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Hating Democracy in the Middle East?

By Steven A. Cook


Has the Washington foreign policy establishment disavowed democracy in the Middle East? According to Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald the answer is a resounding yes. Greenwald, a lawyer by training and blogger/author by trade, has long been a trenchant critic of various “establishments.” In addition to “America’s national security priesthood,” he has often skewered the mainstream media for various transgressions such as giving the George W. Bush administration a pass on the invasion of Iraq and more recently for giving Luke Russert and Chelsea Clinton high-profile jobs. Greenwald’s work on post-9/11 domestic policies, especially the way the Bush administration and a complicit Congress compromised civil liberties through dubious laws like the USA Patriot Act is among the best there is out there. Yet on those occasions when he has wandered into foreign policy, Greenwald’s commentary is considerably less original.

In his January 2 column, Greenwald went after CSIS’s Jon Alterman for an oped he published in the December 31 New York Times. Alterman had been an election observer in Egypt during the second round of polls. In about 80 words he relayed what he saw, including large numbers of voters turning out for either the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party or the al-Nour Party, which is affiliated with one strand of the Egyptian Salafist movement. Alterman, who spent three years living in Egypt in the 1990s, suggests that the best outcome in terms of American interests would be “a balance” between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Egypt’s new politicians. The implication being, I think, that the military would retain control over important foreign policy issues like the bilateral relationships with the United States and Israel while ceding executive authority in other areas to elected civilians.

Being well…I guess… part of the foreign policy establishment by dint of my employment, it is hard to understand how Greenwald extrapolates from Alterman’s oped that Washington foreign policy establishment has collectively decided that democracy in the Middle East is bad for the United States. A few observations before I move on: 1) people outside of Washington often make claims about Washington that they would never make about anywhere else. Greenwald is a smart guy. He surely knows that the so-called foreign policy elite is a diverse group. Indeed, there are many varieties of species in this zoo, 2) I don’t know whom Greenwald has been reading, but I count exactly two people who have warned that democratic development in the Middle East is bad for U.S. interests—Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and Greg Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont. Greenwald suggests his two primary bugaboos: Israelis and neocons. He is surely correct about the Israelis who prefer to make deals with regional authoritarians whom they hope can keep a lid on public sentiment, but he has got the neocons wrong. (By the way, in order to make his claim that “many neocons” oppose democracy in the Arab world, Greenwald cites a February 2, 2011 piece—nine days before Hosni Mubarak fell—in The Forward that only references David Wurmser and Malcolm Hoenlein , hardly a representative sampling.) Take the Egypt Working Group, a bipartisan group that which includes leading neocon personalities like my colleague, Elliott Abrams, and the Brookings Institutions’ Robert Kagan. Neither the Group nor Abrams nor Kagan have wavered in their support for democratic change in Egypt.

The jaundiced views of folks like Gelb and Gause does not make either of them democracy haters, though. It seems to me that they are onto something that few people took into consideration during the heady days of last winter, myself included. It has been an article of faith among many observers that more democratic countries in the Middle East will ultimately be better allies of the United States. Maybe. This is actually more of a hunch based on what people hope will happen in the long run than a reasoned analysis based on either historical precedent or the political dynamics of region. The emergence of a new kind of politics in the Arab world in which public opinion matters in new and important ways, revolutionary narratives about what has ailed countries the past and the best solutions for the future, as well as politicians seeking to establish their nationalist bona fides strongly suggests that in the short run (might I remind that the long run is made up of lots of short runs) Washington is going to have a tough time in the Middle East.

Greenwald seems to think that Washington has a special allergy to the accumulation of Islamist political power conveniently forgetting the Islamists who run Turkey or the Wahhabist worldview that undergirds Saudi Arabia or the fact that policymakers saw the writing on the wall relatively quickly after Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak fell and dropped official prohibitions on interaction with the Muslim Brotherhood. Still, the changes that are coming in the Middle East are not a function of Islamism per se, but rather politics. It would be rather un-pragmatic politically of the vaunted pragmatists of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to renounce its long-held position that the United States has played a malevolent role in Egypt and the Arab world more generally. The Brothers are not alone, however. Everyone in Egypt has sought to leverage the moment of national empowerment and dignity that the January 25th uprising represents to their political benefit and the strategic relationship between Mubarak’s Egypt and Washington is a juicy target.

Given U.S. interests—the free flow of oil from the Middle East, helping to ensure Israeli security, and preventing any other power from dominating the region—and the changes presently underway in the Arab world, foreign policy analysts would be remiss not to point out that there are potential downsides to democratic development in the region. Countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and others helped create a regional order that made it relatively easier and less expensive to pursue its interests in the Middle East. That era has come to an end and it is likely to be costly to the U.S. The good news for Greenwald and everyone else is that there is nothing Washington can do about it. There will be no Operation Egyptian Freedom. American foreign policy, in order to be successful, is going to have to take stock of the changes in the region and adjust. There is every indication that the national security priesthood actually understands this and is now groping to develop a new approach to the region, though much of U.S. policy will depend on political outcomes in the Middle East and not what is written in the oped pages or said at Washington, DC foreign policy roundtables.

This article appears courtesy of CFR.

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A leading expert on Arab and Turkish politics, he is author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.

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