By Elvin Lim
American foreign policy elites are now facing the difficult choice of deciding if our short-term goals are in fostering democracy in the Middle East, or in quietly propping up authoritarian allies in the region. Even if policy-makers have a choice, it not an easy one to make. Certainly, in the long run, democracy in the Middle East would likely remove the breeding conditions for terrorism and resentment towards the West, but in the short run, transitioning toward democracy is a highly volatile project and in the meantime our strategic interests in the region could be compromised.
That is why until September 11, 2001, there had been an unspoken consensus that democracy in the Middle East matters less than friends in the Middle East. It has certainly been easier for the United States to negotiate with Kings and dictators than they have with the unorganized masses. We are not alone in taking the path of least resistance. The Soviet Union and the British empire operated on the same principle, prioritizing predictability over democracy. Indeed, almost all the monarchies in the Middle East were created by the British, trying to replicate the balance of power called the Concert of Europe which had prevailed in Europe in the 19th century.
This top-down, and short-term approach to regional order and predictability had its consequences in crowding out the more sustainable, bottom-up approach. The result of imposing an authoritarian solution from above is that whereas countries in the West developed democratic institutions and traditions, countries in the Middle East were developmentally arrested, never allowed to develop the apparatuses of self-rule, including a system of government accountability, a separation and division of powers, codified laws, stable political parties, a free and open media, and an engaged and educated citizenry. The existence of a major resource, oil, made it especially difficult for countries in the Middle East to break out of their arrested development, because leaders propped up by oil revenue spent their energies defending their control of resources rather than fighting for the affections of the people. As a result, most countries in the region failed to develop electorally responsive mechanisms to allocate and check political power. By choosing democracy over predictability and the path of least resistance, the US and the West made it more likely that the Middle East would enjoy neither in the future.
September 11, and the war in Iraq it precipitated, temporarily blurred this conclusion because it appeared that we could seek democracy and predictability at the same time, or at least the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration promised. The relative success of the Iraq war blurred the zero-sum game between democracy and predictability by seeking the latter in the name of the former. But the temporary marriage between our commitment to democracy and predictability in the Middle East could last only as long as our commitment to the former was tentative and calibrated.
The uprisings in Tunisia, however, has put this marriage to the test. As the wave of protest spreads in the Middle East, some neo-conservatives are now realizing that they got more than they bargained for, and the instinct to return to short-term thinking in the US has returned. The US can take on the project of democracy one country at a time — starting for example in Iraq — but it cannot do this in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen all at once. Policy-makers and the elected politicians who appointed them have to worry about the here and now too. And that means thinking about the markets, oil prices, and friendly counter-weights to rogue regimes like Iran, which necessarily become more powerful as the authoritarian regimes around it crumble. With even the King of Bahrain now talking about reforms, and protests starting in the normally peaceful Oman, democracy is turning out to be an even more universal aspiration than the Straussians propagandizing the war in Iraq have led the world to believe.
Whether or not we are ready, democracy’s Pandora’s box has been unlatched in the Middle East, and since democracy takes a while to be established, we will likely not see either democracy or predictability in the region for quite a while.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.