughly three decades it afforded a glimpse of Arab democracy.

Second, increasingly forceful voices can be heard within the Arab world urging democratization. These include not only dissidents such as Egypt’s Saad Edin Ibrahim but also members of ruling governments. The kings of Jordan and Morocco have taken steps toward democratization, as have the rulers of most of the small Persian Gulf states. Perhaps most important, a team of several dozen Arab scholars from many countries working under the auspices of the United Nations issued the Arab Human Development Report in 2002. This report, which decried three “deficits” in the Arab world  freedom, knowledge, and women's participation  created a sensation that had not yet abated when the authors struck again. They issued a second report in October 2003 elaborating on the knowledge deficit and linking it directly to the absence of “social and individual freedoms.” The authors also announced that two more reports are in the works, each to focus on one of the other “deficits.”

The two reports point to numerous indicators of social development in which the Arab states have lagged badly. Could it be that their relative poverty accounts for the lack of democracy? It has been well established, at least since the publication of Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man in 1960, that democracy is highly correlated with economic development and other benefits that flow from it, such as literacy. Perhaps the Arabs cannot be democratic until they advance further economically? One problem with this supposition is that the wealthiest of the major Arab countries is Saudi Arabia, which is also arguably the farthest from democracy.

Another is that democracy has gained considerable footholds in sub Saharan Africa, which is on the whole far poorer than the Arab world. What appears to be lacking is political change itself, not some precursor.

Fomenting Democracy

This leads to the question of whether America can be the instigator of that change. Intuitively, since democracy means self rule, it would seem that this is something people must do for themselves, not something that can be introduced by outsiders. But history contradicts this intuition. America, the first modern democracy, has been a powerful engine spreading democracy elsewhere. At its most active, America has done this by force of arms; at its most passive, simply by setting an example from which others have borrowed. In between these two extremes, the United States has intervened on behalf of democracy by nonviolent means: with diplomacy, foreign aid, international broadcasting, and even covert political manipulations.

Germany, Japan, and other members of the Axis alliance of World War II are democracies today thanks to us military occupation. The states of the former Soviet bloc are mostly democracies in part because of American efforts to undermine Soviet power. us broadcasting that kept truth and hope alive behind the iron Curtain and us financial and technical assistance that aided the transition from communism also contributed to this outcome. The states of Latin America are almost all democracies in part because of diplomatic pressures by the Carter and Reagan administrations that delegitimated military dictators. Much the same can be said of the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan.

To foment democracy in the Middle East, overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein was a good start. His was the most entrenched, recalcitrant, murderous, and dangerous of the Arab tyrannies. And historically Iraq stands second only to Egypt as a pole of influence in the Arab world. If us efforts to implant democracy in Iraq take hold, as they did so successfully elsewhere in the post World War II occupations, this will greatly encourage democrats in the other Arab countries. And it will greatly increase the pressure for concessions felt by their rulers. It will have just as much effect on neighboring Iran, not an Arab country but one that significantly influences and is influenced by its Arab neighbors. The replacement of Iran's theocracy by a genuine democracy would also reverberate loudly across the region.

Beyond the mission in Iraq, it is not likely that subsequent us moves to spur democracy will consist of military measures. What impelled the use of force in Iraq was the combination of the threat that America felt Iraq’s long history of developing and using weapons of mass destruction, its support for various terrorist groups, its aggression against neighbors  and the belief that there was no other way to achieve regime change given Saddam’s ultra repressive methods. The other nondemocratic regimes of the Middle East seem either less threatening or (in the case of Iran, which outdistances Saddam's Iraq in its nuclear programs and support for terrorists) more susceptible to change by other methods.

Outside of Iraq, America will use such nonmilitary methods as diplomatic pressure, foreign aid, increased international radio and television broadcasting, and direct assistance to democracy advocates. By these means it will try to foster a regional tide of democratization that will bring the Middle East into sync with the rest of the world.

A dramatic revolution in the methods by which people are governed has taken place this past 30 years. In this brief span of time, the proportion of states ruled by governments elected (in meaningful, competitive elections) by their citizens has gone from less than one third to nearly two thirds. Democracy, or at least its rudiments, has suddenly become the norm a norm that one day will extend to the Arab world.




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